Some time ago a non Catholic, who is usually a pretty rational and tolerant fellow opined that the Pope is a dictator.

Witnessing the scenes in North Korea on the death of Kim Jong Il, I have had to compare his passing with that of Pope John Paul II.

There they both are–lying in state. The crowds are massive and hysterical. Their ‘dear leader’ has gone. The grief is great. Children have lost their father. Their mentor and role model has died.

What interests me in the comparison is the religious psychological dynamic. The creepy adulation of the North Koreans indicates a level of brainwashing and group thought rarely witnessed today. I suppose there may be some Catholics who revere the Pope in an unhealthy way, and that there may be some who worship their ‘dear Leader’ like the North Koreans. But I haven’t met any. Far more Catholics regard the Pope as a nice old fellow in Rome who is the figurehead of their religion and who they otherwise ignore. I guess there might be some immature Catholics who invest in the Pope as if he is some sort of divine being, and who long to march in lock step with the rest of his faithful troops. Maybe the exalted claims for papal authority lend themselves to this sort of abuse, but I haven’t encountered it. The Catholics I meet are far more likely not to understand what the title ‘Vicar of Christ’ means and think “Papal Infallibility” is an outdated concept. Some dictatorship.

Of course similarities can be drawn by those who wish to be cynical, but similarities of appearance between two things do not mean they are identical. After all, a counterfeit dollar bill looks much like the real thing; in fact the better the counterfeit, the more it resembles reality. The best lie resembles the truth.

So, is the Pope a dictator? Some critics used to compare Bl. John Paul II to the rulers of communist Russia–“He rules with absolute power from his little walled city state–just like the dictators in the Kremlin.” Is it so? From one perspective it might look that way. Or are the similarities those between the truth and a counterfeit?

It doesn’t take long to assess the real difference. The dictator uses force to impose his will. The Pope does not. He has no battalions. The only soldiers he has dress like court jesters and carry halberds. (yes, I know they’re trained in modern security techniques) The point is that the Pope proposes. He does not impose. If people wish to be Catholic and conform their lives to the teaching of the church they are free to do so. They are also free not to do so. No one forces anyone to be Catholic.

Once within Catholicism, however, there are certain expectations. Catholics are expected to fulfill their obligations as a response to the rights they enjoy as Catholics. Those who have formal positions teaching the Catholic faith are expected to teach the Catholic faith. Within the body there is a level of discipline to be sure, but that discipline is only what might be expected within any organization that has a mission and a job to fulfill. If you’re taking the paycheck you have to do the work.

Have there been times in the past when Popes have abused their power and been tyrants or dictators? I think there have been a few. Have there been times when the faithful have given too much adulation to a pope and honored him too highly? Probably. Have there been Popes who imposed rather than proposed? Yes, some.

But abuses do not undo right uses, and I have to say that since becoming a Catholic I can’t think of any Catholics I know who idolize the Pope the way critics say we do. All the Pope can do is teach the truth and propose a way to follow Christ.

The Pope is not a dictator.

He is the Servant of the Servants of God, a shepherd, a rock and a steward of Christ’s kingdom.