The church’s prophetic witness in the world begins with its own conversion.

In the speeches and talks he gives, Pope Francis provides a theological grounding for his pastoral activity by drawing on criteria that have their origin in what is called the “theology of the people” or the “theology of culture.” As a particular expression of Latin American liberation theology, the theology of the people stresses the evangelization of culture as the means for bringing about a socio-economic, political and religious transformations that will lead to integral human development, greater sociopolitical dialogue and the practice of justice.

In line with this theology, Pope Francis has been proposing a new way of being church, one that accentuates her prophetic role in public life. In the discourses he gave recently in South America, he explained that authentic pastoral action happens when the pastors are truly inserted in the reality of poor people. Before pastoral agents or academic theologians present themselves to the poor as authoritative teachers, they must learn from the poor and let themselves be affected by the fraternal solidarity that characterizes their lives. But this can happen only when they feel pain in the face of the needs and the deprivations of the poor and when they experience “power as service.” What the pope is proposing is more than a radical application of the church’s social doctrine, though this is the understanding of many analysts who are not familiar with the Latin American theological and pastoral option from which Francis draws his inspiration.

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At the base of his proposal we find a model of church, as he tells us in “The Joy of the Gospel”:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (No. 49).

Extending from this model of church are two vast horizons of discernment on which Francis keeps insisting: 1) his vision of the present social, economic and political processes; and 2) the pastoral conversion that will make the church capable of responding to the resultant changes.

Building an Integrated People

In the speech he gave at the opening of the Jesuits’ provincial congregation in 1974, then-Father Bergoglio expressed his “conviction that we must overcome sterile intra-ecclesial contradictions so that we can implement an authentic apostolic strategy that has a clear picture of the enemy and unites our forces to oppose that enemy.” At that time Argentina was experiencing social conflicts and divisions within the Catholic Church. Given this situation, Father Bergoglio, who was then provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, asked his confreres to “recall the fruitless confrontations with the hierarchy, the draining conflicts between ‘wings’ within the Church (for example, between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’). We end up giving more importance to the parts than to the whole.”

Giving absolute value to a particular vision of reality would annul the possibility of serious dialogue and frustrate attainment of the common good. This theme of working for greater unity and for the common good was central to the theology that inspired Pope Francis.

Nevertheless, as Father Lucio Gera, the father of the theology of the people, used to say, there is a need to change certain “mentalities” that prevent the attainment of common ends. So what criteria should be taken into account when seeking the welfare and the integral development of the people? First and most realistically, Francis understands that we will not achieve unity as long as we fail to face conflicts and simply avoid them. This is the attitude that he calls “abstract spiritualism.”

Second, unity will not be attained if society adopts economic and social policies at odds with Christian values. These would include policies based on liberal or Marxist ideological visions that are imposed on the poorest, most vulnerable peoples by the political, economic and religious groups that hold power. The temptation of this mentality, he says, is toward “abstract ideologies” and “methodological functionalism.”

Third, he states that we should avoid “moralistic” or “moralizing” postures that “isolate conscience from processes and create projects that are more formal than real.” He calls this type of mentality “priestly prudery.”

Toward the middle of the 1970s, Father Bergoglio began to formalize a number of criteria for discerning the ways in which Jesuits should participate in public life. He expressed the criteria thus: “Unity is superior to conflict, the whole is superior to the part, and time is superior to space.” Nearly 40 years later, in 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio took up the criteria again in an address he gave on the bicentennial of Argentinian independence. At this time he added a fourth criterion for discernment, “reality over idea.” In his speech he argued that these criteria “help to resolve the challenge of being citizens and belonging to a society.” As pope he returned to this vision in his encyclical “The Light of Faith” (Nos. 55, 57) and in “The Joy of the Gospel” (Nos. 217-37). Given the importance he accords to these criteria for discernment, a short reflection on each is warranted.

“Time is superior to space.” What is most important in any pastoral or sociopolitical praxis is initiating processes because “one sin that often afflicts sociopolitical activity is privileging the spaces of power over the times of processes” (2010). For many academics, politicians and pastoral agents power is more important than service, structures and projects are more important than genuine, close relations with others. The result is a fragmented society in which community ties are severed.

It is therefore necessary to overcome the fierce individualism that prevails in the more developed countries and to encourage solidarity among peoples. The increasing globalization of indifference must yield to another model, one that gives priority to mutual encounter rather than to the occupation of political and religious spaces and the achievement of economic gains as ends in themselves.

“Unity is superior to conflict.” In order to attain the common good it is necessary “to get involved in the conflict, suffer the conflict, resolve it, and transform it into a process, a link in a chain” (2010). The end of the process has to be greater unity, which allows us to overcome the immediate divisions and conflicts we are passing through. Building unity means recovering three vital elements: memory of our roots, grasp of the present reality and courage for the future. The challenge is to construct “a multi-faceted unity quite apart from the hegemonic forces of an atomizing and depersonalizing relativism, as well as from those of the globalizing project, which is eliminating diversity and imposing uniformity” (Eighth Conference on Social Ministry in Buenos Aires, 2005).

“Reality over idea.” The third criterion is perhaps the most interesting one in view of today’s rising culture of indifference. He explains that “reality is, whereas ideas are elaborated,” and when he asks, “Which comes first, reality or idea?” he answers, “Reality, for it is superior to the idea” (2010). In this regard he is reflecting Latin American theological method, which recognizes that our first and greatest need is to “see” whatever reveals itself to our gaze as evident, whatever cannot be hidden because it is a “fact.”

If we remain in the realm of “ideas,” we can be deluded into evaluating the present globalizing process as something positive, but when we “take a good look at the reality” that surrounds us—wasteful consumerism and social inequality—we discover that we are becoming dehumanized and are failing to achieve a “shared understanding or to make any effort to strengthen social bonds” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 116).

“The whole is superior to the part.”According to this principle “citizens who preserve their personal peculiarities and ideas are united in a community, as happens with the geometrical figure of the polyhedron. The basic characteristic of being a citizen is therefore proximity” (2010). With this expression Cardinal Bergoglio was proposing an evangelical style of life that would allow people to overcome the atrocious individualism that characterizes our modern society but that also frustrates so many people whose lives are submerged in a culture of indifference and indolence.

In 2005 Caridnal Bergoglio called for Christians to “reestablish social bonds, adhere to an ethics of solidarity, and generate a culture of encounter” that would reverse the growing cultural fragmentation promoted by globalization. We can say that Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., first as provincial superior of the Jesuits and then as cardinal, remained faithful to this goal and worked hard to promote national unity in the midst of the harsh sociopolitical reality that was Argentina in those days. But it is also true that even now, as pope, he is proposing that the divided, fractured ecclesial community be converted to true ecclesial unity as the “people of God” and the “faithful people,” to use the terminology of the theology of the people.

Pathology of Power

When Pope Francis met with the coordinating committee of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013, he took up some of the same themes he had expounded in the mid-1970s. This time, however, he spoke of them as temptations, and he made them part of the discernment that the ecclesiastical institutional needs to undertake if it wants make room for the process of pastoral conversion as a faithful people. Revealing as they do the existence of a pathological deformity of ecclesial power, these temptations, including clericalism and functionalism, make clear the urgent need for conversion. Every attempt on the part of the church to transform society will be in vain if the church herself is not converted. To bring about such a change, however, there must be a decentralization of the church’s decision-making power and a reduction of the functionalism characteristic of centralized, authoritarian structures.

One of the strongest criticisms Francis has made of members of the clergy and religious life is what he calls the “complex of the elect,” which he claims is the source of the “pathology of clerical power.” Francis frequently criticizes those who understand the call to the priesthood or to the consecrated life in terms of a warped theology of “election.” Such a theology holds that God separates a person from the world in order to make the person superior to other members of the church.

When such a ecclesial pathology takes hold, members of the church run the risk of being reduced to a “closed circle in which belonging to the clerical group is more important than belonging to the ecclesial body as a whole, thus creating a serious separation between laity and the ministerial priesthood.” When this happens, primacy is conceded to “the parts” (ordained ministers, religious life, intra-ecclesial groups) rather than to “the whole” (people of God, faithful people).

Being chosen for ministry is a service and a responsibility that should exercised in a collegial manner. Its foundation is in the baptism that we have all received, as Francis recalled when explaining how his own Petrine ministry. Being chosen for ministry does not mean privilege or separation; even less does it allow for the exercise of pastoral or administrative tyranny. If this is not well understood, the result is the deformation of ecclesiastical power that is called “clericalism.” This terrible pathology involves a loss of contact with reality, that is, with concrete persons and actual problems. When that happens, primacy is given to the “occupation of spaces” of power and to the execution of individual projects rather than to “the initiation of processes” that respond to the needs of persons, especially the poor and the needy.

Clericalism creates the illusion of a parallel universe where there are no real needs or serious problems, only security and privilege. It promotes a style of life that favors ministerial mediocrity and thrives on short-term, self-regarding relationships. Clericalism turns ministers “into a caricature that features discipleship without renunciation, prayer without encounter, community life without communion, obedience without confidence, and charity without transcendence” (Homily, Feb. 2, 2015).

The pontificate of Francis will be remembered for its constant discernment and criticism of inauthentic styles of Christian living, both within the church and at the sociopolitical and economic level. For Francis, a first step for achieving a “church that is poor and for the poor” is overcoming clericalism, which implies a narcissistic and destructive separation between the clergy and laity. If the members of the ecclesiastical institution are not converted, then “many lay persons will find that there is no space in their particular churches for them to speak and to act” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 102). 

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Rafael Luciani
1 year 9 months ago
If you are interested in the Spanish versions of my articles at America Magazine, please write me an email: [email protected]

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