As a sociologist, my interest in religion does not proceed from the axioms of faith, but from an understanding of human society as a system that serves a multiplicity of functions. Whether one is a believer or not, one cannot deny the place that religion occupies and continues to occupy in the human community. It is not a static role. Its boundaries are continuously contested and negotiated, and, indeed, what it means to live a life of faith in the world is constantly being redefined.
The Catholic Church is a source of unending fascination for students of society mainly because of its enduring power as an institution. The decisions it makes demonstrate a remarkable ability to remain whole even as it responds to the challenges of a rapidly changing environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the choice of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as successor to the resigned Pope Benedict XVI. As Pope Francis, he has been quietly signaling a shift in the understanding of the Church’s role, from one that is self-absorbed—in his own words, “self-referential”—to one that is outward-looking.
Thanks to the sketchy speaking notes he shared with a brother cardinal from Cuba during the pre-conclave consultations, we now have a clearer idea of where the new Pope is coming from and in what direction he wishes to bring the Church he now leads. These handwritten notes, says the Cuban prelate, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega of Havana, represent “an absolute first fruit, the thought of the Holy Father Francis on the mission of the Church.”
In them, the future Pope Francis expressed his views of what ails the Church, what role it must assume, and what he expected the new pontiff to be and to do. These ideas were first delivered extemporaneously by Bergoglio at one of the pre-conclave meetings of cardinals. Later, at Ortega’s insistence, he committed them to paper in an outline form. After Francis’ election, Ortega sought his permission to share the ideas with a larger audience. They were recently published in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Archdiocese of Havana. Zenit (ZE130326) picked them up from there.
“Reference was made to evangelization,” Francis begins his short speech. “To evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself… to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries.” By “peripheries” (the “center-periphery” metaphor is a central concept in Latin American social analysis), he meant those who are mired in sin, those who are in pain, victims of injustice and ignorance, and those who have been led to think they can do without religion. But he certainly also meant the word in its original geographic sense to refer to the poor countries of the periphery that have been consigned to underdevelopment by an unequal world economic system.
This is unmistakably a voice from the margins. It is addressed to a Eurocentric Church that has not been sufficiently mindful of the fact that a great majority of its members still live in oppressive conditions of dehumanizing poverty and ignorance. He connects this reality to the decadence within the Church. “When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a kind of theological narcissism.”
“Theological narcissism”—this is the first time I have come across this intriguing imagery, and I am not sure what it means. One wonders if Benedict’s thoughtfully crafted encyclicals, which deploy a masterful command of philosophy and theology, have been taken by some as a form of “theological narcissism.” I hope not. I hope we are not seeing in these charges the advent of anti-intellectualism within the Church.
Francis spoke directly and quite bluntly, which is something truly refreshing. “When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness (according to De Lubac, it is the worst evil that can come upon the Church). The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another… lives within herself, of herself, for herself.”
Henri de Lubac is someone I have not read, and Francis’ reference to the thoughts of the late French theologian and cardinal is instructive. Quickly perusing some of his works in the Internet, one gets a good idea of the perspective that informs De Lubac’s critique of the Church. Here is a gem taken from his book “Paradoxes of Faith”: “Professors of religion are always liable to transform Christianity into a religion of professors. The Church is not a school. It is not an elementary school.” How true!
This insight brings us back to an image of Christ as first and foremost a shepherd. He goes out of his way to gather and tend his flock, to show them, by words and by deeds, how to live like human beings. This he cannot possibly accomplish if he is content to stay where he is, secure in the contemplation of his own beliefs. Here is Francis’ lament: “The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.”
Francis believes that it is the task of the new Pope to “help the Church to come out to the existential peripheries… to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” This the Church must do, he said, not only for its flock, but also for itself, if it is to avoid becoming a “worldly Church.” These are amazing insights from someone who has pondered the situation of the Church from the periphery. They signify a new life for the Church.