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Ominous Galumphing

Since early October, Catholics have peeked through the looking glass to see if the Jabberwock of doctrinal plasticity could be slain. It is a destabilizing place to be. Never in their lifetime have most Catholics been here before. We watched, pawns in “a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know.” Laity have become as uncertain as Alice of the reality of the match in play.


The Jabberwock has been checked for the moment, but it was not slain. Its nose is in the tent, burbling tidings of user-friendly doctrine. Conservatives have little reason to let their guard down and none to gloat. Bring on more synods. Pack the bench and keep on voting. Eventually, what is shunned today as change will look tomorrow like sweet development. Give it time. Florida’s Bishop Robert Lynch applauded Francis’ initiatives with this:

Even doctrine evolves, don’t let anyone tell you it hasn’t and doesn’t.

Doctrine develops because our grasp of the fullness of truth is ever partial. Truth is unchanging but human understanding and phrasing of it is not. The means by which truth is distinguished from falsity are rooted in time. But progressives in the Synod did not offer deeper understanding of Catholic doctrine. They aimed to upend it.

Talk of doctrinal development is a smokescreen for the shallowness, dishonesty, unctuous sentimentality—e.g. the trumpeted Year of Mercy—and demagogic temper of the current pontificate. Catholics are not customers or clients of an ecclesial bureaucracy. Nor is doctrine the plaything of a pope. Any revisit to pastoral interpretation of doctrine, any nuanced shifts of emphasis in wording or practice must be approached with in trembling and with reserve. That is “theology on its knees” – not authoritarian efforts at remodeling engineered from the papal grandstand.

Anyone who troubled to read Leonardo Boff’s love letter to Jorge Bergoglio: Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi, met no surprises in the conduct of the Synod. Nor do they expect any in Paris later this month or for the remainder of this pontificate. Boff, former Franciscan and celebrated apologist for Liberation Theology, has the pope’s ear. They are allies and confidantes, a point better attended by the Spanish language press than our own. When Boff talks about this papacy, it pays to listen.

Published in Spanish in 2013 and in English last year, Francis of Rome is Boff’s canticle to the mission of this pontificate. The subtitle is telling: A New Springtime for the Church. The theologian yokes a reprise of his Saint Francis: A Model of Human Liberation (1982) to a declaration of Pope Francis’ intention to depose “all the institutional arrogance of a church that saw itself as the exclusive bearer of certainty, outside the daily lives of human beings and their ever-changing societies.”

The text presages Boff’s words on BBC Mundo at the beginning of this September. In anticipation of the Synod, Boff was asked in a radio interview if he anticipated any doctrinal changes to come out of the Synod. His response:

I think the Pope will not discuss the doctrines. He always says that reality is above doctrines.

But doctrine is what the religious mind has to express certain dimensions of reality. Without doctrine, we are abandoned to the chaos of our own untethered inklings and desires. Worse, our own politics. But let me stay with the text.

Juan Arías, columnist for El País, reported that Francis asked for a copy of Boff’s newly published book when he arrived in Rio in 2013. It is fair, then, to assume Francis assents to the tenor of it. Did he not, we would have heard demurrals from the Vatican Press Office.

A brief 160 pages, its length would double if every innuendo and veiled assertion submerged between the lines rose to print. To illustrate: we are told Francis is “a pope who will preside in charity.” Translation: Francis is unlike his predecessor who presided in . . . what? Cold rationalism, suggestion has it. Boff insists “the heart’s reason is more effective in presenting Jesus’ ‘dream’ than any learned doctrine.” Or “the sensitive heart’s reason is more at work than intellectual reason.” That phrase heart’s reason is scattered through the text like a motto on needlepoint pillows.

Boff applauds Francis for wanting to bypass our inherited “jungle of tangled doctrines.” But which ones to untangle? And on what grounds? Certain doctrines, e.g. indissolubility of marriage, have profound and lasting pastoral implications. Others, e.g. recent Marian dogmas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, have none. Boff is silent on all distinctions. He approaches doctrine as something that, by its nature, inhibits the Gospel message and frustrates “a possible refoundation of the Church:”

Most Catholics are tired of doctrines and skeptical of campaigns against real or imaginary enemies of the faith. We are fed up to the teeth with intellectual, functional, analytic, and pragmatic reason.

Francis, we are told, is not ecclesiocentric, not “obsessed with doctrines and disciplines.” Neither is he Eurocentric. Coming from “the periphery,” he rejects the “logocentric paradigm of Mediterranean and Nordic cultures.” [That the traditional pride of Buenos Aires lies in its European heritage does not fit the narrative.] He wants only to “warm hearts,” and to be with people “as they are, with compassion.”

In other words, Francis targets the emotions—what an earlier and less cuddlesome authoritarian called “a weapon of the first order.”  Sentimentality cloaked as charity appeals to the cluster of feelings and instincts that is the lifeblood of fascist persuasion. Francis’ attention to the blandishments of emotionalism is the trademark of his pontificate.

In Boff’s rhapsody to Francis, the agonistic aspects of redemption flatten into sensitivity. The sublimity of it dwindles to the utopian imagination of a first century humanitarian and his “cause.” Boff extricates the historic Jesus, “preacher and prophet of Nazareth,” from the Christ of faith, a product of the apostles. The tradition of Jesus is “a noble dream.” And Francis “is closer to the tradition of Jesus than to the Christian religion.”

Something crucial goes awry here: Only in light of the Christ of faith—the Resurrected One—is Jesus more compelling to us than other charismatic Jews at work in first century Palestine. Among these were a recorded number of holy, charitable miracle workers active in Galilee. Discount apostolic trust in the Resurrection, and Jesus dwindles to no more than a commanding example of early Hasidim.

Francis validates Boff’s view of his pontificate with every public word and gesture. Ancient intimations of spiritual combat dissolve in a tepid bath of Francis’ selectively applied mercies. It is a womanish—if you will permit the word—approach to Christianity that suits a feminized clerical culture. It is this very culture that skewed a supposed conference on the family away from children, the raison d’etre of family life, and onto the ambitions of homosexual advocacy groups.

Sentimentality does not yield easily to reason. And reason, in the form of systematic theology, comes in for a drubbing. Boff warns that no pope should align himself with a single theology. Benedict and John Paul held to a narrow “type of theology that presented itself as an expression of the official magisterium.” Such constriction yields only censure and mistrust, hallmarks of a Church in winter. Thanks be to God, Francis speaks not as a theologian but with “an open and feeling heart in tune with the globalized world of today.” Spring is here:

May Pope Francis put theology in a minor key so that liberation may ring out in a major key .  .  .  . What we need is less theology and more liberation.

Anyone who balks at references to Francis’ Peronist seasoning should note Boff’s chapter “Liberation Theology and Theology of the People.” Is Francis a supporter of Liberation Theology? Boff is coy; he dismisses the question as irrelevant:

It doesn’t matter that Pope Francis does not use the expression “liberation theology.” The important thing is that he speaks and acts in a liberating way. In Argentina a tendency developed, not as an alternative to liberation theology but as a typical expression of the local culture: a theology of the people or theology of popular culture. The people under Juan Domingo Perón developed a high level of political consciousness and created a rich and popular culture participating in the destiny of the nation.

Boff cites Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone, leading Argentine architect of a “theology of the people.” Educated in Munich, he was Jorge Bergoglio’s mentor in college and close associate for ten years:

Father Bergoglio always supported this theology of the people. So, without having to use the more common expression “liberation theology,” he never departed from his basic insight and fundamental aim: to make the faith an instrument for the liberation of the oppressed.

The comment echoes Boff’s earlier statement to Juan Arîas, wrtitng in El País, July 23, 2013:

In that sense, we could say that Francis is a liberation theologian along the lines developed by Scannone, which was the one that in some ways supported some of the attitudes of Peronism,” Boff added.

The sage of Nazareth was no little-minded Pecksniff. That is why—Boff assures us—Francis favors the historical Jesus over the Christ of faith. Francis draws “closer to the tradition of Jesus than to the Christian religion:”

The tradition of Jesus is a noble dream, a spiritual path that can take many forms and that can also have followers outside the religions and the church setup.

Noble dreams, like tenderness, can bend in directions we cringe to think about. That sentimental education does us little good is the testimony of  Fr. Simon Smith, an unconventional priest in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome:

Do you know where tenderness always leads? …To the gas chamber. Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.

It is a paradoxical insight but one that the twentieth century affirmed in blood. Kindly notions like the “greatest good for the greatest number” and concern for “quality of life” nourished Weimar eugenicists. Today they support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals seconded by Francis.

Percy knew what Francis chooses to forget: If tenderness is all we have, it can lead anywhere.

22 thoughts on “Ominous Galumphing”

  1. Another intriguing essay by Maureen – a few random points:

    1. On Boff’s book: It is fair, then, to assume Francis assents to the tenor of it.

    Perhaps – but it could be that it doesn’t matter much either way to him, which would be almost as troubling.

    2. Certain doctrines, e.g. indissolubility of marriage, have profound and lasting pastoral implications. Others, e.g. recent Marian dogmas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, have none. Boff is silent on all distinctions.

    The difficulty is that, being an immanentist in his theology, such doctrines matter little to Boff. (There is just enough evidence of a Marian devotion that it probably matters a little more to Papa Bergoglio.) His care is this world, not the next. Christological and Trinitarian doctrines have no real pastoral or political import (or so they think), so immanentists in the Church like Boff spend little time tussling over them, notwithstanding the occasional post-Rahnerian academic (e.g., Haight, Johnson, et al) looking to make a mark for herself. The Mariological doctrines are, of course, usually an embarrassment (especially to ecumenical efforts), and the attitude towards them seems to be to let them die in obscurity rather than to administer active efforts at deconstruction – awkward museum pieces of a superstitious age, like flabella or exorcisms.

    The idea of Papa Bergoglio as a sentimentalist seems on target – a sentimental pope for a sentimental age. Various factions, mostly on the progressive side, read all sorts of hopes, aspirations and intentions into Francis, not all of which may actually be shared by him. But in the end it may matter as little as it did with Papa Montini, a liberal pope who was used as totem and bombproof shelter by even more radical forces in the Church to create new facts on the ground, and the totem invariably unwilling to check them (and very often quite willing to promote them). The demographics aren’t nearly as favorable this time around as they were in 1965-75, however.

  2. “Do you know where tenderness leads?….to the gas chambers,” he challenges an uncomprehending congregation near the end of the novel.

    (Here Percy is giving tribute to Flannery O’Connor, who originated that seemingly paradoxical phrase in her introduction to a book called Memoir of Mary Ann, a book about a seriously ill and severely disfigured young girl cared for by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. The book is not in print but O’Connor’s essay is reprinted in the collection Mystery and Manners. O’Connor wrote: “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness, and tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”

    • Right – I thought to mention that, and forgot it in my excitement. I’ve always heard it attributed originally to O’Connor.

      Either way, a perceptive observation. For some people, it’s an incendiary one.

  3. There is just such incredible insanity going on, and what is even worse: we really, really need heroism and clarity from the Church during this crises in Western culture.

    • Without, perhaps, realizing it, you are begging the question, “Where does the crisis in Western culture originate?” The answer according to many much brighter minds than my own is: the Catholic Church.

      The crisis in the Church IS the crisis in Western culture. The culture isn’t antagonistic so much as it is reflective. To belabor the point, does Western culture hate the Catholic Faith today? Yes, of course. Does the Pope and a very large number of cardinals, bishops and priests hate it? They could not say the things they do if they truly loved the Church. They do everything they can to change Her doctrines and practice. Looks like hate to me.

      As someone described it recently, “they [the modernist bishops] don’t believe all that Catholic bullshit anymore.” They are embarrassed by Our Lord. The Church leads the way, for good or ill, and whether we like it or not.

  4. Yes, a womanish papacy. That’s precisely the word that describes what is going on and what has been turning my stomach for so many months. The ostentatious humility, the catty papal remonstrances, the nettlesome personalities like Rossica who surround the pope, the frequent he-said, no-he-didn’t, yes-he did dog and pony shows. It’s all so unmanly, so effete, so liberal.

  5. “He wants only to “warm hearts,” and to be with people “as they are, with compassion.”” This quote sums up the Francis papacy. Francis is like a modern day Ceasar bringing the theological equivalents of “bread and circuses” under the guise of “mercy and accompaniment” to the people.

  6. Boff’s “the sensitive heart’s reason is more at work than intellectual reason” sounds a lot like Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know”. Belloc describes it as Emotionalism, which sacralizes the individual experience and stands at the beginning of modernism, with its contempt for doctrine.

    From Characters of the Reformation,

    For Pascal the appreciation of any truth, especially a moral or religious truth, concerns the emotions. Faith in the mere formula of doctrine would be a dead faith. In Emotionalism the action of the conscience is not that of a deductive rational process or even that of an experiment or of an appreciation of an object from without. It is an internal imperative order, which does not base itself upon a thought-out process or a deliberately sought experience, but on the immediate sense; it is an emotion, and nothing but an emotion, of right and wrong.

  7. Thanks Maureen for another perceptive analysis of the catastrophically disastrous “womanish” (the perfect word for it) papacy of Pope Francis.

    It occurred to me there is an interesting parallel between Pope Francis and Martin Luther. For Pope Francis ‘mercy alone’ seems the operative message while with Luther it is ‘faith only’ that leads to redemption. Both theologies are based in Germany. Both of their appeals are broad and secular. Governments can use their teaching to further their own goals. Both reject key teaching of the Catholic Church. Whether the “accomplishments, i.e., heresies” of Pope Francis will equal those of Martin Luther remains be seen. Let us pray that they are not.

  8. 2. Certain doctrines, e.g. indissolubility of marriage, have profound and lasting pastoral implications. Others, e.g. recent Marian dogmas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, have none. Boff is silent on all distinctions.

    Actually they have profound pastoral implications since Mary is the model Catholic, if she sinned, then we have no way of escaping sin and that has profound pastoral implications. Mary is also the guard of Arianism. Arians keep wanting a more “humanly Christ”, but everywhere that Arians wanted to place Christ, Catholics have countered that that was the place where Mary is, so Christ must be higher. Since Jesus has been raised by the high place of Mary, we have to take him seriously and take pastoral practice seriously.

    • Thank you for catching the error of otherwise an excellent piece. No one can be saved disbeliefing a single dogma of the faith and with the rejection of one, the rejection of others soon follow.
      E.g. Mary being ever virgin [before, during, and after birth of the LORD]:

      Let no one judge in a human way what is done in a divine mystery

      A virgin coceived and a virgin brought forth her child. Do not be disturbed at this concepton or confused when you hear of his birth. Let no one judge in a human way what is done in a divine mystery. Let no one try to penetrate this heavenly mystery by earthly reasoning. Let no one treat this novel secret from knowledge of everday occurrences. Let no man manipulate the work of love into an insult, or run the risk of losing faith.

      Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary.
      – Who bore the Son of the Eternal Father.

      From a Homily by Saint Chrysologus, Bishop, Second Reading, Midday, Daytime Prayer, Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  9. All this talk of warm hearts, sensitive hearts, following one’s heart, the supremacy of heart reasoning. . . ?

    I wonder if the Church might be better served if we all adverted to the truly infallible and timely words of the Church’s Heavenly Head:

    “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (–Jesus Christ, via St. Mark 7:20-23.)

  10. Dear Madame Mullarkey,

    But Pope Francis DOES care deeply about doctrine!

    It’s just not traditional Catholic doctrine that he cares about. His aim IS to INDOCTRINATE everyone, but in liberal Catholic doctrine. He’s in a war (sometimes open, sometimes hidden) with the conservative and traditional Catholic doctrine.

    Despite the mask of simplicity, humility, and pragmatism that Francis wears, he is just as DOGMATIC in his views as was Saint Pope Pius X, or Pope Pius IX. Francis just doesn’t subscribe to the same dogma as they did.

    It is part of the universal deception of liberals to pretend that they are against rigidity of doctrine. But that’s just a gambit to help them destroy the currently prevailing dogmas in a society and replace them with new set of dogmas from which there will be no dissent tolerated.

    But then I think we must face the deeper issue: How can their be more than one version of Catholicism? How can there be conservative Catholicism, liberal Catholicism, traditional Catholicism? Does the Divine Revelation come in different varieties?

    Prior to the Vatican II Council, there in effect were NO PARTIES in the Catholic Church, there were no varieties of Catholicism.

    The whole history of the Catholic Church since that Council has been an unresolved civil war within the Catholic Church between the holders of these different versions of Catholicism.

    How can this be happening? Isn’t the Office of Peter supposed to prevent or resolve exactly that sort of thing?


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