The Modern Crisis of Authority and the Abiding Prowess of the Papacy, Part II

peter-and-peter

Pope Francis holds a reliquary containing the bones of St. Peter.

“[T]he decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form…. [Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. … A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946; emphasis added)

“It is as though…one’s revered, dignified and darling old mother [i.e. the Church] had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing. And of course, those who knew her before feel a great sense of betrayal and can’t bring themselves to go and see her any more.”  

– Alice Thomas Ellis, The Sin Eater (1977)

 

In Part I of this essay series, I portrayed the structure of Catholicism as a tripod, standing on authority (Magisterium), tradition (doctrine), and religion (liturgy/discipline). Through the lens of this “Roman Catholic tripod” (RCT), I examined why the modern exercise of papal authority has followed certain problematic trends, namely, that of confusing power with authority, and that of overemphasizing pastoral creativity.

Unfortunately, the response of some readers made it clear that I had not articulated the key distinction in my thesis precisely enough. Therefore, before continuing with my analysis, I shall clarify the terms I’m using to describe the crisis of ecclesial authority in our day.

Catholic teaching on authority does not exclude power per se, but, on the contrary, sees power as a secondary expression of authority. Those with authority may use power, but those exercising power do not always do so in accord with authority. In other words, authority can deploy power, properly understood, only if that authority remains true to its foundation. Power, by contrast, has no legitimacy if it is working at cross purposes with the original purpose of a given authority. As noted in Part I, Hannah Arendt explains:

The authority of the living was always a derivative, depending upon … the authority of the founders who no longer were among the living. … As long as this tradition was uninterrupted, authority was inviolate; and to act [or, exercise power] without authority and tradition … was inconceivable.

And so, while there is not an inherent contradiction between ecclesial authority and pastoral power — power being understood in the sense of expressing, rather than exploiting, the Tradition — there has been a longstanding de facto conflict between power and authority in the Church, which itself rests on a larger failure of nerve about the legitimacy of ‘mere authority’. This ambivalence about ‘mere authority’ has led to an overemphasis on histrionic pastoral dynamism, doctrinal creativity and pluralism, liturgical adventurism, the politics of persuasion — in general, an adolescent fixation on personal charisma as opposed to ‘mere authority’.

At bottom, the Church at large is beset by a form of clericalism loath simply to restate the demands of the Catholic Tradition, as rightful authority must, preferring instead to indulge in vulgar displays of populist pandering as signs of vitality and “relevance”. Acts of power in the Church must conform with the obligations of authority, yet, for decades now, the gyrations of pastoral dynamism have only served to undermine the modest stability of authority. That conflict — between corrective authority and adaptive dynamism — is what I argue drives the ongoing crisis of Catholic authority. In order to avoid further confusion, when I speak of “power” I am referring to the problematic “adaptive pastoral dynamism” just discussed.

In any event, the impression of chaos in the Church is not simply because Pope Francis is “weird,” nor explained by other simplistic diagnoses. The problems with recent trends in papal authority run much deeper than Pope Francis, and in some ways emerge from fundamental tensions within Catholicism as such. Here in Part II, I will examine in greater detail what this “dynamic” inversion of authority looks like, as displayed in the current reign of Pope Francis. Part I provided an abstract statement of the problem, while this post will provide a so-called phenomenological analysis of how power qua adaptive dynamism subverts authority. A subsequent post will examine the deeper roots of this crisis of authority, and address how we should cope with it.

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Good teachers, parents, and coaches know that simplicity and consistency are two key ingredients to raising up star pupils, virtuous sons, and winning athletes. A leader’s words must be clear and his actions must be consistent with those words. A good teacher, in other words, imposes the classroom routines and expectations upon her own behavior and speech just as rigorously as she imposes them on the students. To tamper with those sacramentals of authority is in effect to break a covenant between teacher and pupil, between master and disciple. A good teacher must be consistent, but an inconsistent, erratic application of power belies a compromised commitment to and grasp of authority.

The mark of authority is ordered stability, while, by contrast, charismatic dynamism produces relentless motion and change, driven by “a sudden [tragicomic] yearning to be attractive to all”. As Orwell warns, “the decline of a language … is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form.” As G. K. Chesterton similarly warned in 1922, “Evil always takes advantage of ambiguity.”1 Eugenics and Other Evils, chapter 1 Thus did Pope Paul VI declare,  “The least inexactitude, the smallest lapse, in the mouth of a Pope is intolerable.”2 Jean Guitton, Scrivere como si recorda (Alba: 1975), p. 319, as cited in Amerio Romano, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century (Sarto House: 1996), p. 166 Precisely because, in Orwell’s words, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium Fidei (1965), laid great emphasis on the link between the consistency of our words and the sanctity of our Faith:

23. … [We must] guard the proper way of expressing [orthodoxy], lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things. St. Augustine gives a stern warning about this when he takes up the matter of the different ways of speaking that are employed by the philosophers on the one hand and that ought to be used by Christians on the other. “The philosophers,” he says, “use words freely, and they have no fear of offending religious listeners in dealing with subjects that are difficult to understand. But we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule, so that a lack of restraint in speech on our part may not give rise to some irreverent opinion about the things represented by the words.

24. And so the rule of language which the Church has established … is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge.

To recall the dichotomy between power and authority presented in Part I, a pastor’s power of speech must submit to the authority of dogmatic tradition. Again, a pope’s personal charisma must be submerged and tempered, like hot steel in the deeper waters of the demands and limits of tradition. If a pastor, prelate, or pope refuses to submit his pastoral predilections to the waters of ‘mere authority’, he will inevitably foment unrest in the Church, like so much murky, boiling water.3 It is well worth noting what Rocco Palmo wrote about Pope Francis, as the Pope of Chaos, just days after his election: “Jorge Bergoglio’s success at defining himself as himself on the world stage has come thanks to a less visible, yet equally key trait of the 266th Pope: his steely sense of determination. … [I]ts early quiet flashes are merely shaping up as a sneak preview of the battle of wills which is almost certain to define his pontificate. As things pick up steam, a lesson from the Pope’s past bears recalling: on ending his term as provincial of Argentina, then-Fr Bergoglio’s intensity of conviction and grit served to divide his confreres so severely that he was made to leave the country until things could simmer down.” Of equal interest is the pope’s comments in an interview on 11 March 2015 about  himself: “We Argentineans aren’t humble…. We are very conceited. Do you know how an Argentinian commits suicide?” the Pope asked, joking. “He climbs up his ego and then jumps off!” Surely he was only joking?

So, while he may enjoy the personal power of free expression, a shepherd of the Church has no authority to deviate from or undermine the Church’s “rule of language.”

This order of submission extends to a pastor’s pastoral decisions as well, since, of course, actions speak louder than words. As Joyce Little explained, “[A]lthough authority is hierarchical by nature, the hierarchy it establishes is not one of inequality between some who simply command and others who simply obey. Since those in authority derive that authority from Christ himself, they are as much obliged to obey it as anyone else in the Church.4 The Church and the Culture War [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995], p. 27, emphasis added Once dynamic pastoral power becomes unhinged from the staid clarity of traditional doctrinal authority, the Gospel is cast like seed among thorns. Once pastoral compromises undermine the limits of sacramental authority, no amount of verbal affirmations that “the teaching of the Church is clear” can undo the confusion sown among the faithful and unsaved.

Consider the following exchange between Pope Francis and a Brazilian reporter on the flight back from World Youth Day in Brazil—where he also famously exhorted Catholics to make a mess (“¡Hagan lío!”) in the Church:

Patricia Zorzan: Speaking on behalf of the Brazilians: society has changed, young people have changed, and in Brazil we have seen a great many young people. You did not speak about abortion, about same-sex marriage. In Brazil a law has been approved which widens the right to abortion and permits marriage between people of the same sex. Why did you not speak about this?

Pope Francis: The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!

Zorzan: But the young are interested in this …

Francis: Yes, though it wasn’t necessary to speak of it, but rather of the positive things that open up the path to young people. Isn’t that right! Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.

Zorzan: What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?

Francis: The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.

That the Vicar of Christ is a son of the Church is certainly a great relief, but quite beside the point. Ms. Zorzan was inquiring about the way he displayed his teaching authority at World Youth Day, but the Holy Father skirts the issue, almost as if the duties of authority were less of interest to him than the effects of pastoral power. His preference for the appeal of pastoral populism over the humble demands of returning to the old things, with simple authority, is a perfect example of the crisis of authority in the Church today.

Whatever the case may be, according to Fr. Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis is establishing “a whole new genre of papal speech—informal, spontaneous and sometimes entrusted to others in terms of its final articulation.” This curious mutation of papal authority resonates with Pope Francis’s own remarks to Fr. Antonio Spadaro in August last year about how Jesuits think and teach:

When you express too much, you run the risk of being misunderstood [sic]The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. … We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised [i.e. positions of authority], but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. … This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

On that note, recall a point that Little made in Part I, namely, that “power sees the past solely as the source of a given reality it seeks to overcome and looks therefore to the present and especially the future as the arena for its own achievements“.5 Ibid., p. 30 

One scholar who has articulated what he sees in Francis’s novel genre of displaying papal authority, is Umberto Eco, who discussed this papacy in an interview in September 2013:

Questioned how he, as a world-famous semiotician, rated the way Pope Francis communicates with the world, Eco said “he is better than Ratzinger, he is a modern man, he is the Pope of the Internet…. He is the Pope of the world of globalization. I find him highly interesting, but he doesn’t surprise me. It seems to me that he is in tune with the evolution of the global culture. What surprises me, however, is the curiosity of journalists or of the public at the fact that Pope Francis exists. I am not surprised.”

Umberto Eco admitted that he was “surprised” by “the fact that [Francis] said ‘Buonasera’ (‘Good evening’)” when he greeted the world on the night of his election. “This was a rupture of a centuries old liturgy. They are small gestures that can signify a lot”, he stated.6 For a better understanding of the crucial role of semiotics in Catholicism, please refer to an earlier essay about the liturgical revolution that followed the Second Vatican Council, “An Orwellian Reform of Worship: We Have Always Been at War with Liturgica“.

In the same month, in an essay in America, Blase Cupich, who at the time was the bishop of Spokane, until Pope Francis promoted him as archbishop of Chicago a year later, offered a sympathetic account of Francis’s leadership:

Francis shows himself as a witness more than a teacher. He is teaching because he is a witness and being a witness he reveals himself. This should be our focus…. No interpretation, no parsing is needed. Instead of reading the tea leaves, we should drink the tea.

Pope-francis-holding-mate-

“Pope Francis evangelizes with ‘encyclicals of gestures’, which speak louder than words and texts.” — Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga (Catholic News Service, 25 September 2014)

To Catholics serious about thinking in conformity with the teaching Church, using gestures as if they were words of authoritative teaching is a frustrating and at times mentally debilitating assumption on the part of Pope Francis. Indeed, in an exchange which I have not seen discussed elsewhere, we see just how problematic and inscrutable “the Francis effect” is. In a small gathering with priests in July 2014, a fellow Jesuit said the following to Pope Francis:

The identikit of the priest of the third millennium: human and spiritual balance; missionary consciousness; openness to dialogue with other faiths, religious and otherwise. … You certainly have brought about a Copernican revolution in terms of language, lifestyle, behaviour and witness on the most considerable issues at the global level…. Your linguistic, semantic, cultural revolution, your evangelical witness is stirring an existential crisis for us priests. What imaginative and creative ways do you suggest for us to overcome or at least to mitigate this crisis that we perceive?

Keeping in mind the threat that creative, adaptive pastoral dynamism always poses to authority, the Holy Father’s response is remarkable:

You said a word that I really like. It is a divine word. If it is human it is because it is a gift of God: creativity. And the commandment God gave to Adam, “Go and multiply. Be creative.” It is also the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples, through the Holy Spirit, for example, the creativity of the early Church in its relations with Judaism: Paul was creative; Peter, that day when he went to Cornelius, was afraid of them, because he was doing something new, something creative. But he went there. Creativity is the word.

Creativity is the key word in navigating the Church’s challenges? To recall Paul VI’s admonition in Mysterium Fidei, is not rather fidelity the key, while careless creativity is the mark of worldly thinkers?

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Although I have concentrated primarily on Pope Francis in this post, I reiterate that the disconnect–between the creative-dynamic pastoral progressivism of our age and the serene obedience to authority that is central to the Catholic faith–long precedes Pope Francis, and almost certainly will not end with his papacy. The contemporary abnegation of ‘mere authority’ on the altar of pastoral innovation was already evident in the campaign of Conciliar perestroika, ecumenical glasnost, and liturgical ‘creativity’ which Vatican II inaugurated.7 I am not claiming that “everything went wrong because of Vatican II”. I am claiming that Vatican II became both a crystallization of and a catalyst for the crisis of authority that had been at work in the Church for quite some time. Hopefully I will be able to explore the deeper roots in subsequent and other posts. As we shall see in Part III, it was precisely this preoccupation with displaying the Church’s power — or ‘vitality’ and ‘joy’ — which led Pope John XXIII to initiate the Second Vatican Council.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Eugenics and Other Evils, chapter 1
2. Jean Guitton, Scrivere como si recorda (Alba: 1975), p. 319, as cited in Amerio Romano, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century (Sarto House: 1996), p. 166
3. It is well worth noting what Rocco Palmo wrote about Pope Francis, as the Pope of Chaos, just days after his election: “Jorge Bergoglio’s success at defining himself as himself on the world stage has come thanks to a less visible, yet equally key trait of the 266th Pope: his steely sense of determination. … [I]ts early quiet flashes are merely shaping up as a sneak preview of the battle of wills which is almost certain to define his pontificate. As things pick up steam, a lesson from the Pope’s past bears recalling: on ending his term as provincial of Argentina, then-Fr Bergoglio’s intensity of conviction and grit served to divide his confreres so severely that he was made to leave the country until things could simmer down.” Of equal interest is the pope’s comments in an interview on 11 March 2015 about  himself: “We Argentineans aren’t humble…. We are very conceited. Do you know how an Argentinian commits suicide?” the Pope asked, joking. “He climbs up his ego and then jumps off!” Surely he was only joking?
4. The Church and the Culture War [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995], p. 27, emphasis added
5. Ibid., p. 30
6. For a better understanding of the crucial role of semiotics in Catholicism, please refer to an earlier essay about the liturgical revolution that followed the Second Vatican Council, “An Orwellian Reform of Worship: We Have Always Been at War with Liturgica“.
7. I am not claiming that “everything went wrong because of Vatican II”. I am claiming that Vatican II became both a crystallization of and a catalyst for the crisis of authority that had been at work in the Church for quite some time. Hopefully I will be able to explore the deeper roots in subsequent and other posts.