A failing papacy - Corrispondenza romana
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A failing papacy

(R. R. Reno, First Thing) The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope ­Francis combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontificate—­mercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forth—but no theological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (­coprophagia!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.

Every pope sets a particular tone, a party line. Benedict made no secret of his desire for the Church to recover the dignity and transcendent orientation of the old ways of worship. But he was measured and never denounced or insulted those who prefer guitars and casual liturgies. St. John Paul II’s great intellectual project was to redeem the promise of mid-century Catholicism’s turn toward cooperation with secular humanism. He sought to fuse the modern turn to the subject and freedom with a full-spectrum affirmation of the doctrinal tradition. One can judge his project a success or a failure, but it is beyond dispute that his intention was to span the gap between today’s individual-­oriented ethos and Catholicism’s theocentrism.

Pope Francis, by contrast, is quick to denounce, widening gaps rather than closing them. More often than not, he targets the core Catholic faithful. He regularly attacks “mummified” Christians and “rosary counters.” On many occasions, Francis has singled out doctrinally orthodox priests for ridicule. The same holds for those who favor the Latin Mass, whom he derides as suffering from a “rigidity” born of “insecurity.” Early in his pontificate, his Christmas sermon to the curia recited a litany of condemnations.

Francis expresses little sympathy or support for regular Mass-goers and the men laboring in parish ministry. “Go to the peripheries!” That’s one of his signature exhortations. In practice, that has meant neglecting (if not attacking) bishops, priests, and laity who do the ordinary work of sustaining the Church’s institutions and traditions.

In November, Francis intervened to prevent the bishops in the United States from taking decisive action to address their failure to hold one another accountable. Meanwhile, it appears that the Vatican has come to an agreement with the Chinese government to regularize the underground Church in that country. The deal seems to allow communist bureaucrats to play an integral role in the selection of bishops.

The contrast is shocking. On the one hand, the pope slaps down men who have devoted their lives to the Church and proven their loyalty over decades of service. On the other hand, he is solicitous of the interests of commissars and accommodates them, even to the point of suspending one of the most important canonical principles of modern Catholicism, designed to protect the Church against secular control.

Any particular action by Francis and his team may be defensible. Some have devoted themselves to marshaling arguments of one sort or another to show that each move is principled and exemplary. But Francis seems uninterested in developing a coherent theological justification for his actions. He governs with gestures, slogans, and sentiments.

Pope Francis has also revised the Catechism in a way that suggests a fundamental change in the Church’s teaching. This was done in a peremptory fashion without discussion or explanation. It is as if Francis had meditated on St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which guides one toward galvanizing discernments that come with commanding immediacy, rather than consulting moral theologians. This can’t help but create the impression that everything is up for grabs. Who knows what will come next?

“Time is greater than space.” Pope Francis put this forward as one of his guiding principles. It means that movements of the spirit matter more than official liturgies, authorized doctrines, and established structures. This principle is anti-institutional. It is a characteristic sentiment of ­Jesuits formed by the Spiritual Exercises who are old enough to take the Church’s institutions for granted.

I taught for a number of years at a Jesuit University. I’m familiar with a pastoral approach that treats disruption and rule-breaking as a spiritual tonic. Many Jesuits I knew were “liberal” in style and rhetoric. But I came to see that this was not always out of conviction. It was a tactic, a posture meant to enhance their evangelical effectiveness. Breaking rules and adopting heterodox views puts people at ease, they thought. It opens up space for the Holy Spirit, getting people onto the “ladder of love” that brings them into the Church.

This is not a crazy approach. In some circumstances, it works. As St. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people,” suggesting a mobile strategy for the proclamation of Christ crucified. This Jesuit adoption of multiple, even contradictory ecclesial masks helps us understand why Pope Francis can tack so quickly from “liberal” to “conservative” positions, suggesting a relaxation of the Church’s judgments about sexual morality (“Who am I to judge?”), while at the same time making striking statements about the unfitness of homosexual men for the priesthood. This approach coheres, moreover, with the Peronist tradition that seeks to transcend ideology in the service of the people. A true Peronist is left-wing—except when he is right-wing.

This does not work as a general strategy for the Church. The Francis mode of improvisation depends on the underlying stability of the tradition for its effectiveness. If the Church becomes the agent of her own disruption and rule-breaking becomes the rule, then Jesuit freelancing tactics lose their spiritual effectiveness. They become, instead, futile gestures in an atmosphere of disorder and confusion. This, I fear, is the effect of the Francis pontificate. He’s like the Baby Boomer who can’t understand why the kids aren’t inspired by his now clichéd and conventional unconventionality. “You shoulda been at Woodstock . . .”

Bishops, leaders of religious orders, and curial officials have institutional responsibilities. I’m not privy to their private conversations. But the disorder and anti-institutional bias of the Francis pontificate must be unsettling. The tendency of this pope is to undermine the Church’s most loyal servants. This is surely galling. His lack of interest in ­theology—in ideas generally—reduces his pontificate to the raw exercise of ecclesiastical power. This creates a dictatorial atmosphere that is unpleasant for those who run the Church’s institutions.

Like all Christians, Catholics believe in Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We also believe in mother Church. This does not replace faith in Christ. It means we trust that, in her main outlines, the Church is not just a reliable witness to Christ, but also his real presence—the mystical Body of Christ. This is why Catholics often use the word “Church” as a synonym for God’s grace in Christ. A Catholic is loyal to the Church—her teaching, traditions, and liturgies, to be sure, but also her institutions, even the very stones of her buildings. (In Rome, the cobblestones are known as sampietrini, “little St. Peters.”) This loyalty can become exaggerated. The regalia of the Knights of Malta are not essential. But on this whole, the spirit of devotion to the Church’s long-standing traditions and outward forms is evangelical. It is an embodied form of faith in Christ. To cling tenaciously to “space” is a first-fruit of Jesus’s lordship over all things.

Pope Francis seems to regard the uncertainty and instability as desirable. His anti-institutionalism tends to disembody the Catholic faith. A “field hospital” church can pick up and leave. The Church of brick and stone makes a claim to permanence. It contests with the City of Man for territory. It bears witness to the certainty and stability of God’s covenant fulfilled in Christ.

Looking back, we can see that Jorge Bergoglio wrecked some of the institutions he was in charge of before he was seated on the chair of St. Peter. He sowed division at the Jesuit seminary during his term as rector. When he stepped down as head of the Argentine Jesuit province, conflict and bad feelings reigned.

To be sure, some things need to be broken. I’ve written about the sclerotic chancery culture in the United States. Long ago, Joseph Ratzinger warned that the Church in the West must discard self-important illusions, legacies of her role in Christendom, in order to restore salt to her witness. By some accounts, Bergoglio broke down some of the corrupt connections between the Church and elite interests in Argentina. We can all think of needed reforms.

But those occupying the offices of leadership in the Church must also build up, unify, and encourage the troops. This Francis seems unwilling to do. He’s like a supreme commander who prizes his bold commando platoons while deriding the common foot soldiers. This leads to disaster, for the everyday soldiers, the grunts, are the ones who take and hold territory.

The Son of God came in order to take territory. The sharp edge of conquest can be found in the witness of the martyrs, the holiness of the saints, and the courageous words of prophets. But the “rosary counters,” the regular Mass-goers, the priests who care about canonical norms, the bishops who oversee their dioceses—they occupy and secure the territory.

I have the impression that the majority of the cardinals and other churchmen in positions of responsibility are increasingly aware the Francis pontificate is a failure. This judgment need not indicate theological disagreement. Indeed, part of the concern stems from the growing realization that Francis has no theology. (“Reality is superior to the idea,” as he puts it.) Authority without principle and rule without law run on intuition and discernment, which means either tyranny (the authority of one man’s intuitions) or anarchy (the authority of everyone’s discernments). Either way, the Church loses her specific gravity, and the world and its principles invade and advance to take territory.

A sagacious pope would try to temper the uproar in the American Church by appointing a man of impeccable reputation to the seat in Washington made vacant by the departure of the discredited Cardinal Wuerl. Francis is expected to do the opposite. And his proxies are sure to denounce any criticism of his pick as stemming from a cabal of rich conservatives who want to hijack the Church for political purposes.

Meanwhile, for all its talk of the poor, this pontificate has a close and cozy relationship with the Davos elite that is without precedent. Again, I’m not privy to the thoughts of cardinals and Vatican prefects, but I can imagine that a far-seeing ecclesiastical eminence rightly suspects that this pontificate will cut deals with the secular West not unlike its power-sharing agreement with the communist government in China. Instead of claiming territory, the Francis pontificate is turning Catholicism into a chaplaincy for the elite interests in the emerging global world order. Those who know Jesuits will recognize this as their historical pattern, still very much the norm amid lots of chatter about social justice.

 

Eternal Rome

The Bernini colonnade of St. Peter’s Square is grand. It was there that my wife and I met a friend, a priest long in residence in Rome. We opened up our umbrellas as we made our way past the Swiss guards and headed toward the entrance to the excavations under St. Peter’s. The wet cobblestone gleamed, and above us soared the walls of the grand basilica, the pope’s cathedral, the seat of St. Peter, the spiritual center of Western Christianity.

According to tradition, St. Peter was martyred nearby. He requested to be crucified upside down, thinking himself unworthy of imitating Christ’s death. His body was taken by the small band of Christians and buried amid a large complex of graves where the basilica now stands. The gravesite was likely kept secret, known only to the little band of Christians in Rome, in order to prevent the Romans from exhuming his body and tossing it into the Tiber.

In 312, Constantine defeated his rival, Maxentius. He ascribed his victory to divine intervention and became a patron of Christianity. He reorganized Rome in accord with his imperial plans. One of his building projects involved establishing a grand basilica on the site of St. Peter’s grave, which at that time was marked by a small shrine within a large complex of mausoleums, mostly of pagan origin.

The Romans did not remove existing structures from building sites. Instead, they knocked down walls and filled in vacant spaces to create foundations. And so, the original St. Peter’s basilica was built upon a necropolis, a city of the dead, with its high altar positioned atop what was thought to be St. Peter’s grave. The ancient basilica fell into neglect when the papacy decamped to Avignon. After failed efforts to rebuild the decayed structure, a series of Renaissance popes embarked on ambitious plans to erect an entirely new and much grander basilica atop the remains of the old St. Peter’s.

Romans have long discovered unknown treasures hidden underneath existing buildings. By the nineteenth century, modern archaeological techniques were being employed to uncover the ancient Roman ruins. After his election as pope in 1939, Pius XII commissioned a small team to begin excavations underneath St. Peter’s. Tradition held that the central altar of St. Peter’s beneath its soaring dome stood atop the bones of St. Peter. Was it true?

Our priest guide provided expert commentary on Roman burial practices as we made our way through the damp confines of the complex of mausoleums that excavations have uncovered beneath St. Peter’s. Many sarcophagi are decorated by wavy lines, which picture the strigil, a curved bronze tool the Romans used to scrape their skin clean when they went to the baths. It symbolizes the pagan view that in death a person’s body is separated from his spirit—scraped off, as it were.

Eventually, we arrived at the excavations underneath the central altar of St. Peter’s. No amount of archaeological or forensic science can prove with certainty that the remains buried two thousand years ago are the bones of the disciple whom Jesus pronounced the rock upon which he would build his Church. And our faith rests in the living Christ, not relics. Nevertheless, I was overtaken by the spiritual power of the encounter. The continuity of tradition is palpable. The Church remains a vast, expansive reality. Her history can’t be grasped in its fullness. There is always more to learn about Catholic practice and ­tradition. Yet, standing only a few meters beneath the altar at which today’s pope celebrates High Mass, gazing at the bones of St. Peter, one feels the centuries collapse and the Church’s vastness contract.

My wife is Jewish. The next day was Saturday, her Sabbath. She wanted to go to Rome’s famous Great Synagogue. And we did. In 1870, after Rome fell to republican forces and the Papal States came to an end, the Jews of Rome were granted Italian citizenship. The civil liabilities limiting their freedom were abolished. In short order, the Jewish community of Rome, which traces its history back more than two millennia, set about to construct a building that would unify disparate congregations and boldly assert their presence in a city that had long suppressed them. The impressive structure was completed at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Reform Judaism is a German phenomenon, following the pattern of liberal Protestant rationalism. Conservative Judaism is mostly American in origin, perhaps best understood as Jewish Anglicanism—traditional in ritual and liberal in spirit. In places like Italy, historic synagogues maintain the old patterns. And so, when my wife went through the security gate and into the synagogue compound, she was told to use the left door, the one that led to the women’s gallery. I was told to use the right door, which gave entrance to the main floor of the synagogue where only men gather to pray.

The Gabbai (the man facilitating the liturgy) approached me to ask (in excellent English) if I was Jewish. He smiled generously when I said “no,” and gave me a prayer book with English translations of the Hebrew. I’ve often accompanied my wife to services. I can’t claim knowledge of Hebrew, but I can recognize some key ­phrases in the worship service and am usually able to ­orient myself in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book. But Jews of Rome sustain a distinct, historic liturgy unique to their community, chanted in accord with unfamiliar tunes and tropes. The Hebrew was for me a blur of sounds.

The cadence of the cantor became a clattering cataract as he recited the preparatory prayers for the Sabbath worship, which are extensive, amounting to tens of thousands of words. The service slowly gained intensity. More and more men filtered into the sanctuary, finding their seats. Then, the Gabbai drew the curtain aside and flung open the two-stories-tall doors of the tabernacle, in which rested three or four large Torah scrolls, each topped with silver crowns and draped with elaborate vestments. The chanting of the congregation swelled.

We had reached the central moment of Sabbath worship. Reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, serves as the Jewish sacrament (if I may be permitted the word). The ritual reading from the scrolls is a “making present” of God’s covenant with Israel. The Pentateuch is read in continuous fashion over the course of the liturgical year, beginning with Genesis and ending with ­Deuteronomy. On that Saturday, the readings (again extensive) came from the end of Genesis—Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers.

The (to me) meaningless words of the Torah washed over me. I gazed up to the brilliant blue ceiling of the dome high above the synagogue floor and the worshiping congregation. The late morning sunshine streamed through the many windows and filled the enormous space. I turned my attention to the congregation, some following the ­Torah recitation in their own books, some distracted, others quietly greeting each other, “Shabbat shalom.”

At that moment, a thought arose in my heart. The man whose bones I had seen under the altar of St. Peter’s had in all likelihood mingled with this congregation, which has been chanting the Torah in Rome for more than two thousand years. Perhaps the men and women who claimed his dead body and buried it in the Vatican necropolis were from this community as well, some Gentiles on the fringes who sensed that the God of Israel is the living God in whom we live and move and have our being. Again, the centuries collapsed in a vivid awareness of the profound continuity and unshakeable permanence of God’s promises.

One of the central features of the modern mentality is the conceit that we live in an entirely new and unprecedented way. We have become aware of “history.” ­Science “disenchants.” Modern man is, for the first time, “mature.” We assume a great chasm between past and present. But this is not true. As St. Paul reminds us, quoting from the Torah itself, “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Not every community seeking to be faithful to God’s covenant has been worshiping continuously for two thousand years, but the Bible is ready at hand for whoever has the will to reach for it. Not every altar has St. Peter’s bones beneath, but even the most newly consecrated can have the incarnate Word upon it.

 

Augustinian Political Theology

St. Augustine famously said of the Romans that their seeming virtues were not virtues at all, but rather glorious vices. Their conquests created a vast empire. Their monuments were grand. But their loves were wrongly directed. “These,” observes Augustine, “are the two things which drove the Romans to perform such wondrous deeds: love of liberty and the desire for human praise.” As worldly loves, they turned Rome away from our true end, which is love of God and the desire for holiness.

Yet it’s wrong to think St. Augustine regarded pagan Roman virtues as without value. In Book V of City of God, he argues that Roman military success and political eminence served a providential purpose. Ancient Rome excelled “in matters of human honor,” and “we may profit from the kindness of the Lord our God by considering what great things those Romans despised, what they endured, and what lusts they subdued.”

Augustine makes two arguments for why Christians should affirm the Romans’ achievements. The first is pedagogical. It’s true that the Romans disciplined their souls “for the sake of merely human glory,” but their example can “be useful to us in subduing pride” and overcoming self-regard, which afflicts the followers of Christ no less than pagans. By Augustine’s accounting, God’s providence ensured Rome’s worldly successes “for the advantage of the citizens of the eternal City [the City of God] during their pilgrimage here.” For as he recounts, the great Roman heroes did not covet wealth, and they often made great sacrifices in order to win praise from their fellow citizens. We do well, therefore, to “diligently and soberly contemplate such examples.” The pagan Romans can put the followers of Christ to shame, and their example can awaken in us a heroic desire for sanctity. If Rome, an earthly city, “was so greatly loved by its citizens for the sake of merely human glory,” how much more should we be willing to serve the heavenly city.

Implicit in this argument is a claim about soulcraft. Parents who make sacrifices for the sake of their children, civic leaders who put the common good ahead of personal gain—these instances of natural virtue may lack the perfection of true virtue ordered to the final end of love of God; nevertheless, they offer worthy examples. The person able to subordinate a desire for wealth to ambitions of public service—even if motivated by the worldly love of glory—has raised his eyes to something higher than immediate pleasures or accumulated riches. Properly ordered earthly loves can prepare our hearts for a higher love.

There’s a second argument in Book V as well, one that outlines an implicit political theology. Augustine runs through examples of pagan virtue. At first, the Romans sacrificed their private good for the sake of the public good of Rome’s independence, and then later they did so for the sake of Rome’s supereminence and dominance. The motive for this pattern of self-sacrifice was the desire to bask in the praise of their fellow citizens, the glory Romans longed to attain.

Again, St. Augustine is clear. Love of glory is a worldly love, and thus ultimately in vain. Nevertheless, such a love has temporal value. Love of glory contrasts to the two other, baser motives for gaining political eminence: the desire to use the levers of power to enrich oneself or to satisfy a lust for domination. These lower motives corrupt civic life at every level.

When civic leaders are motivated by the desire to enrich themselves, they turn public goods into private goods, commandeering the resources of the community to serve their own interests. This is the problem with oligarchs. When they are ascendant, political life is suborned as tycoons compete to capture political power to advance their business concerns. Politicians are bought, and government bureaucrats move to the private sector, “monetizing” their expertise and government contacts. This is always a danger in public life, especially in a democracy unleavened by an aristocratic ethos that longs for glory.

Economists are wrong to think everyone is motivated by money. As St. Augustine recognized, some desire to dominate. They take pleasure in humiliating others and relish the supine obedience they can compel. Anyone with a sadistic boss knows this. But it’s not just pathological lust that motivates a love of dominion. Motorcades, private jets, security details—power can bring intoxicating feelings of self-importance. There’s a chest-swelling pleasure that comes from being on top. This, too, can pervert the public realm, turning politics into an arena for powerful people to act out their private fantasies.

By contrast, love of glory has an intrinsically public orientation, as St. Augustine recognized. Glory is not a possession, nor is it an emotion. Instead, it’s a social reality. We attain civic glory when we are acclaimed by our community. Our collective goals can be perverse. Unless subordinated to the highest good, which is God, collective ambitions are inevitably perverse, to one degree or another. But they are public nonetheless. As a consequence, love of glory drives talented men and women toward civic ends or purposes rather than private ones. This preserves the republic, the public res, from which any healthy political culture must be nourished and which it must be ordered toward preserving and promoting.

We do well to learn from St. Augustine’s reflections on Rome’s glorious vices. Christians tend to suffer from two political diseases, opposite in character. One disease disdains public life, thinking it sullied by worldliness, or regarding it as tempting us to turn the nation into an idol. The other seeks to baptize temporal politics, fusing the authority of God to the plans and projects of this or that political figure or party.

St. Augustine shows us a better way. As Christians we have an interest in sustaining a healthy public life, and doing so means cultivating a proper love of glory. Patriotism, therefore, must play an integral role in the formation of citizens. Its value is obvious for our leadership class, which must be public-spirited in its ambitions. But patriotic ardor also needs to be widely inculcated, for only a shared civic emotion of solicitude for the res publica causes the many to look up from their private concerns to applaud the few who achieve eminence in their public service. Without applause, there is no glory. Without glory, the love of glory withers unrequited. And as it withers, the best and most ambitious men default to the baser ambitions of attaining great wealth or achieving dominion for its own sake.