Until recently, the pope played a negligible role in the lives of ordinary Catholics. They knew there was a pope somewhere out there, but they would not have been able to provide details about any particular occupant of St. Peter’s Throne, unless they lived in the Papal States. The faith of the peasant or craftsman in the pre-modern or early modern age would have revolved around the customs that were unique to the local parish church, not by the (mis)doings and pronouncements of senior clerics.
All of this changed when Pius IX was ignominiously driven from the Papal States. Proclaiming himself “the Prisoner of the Vatican,” Pius IX called upon the world’s Catholics to support to through “Peter’s Pence,” a program that continues to this day. This pope had already declared himself and his successors as infallible during Vatican I, perhaps as a protective measure against the revolutionary activity that was about to overwhelm him (“Touch not God’s anointed” and all that), so presumably it was only natural to demand that his flock provide financial support him. Pius IX was also the first pope to be photographed, allowing Catholics (at least those with access to newspapers and magazines) to see their pontiff in the flesh for the first time.
Leo XIII, who reigned from 1878 to 1903, was the first pope to have his voice recorded and the first pope to appear on film:
While these crude recordings were probably only seen/heard by a handful of people in the pre-YouTube era, they foreshadow the 20th century novelty of the pope as media celebrity. As the temporal power of the papacy diminished, the importance of the pope as a symbol of moral authority increased, and the media played an important role in disseminating this new role to the public. Even Protestants and Orthodox Christians, who don’t see eye to eye with Catholicism in terms of theology, have warmed to the modern papacy as a bulwark against secularism, feminism, Islam, LGBT rights, and other sources of conservative anxiety. The pope’s unique position as a temporal ruler (of 110 acres) and spiritual leader of over a billion people allows him to command a certain respect that no other figure in the Christian world can match; he is a Christian Superman, and Christians of other denominations would be foolish to turn down his help in the culture wars.
Unlike Catholics in times past, believers (and nonbelievers) can now achieve a peculiar faux intimacy with the pope, thanks to the glut of information found on the Internet. We can access thousands of papal photographs, read papal encyclicals and other official documents soon after they are written in the language of our choice, learn what the pope’s taste in shoes or music happens to be, hear interviews from his friends and family, watch papal masses as they are celebrated, and even find out what’s going on in the pope’s mind in real time through the official papal Twitter feed.
However, like the phenomenon of the hyper-educated laity, the idea of the pope as ubiquitous media star or as everyone’s favorite priest is not “traditional” in any sense of the word. In the white Catholic ghettos of the 19th and 20th century, people towed the line on fish on Fridays, no birth control, and the like, not because they wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to the “Holy Father,” but because their communities expected them to behave in certain ways and faced shunning if they did not comply. Peer pressure, more than anything, can keep doubters on the road of orthopraxy, even if their orthodoxy is shaky.
I think for many conservotrad Catholics, the pope has become the replacement for the real-life priests that have disappointed them, and the Catholic blogosphere a replacement for the “unorthodox” parishes they don’t trust. I remember reading the posts on the “Catholic Answers Forum” when Benedict XVI visited the US and celebrated mass in a stadium (I forget where) and there was a wailing and gnashing of the teeth about the liturgical abuses that were committed. Many posters hoped that now the “Holy Father” could see what they had to endure every week at mass and that he would be more hardcore about cracking down on liturgical abuse. As if ensuring the musical happiness of white conservotrads was the most pressing issue the Catholic church was facing.
I think that it would be much healthier for Catholics to stop obsessing over what the pope is or isn’t doing, whether on the conservotrad or the progressive side. At the end of the day, the pope (whoever he happens to be) is really incidental to one’s spiritual life, and because of the nature of the church as an absolute monarchy, I’m extremely doubtful that there is much the people in the pews can do to exact systematic change of any sort. But in our 24/7 news cycle paparazzi world, the mystery and ritual of the church as embodied in the person of the pope, will continue to enchant, repulse, and sell copy.