We live in a material universe. Human individuals are biological organisms. They live and then they die. When they die their visions, their energy, their projects end. The only way to insure that their aspirations will continue on past their lifetimes is through the institutionalization of their intentions in the form of social structures. Society is potentially immortal; its members are not.
Society is a virtual reality. Virtual reality is what we construct with our minds; it has the reality that we give it. Even though these mental projections are invisible and have no mass or velocity, they are very real, for other socialized individuals are formed by them and translate them into visible tangible realities: work, buildings, machines, rituals, armies, cemeteries. The declarations, constitutions, laws and the decisions made by social entities, are the only way that the élan of any individual or group of individuals can live on through multiple generations. This is what it means to be human: we are what we think we are, and what we think we are is embedded in the virtualities of our social structures.
Even though they are only virtual reality, social structures obey laws that are not entirely unlike biological organisms. Evolution is one of those laws. The ongoing conversation between what our ancestors thought and what we now think, inevitably entails modulation — change. This is universal; it applies as much to the Catholic Church as to any other social institution. Who Catholics think they are — how they perceive the world around them and how they think they should behave — cannot be determined solely by the decisions of generations past. It evolves under pressure from new emergent realities, and from new knowledge about old realities. Modern Catholics are finding it increasingly difficult to understand themselves and the universe that spawned them in the terms inherited from ancient times which the Catholic “teaching authority” insists continue in force today. This intelligibility gap is threatening the ability of Catholics to identify themselves as Catholic. Many have left, and many others who continue with the Church find they are only able to do so with a host of mental reservations.
The recent efforts of the current Pope, Francis the First, illustrate the problem. His world-astounding interview, published on September 18, calling on the Church to return to gospel values and to stop “obsessing” over sexual issues, was met with near universal enthusiasm. But many question what effect such sentiments will have on the Church institution past the excitement of the moment or, assuming the Pope sustains the spirit of his remarks by personal charisma, past his lifetime.
During the last 50 years the conservative reversal of the directions laid out by Vatican II were more than a matter of the personality preferences of the popes who ruled in those years. They not only insisted on the validity of structures forged in ancient times by people whose historical mindset and cultural assumptions no longer exist, but those popes were also successful in appointing so many like-minded bishops and Cardinals (who alone elect the pope) that the entire “teaching authority,” the magisterium, now reflects those values. The personal vision, energies and projects of Francis, the current pope, even if they run deeper than a mere personal style, are necessarily confined to the limitations of his individual human organism. When he dies, the spirit he represents dies with him unless it is institutionalized in the modification of social structures. We must be honest. At this point there is no indication that Francis has any intention of doing that.
We Catholics understand this phenomenon quite well; we’ve been through it before. We are living in an era when the ultra-sacred and, we were taught, “infallible” recommendations of an ecumenical council have been thoroughly disregarded and often eviscerated by the very authorities entrusted with their implementation. Our disillusionment quickly turned to cynicism when, on re-reading the texts more attentively, we realized that the Council itself had been very careful not to challenge the continuing validity of the structures of traditional Church teaching going back to ancient times. In other words, the Council, prestigious as it was, like Pope Francis today, confined itself to recommendations that had no effect on doctrine. We all know the result of that policy. Despite the buck-stopping claim that the Council was the “voice of the Holy Spirit,” its recommendations were marginalized by the Vatican authorities whom “infallible dogmas” had intentionally placed beyond all control and accountability. The Vatican apparatus trumped the “Holy Spirit” … effortlessly. It wasn’t even a contest. The “Holy Spirit” was no match for the entrenched power of the governance structures of the Church. Francis’ charismatic “spirit” can hardly lay claim to a greater appeal than that evoked by an ecumenical council, and so he can hardly be expected to fare any better in a contest with those same ancient structures that continue to rule.
The comparison reveals the stark reality of life in a material universe. “Spirit,” whether Francis’ or the Council’s, only lives in bodies — living human organisms. If the Church structures that shape living organisms do not embody and evoke that spirit, the spirit dies. It has to. It’s the way things are. The spirit of any individual, even the spirit of Jesus’ himself, was dependent upon “taking flesh” in human society and the structures that maintained it. Francis’ “spirit” in like manner needs to take flesh in a living community of human organisms and the virtual structures that identify, sustain and protect it, or it will die.
The “re-prioritizing” that was the point of Francis’ interview should never have been necessary if the correct priorities had been maintained. How did it happen that they weren’t? Clearly the fault lies with the structures themselves which are claimed to protect Catholic values through the millennia. Their very purpose was to insure identity … precisely to prevent the loss of perspective and the distortions of inverted priorities. If the priorities were so lost that the Pope needed to scold the entire “teaching authority” for “obsessing” over the wrong things, then clearly, unless you want to make the absurd claim that all those men are morally corrupt, it is the structures themselves that are dysfunctional — inimical or irrelevant to the spirit of Jesus’ life and message, and they must be overhauled and in some cases eliminated altogether.
The “spirit” of Jesus that Francis is calling forth obviously has not been accurately identified and adequately protected by these structures inherited from ancient times. His “spirit” in other words, does not share the mindset which the traditional structures create in individual Catholics. And unless the structures evolve and change … go through a metanoia every bit as penetrating and transformative as that which pride-filled, selfish individuals pass through when they “convert” from serving their false selves to serving LIFE … the false priorities which those structures encourage or tolerate will reassert themselves in short order. They will continue to exercise their deforming power and subvert priorities as they always have.
Those who have been brainwashed into thinking the Church will be automatically protected from error are more than deluded. For the very delusion harbors the seeds of self-destruction. It encourages churchmen to believe their structures are eternal and their authority is a sacred right; they run the risk of a self-idolatry and a worship of power that is the complete antithesis of the message of Jesus. What, after all, is the obsessive condemnation of the sexual vagaries of others but the flip-side of self-righteous self-projection. What is the root of the bishops’ cover-up of predator priests but the attempt to maintain social prestige with the appearance of “holiness” while sacrificing the safety of children and refusing to admit the truth of their dysfunctional structures to the world — and to themselves. There is more than human failure here; there is also an insidious doctrine that falsely claims the Church is a “divine” institution authorized to teach the entire world and run by men who rule by divine right. These anti-gospel structures must be derogated if priorities are to be set straight again.
Francis is only an individual human being, no less dependent on the virtualities of human society than Jesus was for the diffusion and perdurance of his message. If the things Francis is talking about are not concretized in the structural changes needed to sustain them, nothing will change … and the ephemeral nature of his charisma could actually have a subversive effect; for once people realize that the Church is structurally incapable of changing its structures, and that even the charisma of a pope is powerless against it, they might lose all hope for reform. The very structures that need changing are the ones that dogmatically (and allegedly “infallibly”) preclude the possibility of change. It is the quintessential “catch-22.” Catholic identity has been wed to these claims to exclusivity and unchallengeable power guaranteed by divine infallibility for more than a thousand years. It has become clear that the spirit of Jesus and Catholic claims to preeminence as defined and protected by the dogmas and laws of the Church are mutually incompatible — they cannot live in the same organism.
A choice, therefore, will have to be made between them. But it won’t be the first time. Unfortunately, the fact that a Catholic Church with false priorities — so indicted by the pope himself — is still with us after all this time and so many attempts at reform, tells us that when confronted with the chance for conversion, the “teaching authority” of the Church has always preferred “tradition:” the bludgeon of imperial domination over the healing power of Jesus’ spirit of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
History does not bode well for what will result from this Pope’s charisma … unless he changes those structures.