All the Toil of Being Primate of Italy
A biting critique of the address with which Pope Francis has given the Italian Church its marching orders, appealing to the “people” against the bishops. The author: Professor Pietro De Marco
by Sandro Magister
ROME, November 17, 2015 – It was to be expected that the address Pope Francis gave to the leadership of the Italian Church, meeting in Florence last November 10, would ignite a lively debate:
The occasion, in fact, was one of those that mark the history of the Italian Church, of which the bishop of Rome is primate. They are gatherings that take place roughly every ten years, and each time they determine the subsequent course.
Particularly memorable was the 1985 conference in Loreto, at which John Paul II decisively changed the tack of the Italian Church at the time – imbuing it with an active presence in the public sphere, as a “driving force” – and replaced its guide.
The intellectual leadership exercised by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and by the theologian Bruno Forte, who gave the opening talk in Loreto, was succeeded by the long season that had its guide in Camillo Ruini, first as secretary and then as president of the Italian episcopal conference, in full harmony with John Paul II and with his successor, Benedict XVI.
But the story has its twists and turns. Now Ruini has left the stage. Bruno Forte has become archbishop and has been promoted to an overarching role, as special secretary of the two-part synod on the family. And Cardinal Martini has found in his Jesuit confrere Jorge Mario Bergoglio the pope to continue his legacy:
> Martini Pope. The Dream Come True (15.10.2013)
With the address in Florence, Pope Francis has in fact given the Italian Church its new marching orders, which to a large extent are the same ones that John Paul II had suspended in Loreto, thirty years ago on the dot.
It is a change of direction that is also substantiated in a series of targeted appointments, in the most significant episcopal sees:
In Florence, the address of Pope Bergoglio was frequently interrupted by applause, which was all the more thunderous the more he called upon the consensus of the “people” in order to blast the bishops.
The following is a critical analysis of the papal speech – and of this pontificate – made by a Florentine Catholic of long ecclesial experience, expert in theology and Church history, Pietro De Marco, professor emeritus of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy, also the author of a prescient October 2, 2013 commentary on the beginning of pope Bergoglio’s pontificate:
And of a subsequent commentary in the magazine directed by Bernard Dumont, “Catholica”:
The present analysis was published on November 13, the last day of the conference, in the “Corriere Fiorentino,” the local supplement of the leading Italian newspaper, “Corriere della Sera.”
Pope Bergoglio in Florence, With the People Against the Structures
by Pietro De Marco
In the address of Pope Francis to participants at the national ecclesial conference of last November 10, in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, we find three features of his communication strategy: the theological-spiritual, the intra-ecclesiastical, and the explicit, prescriptive pastoral focus.
The pope duly covered all three, amid repeated applause, interesting for its different intensity depending on the different tone and content of the talk. I will permit myself to observe, because it is not extraneous to what I will say, that the pope could have avoided rather than invited the applause, which in its way was “political.”
To one Catholic TV channel that asked for my impressions I sincerely praised the power of Bergoglio’s missionary appeal, the great gift that this pontificate makes to the universal Church – that is, to the world, to history – if one considers that going out in search of others had become foreign to the tastes of many postconciliar churches and communities.
But I also had to emphasize the ambiguities of the passage in his talk about the “temptations” of the Church – or Pelagianism (the ancient heresy according to which it is possible to pass through the stages of salvation by suitable human effort alone, independent of divine grace) and Gnosticism – with which pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio has hardened his intra-ecclesiastical “quarrel.”
The anti-Pelagian polemic against trust in structures – which ones, precisely? – and excessive organization was already present in the post-war and pre-conciliar season of the Catholic Church. We know what kind of target undue trust in rules is for Francis; but when he affirms that it is “rules that give the Pelagian the security of feeling superior, of having a precise orientation,” and that this type of deviation assumes “a style of control, of toughness, of formalism,” as in fundamentalism and conservatism, we see better at whom his words are aimed but we no longer see true Pelagianism, but rather a few traces of one of its enemies, Jansenism.
Pelagius has nothing to do with the grand Church of Pius XII nor with that modicum of organization, institution, and form that remains alive today. The Church should be concerned about the more plausible theological and pastoral Pelagianism of those who ignore and essentially eliminate sin and grace. But if, for the current pope, the Pelagian is the one who does the contrary, we are losing the discernment of that which is truly grave.
Also troubling is Pope Francis’s reference to Gnosticism, a temptation, he has told us, “that leads to trusting in clear, logical reasoning.” Here too in order to single out for the people’s execration that part of the Church which is seen as culpably cultivating intellect and doctrine, a bit like Saint Thomas Aquinas and countless others, remaining in the end “closed off in immanence.”
The ancient and modern Gnostic spiritualities are, obviously, nothing like this. A more recent and brilliant extension of the notion – as Eric Voegelin has pointed out – concerns the revolutionary activity that, in the name of a Cause, with a simplifying doctrine and rhetoric on its lips, pursues a Reality beyond the true reality. Something of the kind, but post-ideological, Pope Francis could find these days, where he least expects it.
I have already written about how disorienting this arbitrary use of theologically delicate words is. A mistaken use of them, with no criterion but that of delineating targets to be extended at will, does not correspond to the right exercise of justice in the Church. Moreover, it generates doubts if this style is considered acceptable in the person of a pope. Appealing to the consensus of the people, in a cathedral, in order to bash the bishops – because this is how ordinary people have understood it – would be in itself, for the political scientist, a “demagogic” effort at legitimization.
“Demagogue” is a term that need not offend: Max Weber used it for the prophets of ancient Israel in their mobilizing action as private persons outside of the Temple. But, and this is the point, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not a private preacher or charismatic, he does not preach private revelations, he is pope. He instead wears the twofold role now of institutional leader, now of anti-institutional charismatic who pits himself against a “part” of the Church. If as head of the Church he has all the powers that this entails, as charismatic he exercises, whatever his intentions may be, an objective antagonistic action against institutional circles.
The scholar would say that he is operating as a “faction head” for supremacy in his party, which is also the dominant party: taking down the old leaders, not minding the victims. This is why his address at Santa Maria del Fiore has the aspect of a speech at political conventions of historical and recent memory.
Much used and admired in politics, this practice is not so in the Church, where the applause of the faithful does not legitimize anything, does not add one iota to the power of a pope and the value of his decisions; where sanctions against errors of orthodoxy and of practice must be conducted not by slogan but under the banner of doctrine and law; where the bishops are not the members of a central committee or the directors of an apparatus at the mercy of a “democratic” political leader.
The national ecclesial conference recently held in Florence has displayed the sincere efforts of the Italian Church to adopt the style, heavy on effects, of this pontificate. It should suffice to consider that in the formula of the “five ways,” pastoral to the brim, that the conference adopted (go out, proclaim, dwell, teach, transfigure), there is no room for Thomas but plenty for Pope Francis.
In “ecclesialese” language I should speak of a “glad, joyous, grateful effort” of the Italian Church. But it is not certain that everyone sees it that way.