Francis, Benedict, and self-referentiality in the Church

Andrea Gagliarducci’s excellent blog “Monday Vatican” astutely notes something very interesting in light of all of Pope Francis’ words against a Church that is “too self-referential and closed on itself”.

“In the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world.” Moreover: “Not infrequently, she gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other.” And finally: “Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world.”

Who said this?

A first – instinctive – answer to this question would be: Pope Francis. He made “a Church of poverty and for the poor” his mark from his very first meeting with journalists. He, who has increasingly often repeated that “institutions are useful, but up to a point”. He even exhorted the future Papal nuncios to “keep their inner freedom.”

The statements at the beginning of this article are actually not Francis’. They are Benedict XVI’s. The now Pope emeritus made those remarks in Fribourg, on September 25, 2011, to Catholics engaged in the life of the Church and society.

Again we see the close affinity between the thought of Ratzinger and that of Bergoglio, even if the two speak with markedly distinct “accents”. It thus seems more and more absurd to oppose “Francis the reformer” with “Benedict the reactionary”. When these popes offer  the Church her deserved dose of self-criticism, one might immediately think such sentiments be directed towards the ecclesial bureaucrats, the prelates in high places, bishops and cardinals who savor the trappings of office, and especially to the “traditionalists”– those Catholics attached to older forms of liturgy and prayer. Certainly, such a mindset exists within those circles, but not exclusively. To see in such criticisms a condemnation only of the purported “conservative” wing of the Church fails to adequately grasp the profoundity and breadth of these papal sentiments.

In the general congregations of the Cardinals during the 2013 sede vacante (the pre-convlave meetings), certain Cardinals are invited to give a brief intervento (a speech/reflection no longer than five minutes) on the state of the Church and the type of man that the Church needs at the helm. Cardinal Bergoglio was one of the men chosen to speak. By all accounts, his very short intervento (less than three minutes) stuck in the minds of many porporati (and we all know how things ended up for him). The speech is a succint but well-developed analysis of self-referentiality in the Church and the need to recover the primordial missionary fervor of the apostles. Below, we reproduce Bergoglio’s original text (he deliberately chose to speak Italian) followed by our English translation, punctuated by commentary on “self-referentiality in the Church”.

Evangelizzare implica zelo apostolico. Evangelizzare presuppone nella Chiesa la παρρησία di uscire da se stessa. La Chiesa è chiamata a uscire da se stessa e ad andare verso le periferie, non solo quelle geografiche, ma anche quelle esistenziali: quelle del mi­stero del peccato, del dolore, dell’ingiustizia, quelle dell’ignoranza e del­l’assenza di fede, quelle del pensiero, quelle di ogni forma di miseria.

To evangelize implies apostolic zeal. To evangelize presupposes in the Church the παρρησία* to go out of oneself. The Church is called to come out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only geographical ones, but also to the existential outskirts: the outskirts of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, and absence of faith, the outskirts of thought, the outskirts of every form of misery.

[*παρρησία, parrhesia = “bold speech”, related to κήρυγμα and the force of apostolic preaching. Cf. Acts 4:13 “Now when they saw the boldness (την παρρησίαν) of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.”]

From the beginning, Bergoglio links the “opening” of the Church with apostolic zeal and preaching. This uscire da se stessa does not in any way imply a loss of her own identity; rather only by “going to the peripheries” does the Church fulfill her identity. The Church, if she is to be true to herself, goes out into the world precisely to bring the faith of Christ to men and thus bring men into the embrace of Christ. Just as Christ descended into hell, the Church must go to the places of “sin, pain, injustice, and absence of faith” and there expunge the evil of worldliness which reigns. Bergoglio continues:

Quando la Chiesa non esce da se stessa per evangelizzare diviene au­toreferenziale e allora si ammala (si pensi alla donna curva su se stessa del Vangelo). I mali che, nel trascorrere del tempo, affliggono le istitu­zioni ecclesiastiche hanno una radice nell’autoreferenzialità, in una sor­ta di narcisismo teologico. Nell’Apocalisse, Gesù dice che Lui sta sulla soglia e chiama. Evidentemente il testo si riferisce al fatto che Lui sta fuori dalla porta e bussa per en­trare… Però a volte penso che Gesù bussi da dentro, perché lo lasciamo uscire. La Chiesa autoreferenziale pretende di tenere Gesù Cristo dentro di sé e non lo lascia uscire.

When the Church does not go out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then she becomes ill (one thinks of the crippled woman in the Gospel). The evils which, throughout history, afflict ecclesiastical institutions have a root in self-referentiality, in a kind of theological narcissism. In the book of Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the threshold and calls. Evidently the text refers to the fact that he is outside the door and knocks to enter… but I think sometimes that Jesus knocks from the inside, so that we let him go out. The self-referential Church presumes to keep Jesus Christ within herself and not to let him out.

As noted before, one might read this passage about “self-referential ecclesiastical institutions” and “theological narcisism” and think immediately of the hierarchy of the Church or of those who are attached, for one reason or another, to older liturgical forms. But this is an inadequate characterization. The fundamental flaw with a self-referential Church is obvious: she must first and foremost refer to Christ. Furthermore, “ecclesial institutions” don’t simply refer to the hierarchy or the Roman Curia; in fact, self-referentiality reigns in many other organizations associated with the Church.

Let us turn to the example of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. So many of these institutions, even in their theological departments and faculties, espouse theories and ideas diametrically opposed to the Gospel message and to the original Christian humanism which gave birth to the university system. I myself am an alumnus of such a university. When these institutes are corrected by the pastors of the Church and by faithful Catholics who point out the discrepancy, criticism is often dismissed and vilified. Surely, the influx of public (taxpayer) funds and subsidies which help support these schools demand that groups and events directly against Church teaching receive official sanction from these universities. In doing so, reference to Christ and to Catholic doctrine is excised while the school continues to enjoy the prestigious title of “Catholic”. With one hand, they nominally cling to a historical identity while rejecting the philosophical, religious, and practical implications demanded by that identity. Here, secular humanism is preached instead of Christ crucified. Is this not also a form of self-referentiality? Even in Jesuit colleges, the sentire cum ecclesia which Ignatius of Loyola preached is in all practical terms ignored, and theologians adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion as a point of departure, endeavoring to divorce theology from the Church– is this not “theological narcissism”? Returning to Bergoglio’s intervento, we read:

La Chiesa, quando è autoreferenziale, senza rendersene conto, crede di avere luce propria; smette di essere il mysterium lunae e dà luogo a quel male così grave che è la mondanità spirituale (secondo De Lubac, il male peggiore in cui può incorrere la Chiesa)…. Semplificando, ci sono due immagini di Chiesa: la Chiesa evangelizzatrice che esce da se stessa, quella del Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans, o la Chiesa mondana che vi­ve in sé, da sé, per sé. Questo deve illuminare i possibili cambiamenti e riforme da realizzare per la salvezza delle anime.

The Church, when self-referential, without realizing it, believes to have its own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae* and gives a place to that gravest evil, which is spiritual worldliness (according to [Henri] de Lubac, this is the worst evil that the Church can encounter)… Simply put, there are two visions of the Church: the evangelizing Church who goes out of herself, Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans**; or the worldly Church who lives in herself, by herself, for herself. This should illuminate the possible changes and reforms in favor of the salvation of souls.

[*mysterium lunae = “mystery of the moon”: the moon only receives her light from the sun; so too the Church shines not on her own accord, but by the light of Christ]
[**Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans: the Church who religiously listens and proclaims the word of God; this is the incipit of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.]

Papa Bergoglio leads us to the logical consequence of the self-referential mindset: the evil of spiritual worldliness. Is this not the situation of so many Catholic colleges in America? Has not an uncritical acceptance of postmodern relativism dealt a severe blow to the unique Catholic identity once fostered there? Yes, in the eyes of secular society, the prestige of these schools is enviable; multimillion dollar endowments and donations ensure that their alumni have a marketable, name-brand card to play in the face of prospective employers. From a purely worldly standpoint, the big Catholic schools are immensely successful institutions; but they have effectively severed themselves from the Church, their “advancement” policies and strategies are those of big corporations; their “social justice” programs have little or no mention of Christ and the Church– in short, these institutions live for themselves, by themselves, and in themselves. In doing so, they have advanced their position in society, and their graduates seek to gain the world– but in the words of Him who they often neglect to bring into the public square, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

Perhaps the most penetrating and scathing ecclesial self-criticism was delivered by Cardinal Ratzinger during his now-famous Via Crucis reflections for Good Friday 2005. Commenting on the Ninth Station of the Cross (the third fall of Christ), the future Pope remarks:

Che cosa può dirci la terza caduta di Gesù sotto il peso della croce? Forse ci fa pensare alla caduta dell’uomo in generale, all’allontanamento di molti da Cristo, alla deriva verso un secolarismo senza Dio. Ma non dobbiamo pensare anche a quanto Cristo debba soffrire nella sua stessa Chiesa? A quante volte si abusa del santo sacramento della sua presenza, in quale vuoto e cattiveria del cuore spesso egli entra! Quante volte celebriamo soltanto noi stessi senza neanche renderci conto di lui! Quante volte la sua Parola viene distorta e abusata! Quanta poca fede c’è in tante teorie, quante parole vuote! Quanta sporcizia c’è nella Chiesa, e proprio anche tra coloro che, nel sacerdozio, dovrebbero appartenere completamente a lui! Quanta superbia, quanta autosufficienza! Quanto poco rispettiamo il sacramento della riconciliazione, nel quale egli ci aspetta, per rialzarci dalle nostre cadute! Tutto ciò è presente nella sua passione. Il tradimento dei discepoli, la ricezione indegna del suo Corpo e del suo Sangue è certamente il più grande dolore del Redentore, quello che gli trafigge il cuore. Non ci rimane altro che rivolgergli, dal più profondo dell’animo, il grido: Kyrie, eleison.

What can Jesus’ third fall under the weight of the cross tell us? Perhaps it makes us think of the fall of man in general, of the distancing of many from Christ, of the drive towards a secularism without God. But must we not think also of how much Christ must suffer in his own Church? How many times is the holy sacrament of his presence, in what emptiness and malice of the heart he enters! How many times do we only celebrate ourselves without even recognizing him! How many times is his Word distorted and abused! How little faith there is in many theories, how many empty words! How much filth is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should belong completely to him! How much arrogance, how much self-sufficiency! How little do we respect the sacrament of reconciliation, in which he waits for us, in order to raise us from our falls! All this is present in his passion. The betrayal of the disciples, the unworthy reception of his Body and Blood is certainly the greatest pain of the Redeemer, the pain which pierces his heart. There is nothing else for us to do but to offer to him, from the depths of our soul, the cry: Kyrie eleison.

In so many words, Benedict XVI confirms what Francis will say eight years later. Self-referentiality is firstly a failure to refer to Christ. Whether this attitude exists among prelates, among lay people, or among Catholic schools, the bottom line is that in fostering that attitude, one risks losing one’s soul. A repudiation of Catholic identity and doctrine is as dangerous as spiritual complacency and theological narcissism; the united testimony of these two Popes constitute a single exhortation to remain aspicientes in Jesum— with our eyes firmly fixed on Christ.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply