The pope’s power is also mysterious. Joseph Stalin famously quipped, “How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?” He has so much more than that, even when having so little practical authority. Popes sometimes are thwarted in the most basic ways. Their bishops and priests can and often do ignore them. Pope Benedict XVI resigned in part because his papacy was so undermined by subordinates that even his personal butler had turned into a spy against him. And yet, the pope can draw crowds running into the millions when he travels. John Paul II is co-credited with helping to hasten the end of the Soviet Union merely through his largely symbolic support of the Polish solidarity movement.
And the pope’s popularity is the envy of any politician — particularly this pontiff’s popularity. Pope Francis enjoys upwards of 90 percent approval ratings from Catholics. This Argentine even gets positive marks from more than 60 percent of white evangelical American Protestants, whose forebears were likely to think of his predecessors in terms of the Anti-Christ or the Whore of Babylon.
Part of this popularity and “approval” is completely indifferent to the details of the Catholic Church’s doctrine, or even to the pope’s own unique political priorities. It is due to the majesty of the office, and the role it plays as a global symbol for religion, for Western religion, and for the unity of nearly a billion Catholics across more than 100 nations. He is “ours” even when we disagree with him.