A “LIQUID” MESSAGE
by Pietro De Marco
In conscience I must break with the courtly choir, composed of all-too-familiar secular and ecclesiastical names, which for months has accompanied the public statements of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It is the choir of those who celebrate the “new” of the pope knowing that it is not such, and are silent about the true “innovations,” when they are embarrassing. For this reason, I am constrained to point out some of the reiterated approximations into which the spontaneous and captivating eloquence of Francis has fallen.
No one is exempt, in daily and private conversation among a few, from approximations and distortions, But there is no person who has responsibility in regard to many – who teaches, for example – who will not adopt another register in public and seek to avoid improvisation.
Now, instead, we have a pope who exclaims: “Who am I to judge?” as one can emphatically say at the table or even in preaching spiritual exercises. But before the press and the world a “who am I to judge?” spoken by a pope objectively jars with the entire history and profound nature of the Petrine function, moreover giving the distasteful sensation of an uncontrolled outburst. Because of his function as a vicar with respect to Christ, not as an individual, the pope judges. Since Pope Francis demonstrates, when he wishes, the awareness of his powers as pope, this is a matter – whatever he might want to say – of a true error of communication.
We then read in the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica” the phrase: “Spiritual interference in personal life is not possible,” which seems to group together under the liberal-libertarian figure of “interference” both theological-moral judgment, and the public evaluation of the Church, when necessary, and even the care of a confessor or spiritual director in indicating, preventing, sanctioning intrinsically evil conduct. Pope Bergoglio Involuntarily adopts here a commonplace typical of postmodernity, according to which the individual decision is, as such, always good or at least always endowed with value, in being personal and free as one naïvely thinks it may be, and therefore incontestable.
This relativistic slippage, no longer rare in general pastoral practice, is covered up, not only in Bergoglio, by references to sincerity and to the repentance of the individual, almost as if sincerity and repentance canceled the nature of sin and prohibited the Church from calling it by its name. Moreover, it is doubtful that it is merciful to be silent about and respect that which each one does because he is free and sincere in doing it: we have always known that clarifying, not hiding, the nature of sinful conduct is an eminently merciful act, because it permits the sinner to discern about himself and his state, according to the law and the love of God. That even a pope should seem to confuse the primacy of conscience with a sort of unjudgeability, or even as immunity from the judgment of the Church, is a risk for the authoritativeness of the pope and for the ordinary magisterium that cannot be underestimated.
In the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica” the pope returns to the “who am I to judge?” and confirms: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is seeking God, I am no one to judge him. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has made us free.”
The reiterated use of that “who am I?” confirms on the one hand, in Francis, a popular acceptation of “to judge” as a synonym of “to condemn” – which produces confusion, because judgment is not necessarily condemnation, and often it is not – and on the other accentuates the idea that none of us and not even the pope is legitimated to express judgment. But this is false: each of us can be judge in every organization and even in the Church, if he acquires competence, and the pope is judge because of the mandate that is proper to him. Moreover, either no one is legitimated, ever, in judgment, because only God is, or it is not clear why only in the case of homosexuality the capacity for judgment should not be found.
If moreover, as the pope says, “religion” – a cursory way of designating the history and institutions and treasures of grace founded in Christ of which the pope is the guarantor – “has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people,” but must not interfere in freedom, there is no longer room either for the law of God or for charity. Freedom as such becomes, truly, the absolute. And certainly if “religion” is reduced to an opinion group it cannot take on the stature of judge. Who has, moreover, need of charity if his freedom absolves him prior to any judgment?
The formula of the Church “in the service of the people” returns in the words of the pope even with regard to liturgical reform, which is taken to be “a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel on the basis of the concrete historical situation.” A staggering definition that reduces the sacred signs even below the little they had fallen to in the Protestant churches. What has been the use of a century and a half of liturgical “ressourcement?”
It will be said that one must not overanalyze words that are spoken in a conversation between Jesuit confrères. But if this is the case, it would have been well that the conversation should have remained in the private memoirs of pope Bergoglio and Fr. Antonio Spadaro. To endure the fate of reading in “La Civiltà Cattolica” – a magnificent combatant at least since the 1950’s for the Catholic truth and for Rome – that for the current successor of Peter doctrine, traditions, and liturgy have become the faculty and eventuality of giving an opinion and “offering a service,” is a humiliation that could have been spared the Church.
In “la Repubblica” of October 1 we read other debatable statements of pope Bergoglio. We learn that “proselytism is solemn foolishness, it makes no sense,” as a response to the theme of conversion proposed ironically by Eugenio Scalfari (“Do you want to convert me?”). But seeking the conversion of the other is not “foolishness”; it can be done in a manner that is foolish, or sublime, as in many saints. I recall that the spouses Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, converts themselves, ardently desired and worked for the return to the faith of their great friends. Why avoid the theme of conversion by comparing it with “proselytism,” a word loaded with a negative connotation?
We then read that, to the relativistic objection of Scalfari: “Is there a single vision of the good? And who establishes it?” the pope concedes that “each of us has his vision of the good” and “we must incite him to proceed toward what he thinks to be the good.”
But if everyone has “his vision of the good” that he must be able to realize, these visions cannot help but turn out to be the most diverse, in contrast and often in mortal conflict, as proven by current affairs and by history. Inciting one to proceed according to his personal vision of the good is in reality inciting the struggle of all against all, a strenuous battle, because it is waged for the good and not for the useful or something else contingent. This is why particular visions – including those guided by the most upright intentions – must be regulated by a sovereign, or in modern terms by the law, and ultimately by the law of Christ, which has no nuances of concession in individualistic terms.
Perhaps Pope Francis meant that man, according to the Catholic doctrine of the natural law, has the original capacity, a primary and fundamental impulse, given to all by God, of distinguishing that which is good in itself from that which is evil in itself. But here is inserted the mystery of sin and grace. Can one extol Agustine, as the pope does, and omit that in that which man “thinks to be the good” sin is always at work also? What has become of the dialectic between the city of God and the city of man and of the devil, “civitas” of love and of self? If the good were that which the individual “thinks to be the good,” and the convergence of these thoughts could save man, what need would there be for positive law in general, for the law of God in particular, and for the incarnation of the Son?
The pope also maintains: “Vatican II, inspired by Pope John and by Paul VI, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to open to modern culture. The council fathers knew that opening to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with nonbelievers. After then very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and the ambition of wanting to do it.”
All of this sounds like an “a priori” that is hardly critical. How much destructive “ecumenism” and how much “dialogue” subservient to the ideologies of the Modern have we seen at work in past decades, to which only Rome, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI, have presented a barrier! The Bergoglio who criticized the theologies of liberation and revolution cannot fail to know that dialogue with modern culture carried out after the Council was quite another thing than a courteous “ecumenism.”
Pope Francis shows himself to be the typical religious of the Society of Jesus in its recent phase, converted by the Council in the years of formation, especially by what I call the “external Council,” the Vatican II of militant expectations and interpretations, created by some episcopates, by their theologians, and by the most influential Catholic media outlets. One of those churchmen who, in their conciliatory and pliable tone, in their undisputed values, are also the most rigid “conciliars,” convinced after half a century that the Council is yet to be realized and that things should be done as if we were still in the 1970’s, in a hand-to-hand with the “pacellian” church, neoscholastic theology, under the influence of the secular or Marxist paradigm of modernity.
On the contrary: that which the “conciliar spirit” wanted and was able to activate has been said or tried over the decades and today it is a question in the first place of making a critical assessment of the results, sometimes disastrous. Even the tenacious proclamation in Pope Francis of the divine mercy corresponds to a pastoral attitude now widespread among the clergy, to the point of that laxity which the pope moreover censures. Not only that. The theme of sin has almost disappeared from catechesis, thereby liquidating the very need of mercy. Rather than promoting generally merciful behaviors, this is a matter today of reconstructing a moral theology less made up of words and again capable of guiding clergy and faithful in concrete cases. Also in moral theology the road to the true implementation of the Council has been reopened by the magisterial work of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.
Some maintain that Francis could be, as a postmodern pope, the man of the future of the Church, beyond traditionalism and modernism. But the postmodern that most thrives in him – as liquidation of forms, spontaneity of public appearance, attention to the global village – is superficial. With its pliability and aestheticism, the postmodern is hardly plausible in a bishop of Latin America, where until recently the intelligentsia was dominated by the Marxist Modern. Bergoglio’s solid core is and remains “conciliar.” On the road undertaken by this pope, if confirmed, I see first of all the crystallization of the dominant pastoral conciliarism in the clergy and in the active laity.
Of course, if Bergoglio is not postmodern, his worldwide reception is. The pope pleases right and left, practicing and nonbelievers, without discernment. His prevalent message is “liquid.” On this success, however, nothing can be built, there can only be remixed something already existing, and that not of the best.
There are worrying signals of this “liquid” appearance for anyone who may not be prone to the relativistic chatter of this late modernity:
a) the concession to set popular phrases like “everyone is free to do…” “who says that things must be this way…” “who am I to…” allowed to slip out in the conviction that they are dialogical and up-to-date. Presenting himself as a simple bishop to justify hardly formal behaviors, do not cover up and cannot cover up the different weight and different responsibility that instead belong to his words, any word, since the bishop of Rome and the pope are one and the same;
b) the lack of scrutiny on the part of persons of trust, but wise and cultured, and Italian, of the texts destined to be circulated, perhaps in the papal conviction that there is no need for this;
c) a certain authoritarian inclination (“I will do everything to…”) in singular contrast with the frequent pluralistic propositions, but typical of the democratic “revolutionaries,” with the risk of imprudent collisions with tradition and the “sensus fidelium”;
d) moreover, there remains incongruous in Pope Francis this constant taking of individual public communication initiatives and this wanting to be without filters (the symptomatic image of the papal apartment as a bottleneck), which reveal the unwillingness to feel himself a man of governance (something more difficult than being a reformer) in an eminent and “sui generis” institution like the Catholic Church.
His is, at times, the conduct of a modern and informal manager, one of those who concede a great deal to the press. But this clinging to persons and things on the outside – collaborators, friends, press, public opinion, even the apartment in Santa Marta is “outside” – as if the man Bergoglio were afraid he would not know what to do once he were left alone, as pope, in the apartment of the popes, is not positive. And the thing could not last. Even the media will get tired of supporting a pope who needs them too much.
Two last observations.
1. To those who invoke the Ignatian style of accompanying the sinner, or the far away, I reply that this concerns the relationship of the internal forum or the direction of conscience or private conversation. But if the pope expresses himself this way in public, his words enter the flow of the ordinary magisterium, they become catechesis. We all know that the conciliarist motto “from the cudgel to mercy” was aimed not so much at softening confessors as at weakening the authority of Rome.
2. The expressive model chosen by Bergoglio cannot be pushed to the limit of knocking down the ordinary magisterium and making it hardly or not at all obligatory. The powers of a pope do not extend to the very nature of his own “munus,” which transcends him and imposes limits on him. I do not approve of the traditionalist extremists, but there is no doubt that tradition is the norm and the power of the successor of Peter.
Florence, October 2, 2013