Years ago, my friend Sam Rocha wrote a piece on the then-newly elected Pope Francis titled ‘Francis’s Radical Realism: Performance v Ideology.’ Given what we knew of the Bishop of Rome at the time, it was a remarkable piece. In conversation with philosophers like William James, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Slavoj Žižek and with clear continuity with Francis’s predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it celebrated what Rocha argued was Francis’s true radicalism. Contrasting the habits of normatively white Catholics, the Latin American Pope revealed for Rocha what a non-ideological Catholicism might look like. Francis, it appeared, was much more interested in discerning what was going on in concrete situations than drawing from a pre-conceived fantasy narrative of how the world should be. Francis focused, as Rocha suggested, on the performative, the living out of the Gospel in the practice of everyday life. Almost as if it were a development of Michael Sean Winters’s exegesis of Francis’s remarks about the fallacy of turning the faith into ideology, Rocha’s reading of Francis was as an exemplar of what he called a folk phenomenology, the way that ordinary folks experience the world – relationally, personally, with the deep, unrepressed feeling that is often a byproduct of being poor and therefore excluded from the institutional logics that dominate elite and bourgeois existence. Francis’s church was a poor church for the poor. The conclusion that both Rocha and Winters drew was that he had to be a non-ideological thinker.
I too was very taken by Francis at the time and agreed with them. In fact, I credit Francis for the theoretical formulation I’ve been spending forever trying to work out: the private consensus is unraveling. The inspiration came his speech welcoming the figure of Our Lady of Fatima to Rome. Explaining the theology behind his long time devotion of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, he invoked St Irenaeus’s dictum, which is also found in Lumen Gentium, that ‘Mary’s faith unties the knot of sin.’ Sin, he explained, results in a kind of knot, a knot of disobedience here, a knot of unbelief there. The knots get tangled, and caught in what becomes a web of lies, we experience pain. But the yes of the Theotokos, he says, undoes these knots, and following her in faith, our knots can also be undone.
Is that not, I reasoned, the same insight that Francis dealt with in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium when he says that capitalism has become an economic ideology that kills? Widely hailed as a resurgence of liberation theology by figures no less than the Marxist geographer David Harvey and the democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Francis discussed the cultural ramifications of a late capitalist political economy. By turning everything into a commodity, this fundamentalist ideology of the market had brought on a ‘throwaway culture,’ he said, a topic he elaborated on in his encyclical Laudato Si’ and addresses yearly on the World Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation on September 1, with the most recent one on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The term that I preferred to use for this phenomenon was private consensus. It seemed to get better at the contours of what scholars have called neoliberalism, a new ideology of the free market in the late twentieth century where private initiative that is protected by a punitive police state is supposed to unleash the cultural potential of every human person. The result, as I began to see from my vantage point at the time as an Anglican Christian embedded in the world of Asian American evangelicalism, was an unspoken agreement among civil society institutions, including churches, that they were private in the sense of existing as if they were not beholden to a world beyond their own institutional boundaries. The result, I argued, was a lack of governing transparency that often led to abuses of power as well as misunderstandings leading to the rendering of such governance as illegitimate. The private consensus, in other words, was a knot. Francis was saying that it was unraveling.
In many ways, Francis said these things at the right time. He had been elected Bishop of Rome in 2013, fresh from the secular aftermath of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. By aligning himself against a market economy that kills and a throwaway culture, Francis could have easily passed as the Pope of Occupy (I certainly thought he did, which probably says more about me than him). The thing to remember about occupy protests is that they are basically ideological vacuums. Neither neatly aligned with Left nor Right, an occupy protest is supposed to be an organic, leaderless gathering in an urban city square that attempts to shut down the nexus between a market capitalist system and the police state that enables it.
Like Rocha’s reading of Francis, occupy protests are meant to be non-ideological, rooted in concrete situations from which real paths to liberation are generated. Much of the liberating power of an occupy protest, then, is the ability to say things about the system that need to be said in order to grasp its inner truth. If neoliberalism, for example, really is the unholy marriage between knotty institutions of the private consensus and the enabling of its throwaway culture by a police state, it is nothing short of organized crime. Moreover, if these corporations stood to profit from violence in the world through a global arms race, then war is basically a mafia gunfight by proxy. And so it was, then, that in his earliest days, Francis predictably (but no less satisfyingly) came out swinging against the Italian mafia, corporate arms dealers, and what he began to call after his trip to Korea ‘a third world war fought piecemeal.’ When the opening of the Arab Spring devolved into the rise of Daesh and the wholesale destruction of Syria by this series of proxy wars, Francis led the charge in condemning the wars, denouncing escalation by the United States, and calling on the European Union to take in refugees, to the consternation of European far-right parties who always seemed strangely obsessed with the sexual proclivities of the migrants. So too, as it was apparent that migration from Latin America was being increasingly policed by a militarized United States police state, Francis stood against that as well, making it a kind of highlight in his United States visit especially when he spoke by video conference to people who had endured the migration journey.
Well into the first year of Francis’s pontificate, the occupy protest on the Maidan in Kyiv happened. The hierarchs of the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv explain that when the Greek Catholic bishops went down to the streets, alongside their Orthodox brother bishops as well as an ecumenical and interreligious entourage of clergy, they were just doing what Francis had told priests and bishops they should be doing. Shepherds, Francis was in the habit of saying, needed to have the smell of the sheep. Rumor had it that that kind of statement – him wanting a church that would get out into the rough and tumble of the streets and come back with some scrapes and bruises – was what had gotten him elected in the first place, and that was exactly what the Greek Catholic hierarchs were doing too.
But that, it turns out, was also the first sign of trouble. For some reason, with the exception of China, Ukraine always seems to take a lot more explaining to Francis and his curia than other issues in the world. That makes no sense, of course, because Francis had been widely known to have had a Greek Catholic spiritual director from Ukraine when he was in Argentina, and in his capacity as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had not only befriended the young Bishop Sviatoslav who soon went on to become the global Kyivan Church’s Patriarch, but had also served the Greek Catholics there as their Ordinary in the absence of them having a bishop. Francis was known to understand Ukrainian stuff, including that the Holodomor in the 1930s had been a genocide on par with the Nazi exterminations afterward and the Armenian genocide before.
Francis’s suddenly playing dumb on, say, Putin annexing Crimea and invading Donbas with statements coming out of the Vatican calling it a civil conflict was strange, to say the least. Even stranger was the kind of carrot and stick approach he seemed to take with Greek Catholics, saying he is close to us out of one side of his mouth and then screwing us the next moment, then apologizing for it all, and then rinsing, repeating, and rinsing again. As the Year of Mercy opened in December 2015, Francis put the Ukrainian icon Doors of Mercy on display, having in flown it in from Ukraine and reminding everyone of his sympathies with Greek Catholics. And then he turned around and signed a Joint Declaration with the Patriarch of Moscow calling Greek Catholics an ‘ecclesial community’ (which is Vati-speak for ‘Protestant’) and the Russian invasion a ‘civil war.’ And then after the Greek Catholics’ Permanent Synod visited him, he turns around and starts a humanitarian fund for Eastern Ukraine. And so on and so forth, although in the latest meeting, our Patriarch seems to have scored a goal by positing that the greatest act of uniatism in the twentieth-century was when the Moscow Patriarchate forced Greek Catholics to re-assimilate into Orthodoxy-not-in-communion-with-Rome by liquidating the Greek Catholic church. Then again, quite unlike the rest of the people in our church who are blunt as hell, our Patriarch is also very good at politics.
And then, there was the question of Hong Kong – or its retired bishop Cardinal Zen, more specifically. From the beginning, Zen was warning Francis about the People’s Republic. Don’t come, he’d say, you’ll be manipulated. Now Viganò has reminded us that McCarrick went instead. And then, the carrot-and-stick thing started for Zen. During the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Zen saw Francis in Rome, and Francis pointed to him and said that he was like one who goes after Goliath with a sling, which seemed like high praise indeed. But the next thing Zen knew was that Francis was planning to make a deal with China. By early 2016, Francis was going as far as to praise China’s rise because of the beauty of its ‘culture.’ Soon, it was revealed that Francis’s people wanted to make a deal with the Chinese government, and Cardinal Tong – Zen’s successor – described it in the pages of the local Hong Kong Catholic newspaper, the Kung Kao Po, as a plan to create a bishops’ conference in China that would include both official and underground bishops. The idea sounded simple enough – the bishops’ conference would nominate its own bishops, the government would be able to see the nominations, the Holy See would sign off, it’s what they were already doing in Vietnam already – but as Zen pointed out, the hitch was that the Chinese government intended to attend those meetings, and what’s more, it still had bishops they had locked up for not being part of the official registered church. Coinciding with Zen’s protests, Francis appointed Tong’s successor to be a guy who was even more in bed with the Chinese government, Bishop Michael Yeung. Eventually, Zen visits Francis, who tells him that he had actually told his people not to create a ‘Mindszenty situation’ (with reference to an earlier failure of Vatican Ostpolitik with Hungary), the deal falls through, around the same time the Chinese government puts on ban on travel from China to the Vatican over the question of Taiwan, and Zen reiterates that Beijing is evil. Carrot and stick indeed, with Francis having very little to show for it.
I remember voicing some confusion on my social media about all of this carrot-and-stick work that Francis was doing. A Calvinist friend of mine, whose friendship with me has been inexplicably sustained despite his complete lack of sympathy with the Latin Church and the complete oppositional nature of our politics, gave me a private interpretation that honestly blew my mind, though I did not fully agree with it. He said that I (and I thought to myself – by extension Rocha) had been reading Francis incorrectly all this time because we naïvely believed him to embrace a non-ideological politics. Of course we do, I mused to myself, we are readers of Žižek, an unspoken thought at the time that probably revealed more than I intended because it demonstrated that I was blinded by a kind of theoretical romance with Francis, and possibly Žižek too, now that all this Avital Ronell stuff is shaking out. My friend expressed to me that Francis had things to do besides fulfilling my fantasy projections of him. Fundamentally, he said, Francis is anti-American. He then elaborated that when Francis talks about going out to the peripheries, he literally means that the church is moving away from the core, which has been U.S.-centric for at least the second half of the twentieth century, and toward the periphery in the sense of the proverbial Third World of yesteryear and Global South of present discourse. What that means in practical terms, my friend continued, is that Francis needs friends who represent those peripheries as opposed to the core, and those people might include Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. But those are authoritarians, I balked, further revealing how little I think of the symbolic power of nostalgic Soviet propaganda like the Russian World and so-called South-South plans like the Belt-Road Initiative.
I am still not fully convinced by my Calvinist friend’s interpretation of Francis, but it did plant the seed for the thought that maybe my reading of Francis as non-ideological and unraveling the private consensus was probably overdetermined. As Žižek puts it (or actually, Lacan, come to think of it), ideological work is like quilting: there are all these free-floating, undetermined signifiers out there, but ideology is like the thread that quilts them all together. In an ironic twist, my reading of Francis in the terms of the private consensus is unraveling was as ideological as Rocha’s insistence that Francis was non-ideological: they quilted together a Francis of our own desires. In the same way, Francis’s way of quilting the world maybe did have something to do with this imagination of the geopolitical peripheries, but I was not sure that my friend was right in the contours of the quilt. An idea I began to play with was that Francis had become very reductionistic in his idea of the third world war fought piecemeal. I wanted to say that because Francis got that idea from Korea, he was saying that the Korean War and it having never ended meant that this third world war has been being fought since at least 1950, and I even wrote my thoughts on this blog. It was, of course, the wishful and romantic thinking of a wannabe romantic Asian American theologian (I am a geographer), because the truth was that Francis picked it up from some guy he met in Korea and turned it into an off-cuff remark that ballooned into one of those Francis phrases like who am I to judge? (which, incidentally, really seemed to be the impetus behind the Year of Mercy). What it really seemed to me, though, was that the piecemeal third world war really was about Syria, and if my friend was going to be right about the Francis-Putin alliance, it might have been over that – solidarity around the persecution of Christians, which was a major point in the Joint Declaration indeed.
One line of interpretation that I really liked centered on the most unlikely practice: that Francis carried his own bag most of the time. I read in one profile that I cannot find right now that he did it because he wanted to get the image out of the cameras of the media that Latin bishops were princes of the church. It doesn’t matter that I can’t find that piece, though, because whether or not he intended that or not, the media certainly saw it that way. The symbolic power of this gesture related to the task that had been touted for whoever was to succeed Benedict XVI in 2013: to clean up the Roman curia. Under Benedict, there had been some serious disasters – the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying schismatic priest, the Vatileaks scandal in which Benedict’s butler leaked his private papers to the press (including the letters of a man we are all very familiar with now, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò), the problems with money laundering in his own curia epitomized by the Raffaele Follieri mess that snared even Anne Hathaway’s own princess diaries (as far as the Regensburg lecture was concerned, that was all Ratzinger’s own doing, all by himself) – and that was just Benedict’s mess (John Paul II’s, most agree, was worse, and Ratzinger had reportedly been elected to clean that up). There are reports that Benedict resigned when he heard of a ‘gay lobby’ – today’s (or was it yesterday’s, if it was Greeley’s term) ‘lavender mafia’ – fully penetrating (if you will) the corridors of the Vatican, and while that rumor never convinced me about Benedict’s motivations (I am persuaded that he just wanted to grow up to be his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, finally: play his piano, play with his cats, and pray a lot), it’s harder to deny that Francis was elected to clean house.
And clean house Francis did. Who can forget what he did to the ‘Bishop of Bling,’ the German bishop who spent $43 million redesigning his house and once lit his altar on so much fire that the flames shot into the ceiling? Francis called him to Rome and
fired his ass accepted his resignation. Remember the Kansas City bishop who covered for his pervert priest taking pictures of high school girls’ crotches and was indicted along with the peeping tom? Well, he got called to Rome too, and we all knew what happened when that guy’s flight to Rome was being reported (nobody cared enough about his return flight; we all know he got sacked). Francis’s style here was the same as his oft-reported telephone calls to random people he is praying for: cleaning house means he’s the boss, which is an interesting way of describing a mode of Vatican centralization, or even papal infallibility, as One Peter Five reported (whether you believe it or not is a different story – it is, after all, One Peter Five) Cardinal Müller discovered when his term at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was not renewed (the New York Times is a little less over the top; Müller denied the report altogether). Whatever happened (some people say that Müller’s term simply expired), one can’t deny that similar things happened to other guys too: Cardinal Sarah was told to cut it out with the ad orientem thing, Cardinal Burke got demoted promoted to the Knights of Malta, Archbishop Viganò got fired as United States nuncio.
Cleaning up the Vatican is a tough job. The problem with the Roman curia, as even the above paragraph suggests, is that it’s not really just based in Rome. It is, as the economic geographers call it, a global city, with its tentacles everywhere. Somebody’s always a friend of somebody else, who knows that other dude, who knows that other guy. Francis reportedly described the job as ‘cleaning up the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush.’ To inexperienced ears, it sounds like the poor guy is having a tough time. I’m sure he is. That’s not the point.
The fact is that Francis is also a guy who knows somebody, who knows that other dude, who knows that other guy; that’s how he got elected in the first place. Cleaning up the curia is also not just cleaning up the curia. If you’re going to clean that thing up, you probably should have an idea of what you want it to look like when the smoke clears, a kind of philosophy of the Vatican, if you will. I think Francis has that, and it all comes back to the little gestures of carrying the bag, sleeping and dining in the Domae Sanctae Marthae instead of the papal apartments, and hearing confessions. On that confessional point, I was going to write a reflection once upon a time on Francis’s book for the Year of Mercy titled The Name of God Is Mercy; in fact, I gave a radio interview on my thoughts. My thoughts centered on Francis’s reframing of the job of the Bishop of Rome in a play on the title that his predecessor dropped from the styles of the Pope of Rome: the Patriarch of the West. In the Year of Mercy, it was like Francis was inviting the world, especially the West in the sense of a globalized world with its core in the Global North, to confession. He, his bishops, his priests, and even the lay faithful were instructed to listen to that hurting world, as if hearing their confession. In this sense, I thought of Francis at the time of the Year of Mercy as ‘Confessor of the West,’ with all my requisite confusions with why he was playing carrot-and-stick with the Greek Catholic bishops and Cardinal Zen.
I am glad that I never finished that piece. In fact, I have promised several friends at more than one publication over the years to write my thoughts on various aspects of Francis, often surprisingly sympathetic, and have come through on none of them. I am surprised that I still have those friends. One could even say that I was supernaturally prevented from it, as well as many other essays that I started on Francis’s pontificate, and the politics of the contemporary Latin Church more generally – because it was premised on me wishing that Francis did not have an ideology. But a vision for curia clean-up is no less ideological than my Calvinist friend’s take on Francis’s imaginary South-South alliances. Ideology, after all, is just a vision for what you’d like an institution to look like.
Francis’s vision, it has become increasingly clear, is for the Latin Church to look like ordinary joe-schmoe Catholic priest out in the world, getting dirty on the streets of the poor so that it at leasts looks like a poor church for the poor. It’s inspiring and sounds like liberation theology, and sort of is, because the Latin American bishops’ Aparecida conference document he oversaw before he became pope is also sort of liberation theology in the sense that it presents the church’s theological method as seeing a situation, judging it theologically, and acting accordingly. But if pointing out that capitalism is killing people makes him a Marxist, then so was Benedict in Caritas in Veritate, and arguably John Paul II too. In my reading, Francis’s Latin Church is not an exemplar of liberation theology, even if he did rehabilitate Gustavo Gutiérrez. Francis’s church is one that plays the part of a priest whose way of being in the world is to look as ordinary and unassuming as he possibly can, weaving himself as a friend into the fabric of the culture he is trying to quietly influence with a handshake, a caffeinated drink (maté for him, apparently), and some heartfelt conversation. While working in the Global South, Francis had a friend in the Global North who arguably shared that philosophy and did amazingly well with it too. His name is Theodore
Much has been said again about a nefarious ‘lavender mafia’ in light of the current iteration of the sex abuse crisis, though one of the main proponents of that thesis, Rod Dreher, is beginning to say that it probably really is about money, and I think the temptation there is to think of things that have to do with sex as really being about sex. I know better; I used to be Anglican. The main thing I see, for example, is the simple one-to-one correlation between most of the abuse victims being boys and men and therefore the whole thing has to do with gay priests; a more complex version of this interpretation is that it was the priests and bishops who tended to bend the rules on chastity who were the worst perpetrators and therefore, as writers associated with First Things have been saying since 2002, the church just needs to get back to what Richard John Neuhaus called ‘fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.’
That’s nice, but it also doesn’t explain the real scandal here, which is that for some inexplicable reason, cleaning up sex abuse doesn’t seem very high on Francis’s agenda to make Catholicism ordinary again. Of course, one could say that Francis did start a Commission for the Protection of Minors, with the abuse survivor advocate Marie Collins on it. The only problem is that Collins also resigned from it in 2017 because of what she called ‘cultural resistance’ in the form of saying one thing and doing another when it came to zero tolerance for clerical perpetration of sexual abuse. It came out around that time that Francis had also rolled back some sanctions against a pedophile priest named Fr Mauro Inzoli, over against the judgment of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), where the cases have been concentrated since the pontificate of John Paul II when Ratzinger was its prefect. In The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty offered his interpretation of the Inzoli case in a piece titled ‘A child abuse scandal is coming for Pope Francis,’ demonstrating that when Francis overrode the CDF, he basically passed the case to some of his buddies in the Vatican, which is to say that Francis is also somebody who knows some guy who knows that other dude who is friends with that cat.
Francis, McCarrick famously said after the 2013 conclave, would remake the church in five years. To Life Site News and its readers in light of the revelation of McCarrick’s abuses, that sounds like a sinister plot to change church teaching on sexuality, which is probably why they all seem to make up things about Fr James Martin SJ too when the real problem with Martin’s book on sexuality and the Latin Church is that it doesn’t have much of anything at all to say on the topic. I am much more of the persuasion that Cardinal Cupich’s tepid remarks about Francis having more important things to do, ‘of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church,’ told far more truth about what it means to be part of Francis’s agenda to remake the church than he wanted to tell. Francis’s plan, as far as I can tell, has very little to do (if anything at all) with changing the church’s teaching on anything from sexuality to capital punishment; frankly, you couldn’t even get that done even if you had Martin SJ as pope (Martin’s too much of a magisterium company man) – you’d need James Alison. Of course, Francis – and for that matter, Martin, and McCarrick too, before his recent demise – do want to change the church, but their ideology really is as Cupich says it is: it has to do with the environment, migrants, and other stuff the Catholic Church does when it’s not seen as rich, entitled, privileged, and not relatable to folks on the street, which is probably the real reason that the ‘Bishop of Bling,’ Burke, Sarah, and Müller all had to go. The key words in the previous sentence are seen as. It’s an image problem, as far as Francis and his friends seem to be concerned.
The church of Francis is against being ‘self-referential,’ as Francis used to always say. In Francis’s vision, the church should not be caught in its own internal debates about the Extraordinary Form, ad orientem, and other such Catholic ideologies. It should go out into the world and come back with scrapes and bruises. The problem is that Francis’s own agenda to clean up the curia and to present the church as outward focused is still an institutional one and is just as self-referential as its lace-wearing opponents, in the sense of look at us, we also care about the environment and migrants and poor people. If Francis’s agenda really wasn’t about being self-referential, he and his friends would all know that the first thing that’s been on many people’s minds when it comes to the Latin Church is whether it’s safe to bring their kids there in the first place and whether you can really become a priest in God’s house without getting hit on by creepy old men. They don’t, and that is why there is a crisis. As a number of people have been saying in these days of trouble, the real problem is that everyone forgets that it’s not really about the bishops’ politics, but about the victims – bringing perpetrators to justice, healing wounds old and new, making sure that no new victims are generated. I will go one step further: it’s because the bishops have been having politics among themselves, and themselves alone, so there is no room for victims – or any actual people who are not bishops, for that matter – on their agenda.
In order to clean up the curia in such a way that presents an image of the Church as outwardly-focused on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the piecemeal third world war, and the economic structures that foster human slavery and forced migrations, Francis has to have friends. Most of these friends are bishops. They don’t need to buy into all the parts of the ideological vision, but they do need to get behind the image. Take Cardinal Pell, for example, the guy who was supposed to clean up the Vatican’s finances but has now been inconvenienced by having to return to Australia to face charges of sex abuse in his own past. Pell is not exactly the first guy I think of when I imagine a Pope Francis Catholic – he is, shall we say, no Jim Martin SJ on the sexuality question – but he is invested in the clean-up of the Vatican, which could help with the image. The problem is that he didn’t have a clean past either, so the image didn’t take long to fall apart. Or take the affair with the Chilean bishops’ conference and Francis’s defence of Bishop Juan Barros until the very end: I would not say that the bishops of Chile are Exhibit A of any kind of liberation theology, not even Francis’s celebrity version of it, but there was the sense that Francis was annoyed with the protesters who insisted that Barros was guilty of covering for that pervert priest Fernando Karadima and wanted to get on with not being a self-referential church, which would require the ironically self-referential cooperation of the local bishops’ conference. Or let’s even take McCarrick, whose lifestyle could not be characterized as representing a ‘church of the poor,’ but did do wonders until recently with shaping the perception of the Latin Church as acceptable to liberal America, including in the 2002 Boston Globe scandal and also on immigration. And for that matter, let’s take Cardinal Mahony, erstwhile Archbishop of Los Angeles who had the gall to vote in the last conclave for Francis despite seeming to have a career of moving pedophile priests around. But he really is ok, some might say, because immigration.
In other words, if Francis really were to enforce zero tolerance and get rid of the problem bishops, he’d have no friends. Or at least he’d have no bishop friends. There would be, of course, plenty of lay people, but they of course don’t matter in this image-shaping ideology. No wonder Marie Collins resigned. And of course there is a kernel of truth to the Viganò report. It’s just that where Viganò portrays the existence of a kind of overdetermined ‘lavender mafia,’ what’s probably going on is that there has been a long standing network to give the Latin Church an image makeover so that it looks like it cares. If in reluctance we must use that dubious term lavender mafia, I’d prefer to think of this group as the Catholic equivalent of Queer Eye‘s Fab Five. Indeed, cast in that light, an image makeover is not so bad, especially when the Fab Five are also helping you discover hard truths about yourself while doing it. In many ways, then, people love the Fab Five the same way they love Pope Francis, as someone you can tell your secrets too because he’s like your friend, and he’s giving you the makeover of your life. Indeed, with both, the love has very little with anything related to gayness; it is elicited instead by the joy of telling personal truths in flamboyant ways, leading to significant lifestyle changes. The problem is that some of the people in that Francis faction, probably lots of them, have blood on their hands when it comes to sexual abuse. Ditto their opposition, probably, which is no less Queer Eye, really, when it comes to all the liturgical fanciness they prefer.
But pay attention to what Collins is saying. Quite unlike Dreher and the gaggle of anti-Francis right-wingers (Viganò included), Collins does not attribute nefarious motives to the man, or even to his entourage. Francis is also not changing church teaching – just its image – and, like Francesca Chaouqui – the lay woman who got thrown under the bus by the Vatican machine while trying to reform its finances, but still for some reason admires Francis – Collins seems to think he’s a good man caught in a bad system. That system is an institutional one, and as the philosopher Ivan Illich reminds us throughout his work, institutions produce all sorts of ideological contradictions. The Latin Church for Illich is Exhibit A of such institutional logic; Protestantism, schools, clinics, and charities are its secular forms. Francis’s vision for the Latin Church contains many of these problems. It is a self-referential church that is against being self-referential. It is a hierarchical church of the poor. It is a church of mercy, except for victims of abuse. It is a church that seeks to make a mess and where shepherds should smell like their sheep, unless you live in Ukraine or Hong Kong. It is a church that preaches against the private consensus, but is the private consensus par excellence. It is a church that refuses to reduce its faith to ideology, but is ideological in its very constitution. It is a church where your pope wants to meet you, says you’re important to God, and tells you that it’s ok to be a sinner in this field hospital of the Lord, but doesn’t specify whether you’ll be felt up while you’re a patient in it. This, then, is the Francis Ideology: an institutional church that looks non-institutional and might have been able to pull it off if only real people weren’t actually part of it.
There is a solution to this problem, and it is not that Francis should resign, at least not yet, I don’t think – unless it is confirmed that, like his brother bishop Cardinal Wuerl who voted for him, he really did know what he was doing and did it anyway. If anything at this point, I am saying that this present crisis can be the next step in his conscientization and growth in holiness, just as he had to rethink everything in the wake of Argentina’s Dirty War when he was the Jesuit superior. In fact, I have been arguing for something along these lines for all along. It is to remember that what makes the Latin Church Catholic is what makes any of the Catholic churches Catholic, and that is that, somehow, in our liturgical action as the people of God, the Lord is present. This institutional sickness suggests that the Latin Church, the birthplace of what we call secularization if Charles Taylor and the readers of his Secular Age are to be believed, has quite a ways to go in the recovery of what it means to be church. The first thing for them to realize, perhaps, is that it is a church with people in it and that they live among people in this world, some of whom even live in Ukraine and Hong Kong and are too dignified to be stooges of their elites. These people are not interested in an institutional image. If anything, the draw to the Catholic Church is that the Lord is present and that neither they nor their children nor their seminarians will not be murdered, raped, and gaslit by his servants en route to meeting him. In that light, we must most certainly care about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, forced migrants, trafficked slaves, and other victims of late capitalism too. There is an economy that kills real people. They are us, and we are them. Understanding the ontological character of solidarity is what it means in large part to be Catholic.
As a lay person in a sister church in full communion with the Latin Church, I am personally invested in that effort of ecclesial conscientization. But it cannot be merely cosmetic. The Latin faithful must be asked the question of the Second Vatican Council – Church, who are you? – and if Francis has the courage to break through his own institutional ideology, perhaps he will make good on what he promised that first night of his election on the loggia:
And now, we take up this journey: Bishop and People. This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity. It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city.
Truly, if those words were to be fulfilled, they would not be ideological. That first vision of the church when Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio stepped out onto the loggia as Pope Francis was a church with people. I wonder if returning to such ecclesial practice will be the yes that begins to unravel the knot into which his pontificate has found itself.
These thoughts represent the first report on my progress in thinking over an extended period on Pope Francis and occupy movements and include my personal process, including that they were motivated by the current abuse crisis. Such writing is only appropriate for the genre of the blog, I feel, but I hope to develop them in a more disciplined way in the future. Comments would be welcome.