The Church in a Change of Era
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The Church in a Change of Era

How the Franciscan Reforms are Changing the Catholic Church

Massimo Faggioli

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eBook - ePub

The Church in a Change of Era

How the Franciscan Reforms are Changing the Catholic Church

Massimo Faggioli

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About This Book

Pope Francis has been both praised and vilified for his reforms, his calls for environmental protection, his support of immigrants and refugees, and his emphasis on mercy, among other things. How should Catholics respond?

In this collection of essays, Villanova theology professor and La Croix International columnist Massimo Faggioli traces the extraordinary circumstances and challenges of Francis’ papacy, beginning with his unprecedented coexistence with retired predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. Faggioli explores Pope Francis’ global leadership, his response to the abuse crisis, his post-Vatican II approach to decentralized church governance, and what the opposition to his reforms reveals about today’s church. He alsooffers insights on issues such as the growing politicization of sides in church debate, and how the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is seriously impacting the Church, especially in the United States.

This wide-ranging work can help us see Pope Francis’ papacy within the larger context of Church history, theology, and tradition. It can also give us an honest assessment of our own time in history, which Pope Francis has characterized as not simply an era of change, but a change of eras.

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Francis (and Benedict)

Francis’ papacy cannot be fully understood without considering the extraordinary circumstances of his pontificate, especially the cohabitation with Benedict XVI. It is about how the papacy works via social media in today’s media-friendly, global Church.
The extraordinary transition from Benedict to Francis—which is still ongoing and far from over—is the first transition of papal power to take place in the age of electronic social media. This is the very media that changed the daily habits of many believers precisely during Benedict’s pontificate (2005-2013).
It is also about the unintended consequences of the coexistence of a pope and a retired predecessor who has chosen to remain at the Vatican. Francis has to deal with the fact that Benedict XVI’s decision to resign opened a new page in the theology of the papacy, but with little preparation both at the theological and the juridical level.

The language of Pope Francis: More poetry than dogmatic orthodoxy

August, 2015

Francis of Assisi is not only one of the Church’s most famous saints and legendary figures. He is also considered a pioneering writer.
Language experts regard his “Canticle of the Creatures” (Cantico delle creature) as one of the first texts in the history of “modern” Italian literature.
And like the saint whose name he took when elected Bishop of Rome in 2013, Pope Francis also has a compelling way of using language.
The Argentine Pope’s mother tongue is Spanish, of course, and that adds a charming accent to his perfect command of Italian. He is not as fluent in other languages—like English, French and German—as were Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
However, there is a more substantial linguistic difference that marks him out from most recent two predecessors. Francis’ language is much richer in metaphors, proverbs, and idioms. He tends to create new verbs and nouns (like for example misericordiare, “mercying,” and rapidacion, “rapidization”). The 78-year-old Pope’s language is much more figurative and expressive than communicative. It is non-academic because it is existential and derived from many years of pastoral experience as a priest, teacher, and bishop.
Francis is a “language pope” much in the same way that Jesuit historian John O’Malley says the Second Vatican Council was a “language event.”
Language is not just a tool, but a distinct form for theology; it gives form and shape to theology. The new style of discourse at Vatican II was the medium that conveyed a new message. To a particular kind of language corresponds a kind of theology.
The difference between Benedict XVI and Francis is more linguistic than doctrinal. But it is a very meaningful difference that significantly changes the way doctrine is thought out, taught and received.
In contrast to his predecessors, Francis had a teaching curriculum that focused more on literature than philosophy. His biographers recount how he organized a lecture by the famous Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, back in August 1965 for his students in Santa Fe.
From 1964-1965 the future pope taught Cervantes, gaucho literature (very popular in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay between 1870 and 1920) and the epic poem Martin Fierro by José Hernåndez. He underlined the importance of this experience of teaching literature in the interview he gave two summers ago to Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of the Italian Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica (translated and simultaneously printed in numerous other Jesuit periodicals).
Many who closely follow and observe Pope Francis see a parallel in his manner of using words and images. It is the late Italian writer and filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975).
Pasolini was a public intellectual and communist at odds with the party line of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Ostracized for being gay by the ultra-conformist social orthodoxy of post-war Italy, he was a “believing atheist” in search of Jesus. He dedicated a poem and his most famous movie, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, arguably one of the best movies on Jesus) to John XXIII, a pope whose spiritual diary (Journal of a Soul) Pasolini read and analyzed (in a way not too dissimilar to Hannah Arendt, who called Roncalli “a Christian pope on the throne of Peter”).
Like Pope Francis, Pasolini was inspired by the saint of Assisi, where in 1942 he read the Gospel of Matthew for the very first time. He had a mystical soul that was not in contradiction with his passion for social justice and for education as a mean of liberation. His language was deeply existential and he masterfully discovered and conveyed the experience of the people through their dialects and popular expressions, which he saw as pure and free from systematizing.
Pasolini found in the peripheries of urbanization a humanity that was lost in the transition from a peasant culture to the industrial society of the 20th century. His passion for the poor and disenfranchised was a passion for a reality that could wound us but also open up our soul.
His attack against the hypocrisy of moralistic Christianity brought a formidable challenge to the petty bourgeois version of Italian Catholicism between World War II and 1975, when he was murdered in one of the many unsolved political-criminal cases of contemporary Italy.
The quest for Jesus was for Pasolini rooted in his critique of modernity as dehumanizing—something strikingly similar to what Pope Francis calls “the technocratic paradigm” in the encyclical Laudato Si’.
Pier Paolo Pasolini and Francis, despite many differences, have a very similar approach to language as a way to liberate the Gospel from the many ideological layers built on it by the overlap between Christianity and Western civilization. The analogy between Pasolini and Francis may be one of the hidden reasons why certain Italian Catholics find the present Pope so appealing, and why the economic and political establishment does not.
The official Vatican and Catholic Italian media have recently “rediscovered” Pasolini and this is an indication of a profound convergence between Francis and Italy’s last prophetic, popular intellectual.
This issue of language is central if we want to understand Francis.
It is not just an issue for those who have to translate Francis’ words in other languages. It is also a theological issue because Francis’ language requires poetic and linguistic analysis, not just good translation.
A book recently published on theology and poetry (Esodi del divino, 2014) by Marcello Neri, an Italian theologian teaching in Germany, casts a light on the use of poetic language for theology. In the “toolbox” of Christian (and especially Catholic) theology there is, still today, much more philosophy than poetry. But the Christian concept of logos is also poetic no less than philosophical. And one finds much more poetry than philosophy in the Bible.
Theology needs more poetry, especially today. That’s because the Christian idea of logos has suffered from the same crisis that has afflicted the rationalist notion of logos in the Western world. Catholic magisterium tried to address the crisis in the relationship between faith and reason (especially between John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio of 1998 and Benedict XVI’s speech in Regensburg, September 2006) but it did so using the same language of philosophy and therefore falling victim of the same weaknesses of Western logos. The Catholic magisterium’s language about “reason” has tried to demonstrate the modern-day rationality of the logos of faith, but this is not the issue around with the future of faith is being played out.
Poetic language is not about the certainty of dogmatic orthodoxy. Such certainty does not bring one salvation.
“The aseptic beauty of institutional religion does not transmit beauty anymore—and that is why the Church as such is no longer able to be a patron of the arts,” writes Neri.
In the Western world, Catholic theology has accepted the partition of the rationalist logos from the logos of the faith. The rationalistic turn of the Christianity and the subsequent crisis of western rationalism have obscured the poetic logos of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Francis has shown himself to be a truly global pope and a key reason is because his language is not constrained by the classic western discourse on logos and its consequences on Catholic theology. The globalization of Catholicism is being hastened as the Pope and the rest of Church find new linguistic expressions for a faith ever ancient, ever new.

The political heterodoxy of Pope Francis

November, 2015

The present moment in the life of the Catholic Church is in some sense similar to the immediate post-Vatican II. Bernard HĂ€ring said of the day when Vatican II ended (December 8, 1965), “the council begins today.” A big moment in the life of the Church has just developed under our eyes—the Bishops’ Synods of 2014-2015. Now it is about the beginning of the Church of synodality. It is uncharted territory: we have an idea of what synodality is, what it requires, and how Pope Francis sees it, for he described it in the speech of October 17, 2015 to the Synod. But we do not know if and how it will work in a Church that is not used to it (for these last ten centuries, more or less).
There are though many differences between the first few days of the post-Vatican II period and this post-synodal period. Not only because a council is not a synod, but because Francis has to deal with a Church where many basic distinctions about and within Catholicism seem to be lost, especially among those who have a voice as “orthodox Catholics” in the public square. But it is not only their problem, if we just look at the difficulty of the Synod debates to articulate properly the relationship between doctrine and theology—symptom of a widespread difficulty to have a healthy relationship between the doctrine and theology in the Catholic Church of today.
There is one more reason that makes the Church debates of today different from the theological debates of fifty years ago, and it is about the politicization and ideologization of the different positions in the Church. The polemics of the representatives of traditionalist Catholic orthodoxy against the changes Francis is accused to introduce are moved also (and sometimes mostly) by political motives, that is, by issues related to a political interpretation of Vatican II and especially of the post-Vatican II period. For these ideologues, the changes in culture starting in the 1970s (changes mostly about sexual morality) were caused by Vatican II. In this sense, for them Vatican II is the moment zero in the history of the moral decay of Western civilization.
This is a very questionable (to say the least) view of the last fifty years of global history and of the relations between Catholic theology and culture in the Western world. Nevertheless it is a very powerful narrative that is challenged by what Francis says and does (which does not mean that Francis does not see disturbing symptoms of decline in the western world). Since the very beginning of the pontificate of Francis, traditionalist quarters of Catholicism (in the United States of America especially) have crafted a narrative about Pope Francis’ “heterodoxy.” If we just look at the articles published by conservative and traditionalist Catholic magazine and journals (to say nothing of the Catholic blogosphere) in these last two and a half years (especially after the publication of the interview with the Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica of September 19, 2013) we have different versions of “warnings” against the possibility that the conclave of March 2013 elected as bishop of Rome somebody whose theology is not fully Catholic. This is interesting because all this started before the beginning of the debate about divorce and remarriage (with the lecture of Cardinal Kasper to the consistory of February 2014), which is the issue that now the most prominent of these “anti-heretics” have picked to fuel their battle against Francis.
Why has Pope Francis been subject from the very beginning to this kind of extremist criticism coming from the most pious, devout, and tradition-minded but also ideologized quarters of American Catholicism? The narrative about Catholicism coming from these quarters is politically shaped by the trauma of the culture wars, and presents an ambiguous relationship between a social-political doctrine and the sense of the role of Catholic doctrine a relationship where Catholic doctrine is exploited in order to defend a social-political paradigm more than to permeate the pastoral ministry of the Church.
It has become clear by now that Pope Francis has violated the social-political agreement that flourished within Catholic conservatisms during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis broke the taboo thanks to the two key words of his pontificate: the poor and mercy. Being poor has become (also for some Catholics in the Western hemisphere, I would say) not a social-economic condition, but a heresy proving false the universal promise of wealth: talking about the poor therefore challenges not only assumptions about the use of tax money or allocation of resources, but challenges also a political-religious identity. Much of the change going on with Francis is that a “social Catholic” like him re-proposes the essence of a theology that is indigestible to the neo-liberal economic culture, to an individualistic mentality that finds it hard to accept the ethical demands of Catholic morality as an integral part of the idea of the “common good,” and to a gentrified Catholicism that would like to make Jesus Christ a self-righteous moralist.
The emphasis on mercy, on the other hand, violates the “law and order” mentality of the self-appointed guardians of Catholic orthodoxy. For them Catholicism is unchangeable doctrine that cannot be contaminated by theological developments and by the idea of the pastorality of doctrine. Francis responded to this kind of criticism with one of his most impressive speeches, the one of October 24, 2015 at the end of the Synod. The Synod, said Francis, “was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would ‘indoctrinate’ it in dead stones to be hurled at others. It was also about laying closed hearts, which bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”
The heterodoxy that some see in Francis is not theological, but political. This is why the attacks coming from conservative bloggers and pundits are not really about Francis’ theology, but about the social and political consequences of Francis pontificate for an ideological interpretation of Catholicism. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the theological “civil war” declared by some is a continuation of politics by other m...

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