Pope Francis and the End of the Theologian-King

Running around circles that includes systematic theologians I know a fair few converts to Catholicism. Systematic theologian often means a late convert, usually white and usually male, who got really into Communio (the link is for those who have no idea what I’m talking about). And many of these converts fervor for Catholicism either began or was deepened because of the Papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. These converts told themselves a story where the modern world was descending into chaos and despair because of the failures of the modern project and in this story it was only the Roman Catholic Church that could resist this descent. Pope Benedict XVI stood as the symbol of that resistance, a “real theologian” that would reinstate a radically orthodox, third way between laissez-faire capitalism and the welfare state. And I say radically orthodox not to overstate the power of those who align themselves with John Milbank and a book series (as he does like to overstate that power), but to say that the reactionary logic of those who write under the banner of Radical Orthodoxy is part of a more general reactionary idealist move in theology we also saw in Pope Benedict XVI.

Both in his theological work before becoming Pope and in his encyclicals Pope Benedict XVI exhibited this idealist fantasy of material reality following ideas. Such a fantasy is very useful for an organization that needs to police ideas in the form of doctrine and canon law and so making such a fantasist head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes perfect sense. In that role he was tempered dialectically by Pope John Paul II, who could be described as more politically astute in his spirituality. Perhaps the most humorous example of Pope Benedict XVI’s idealist approach to doctrine can be found in Caritas in veritate where he claims that “In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society.” The overall moral tenor of society ends up being a generally pro-life approach to the world which condemns making birth “artificial”. Immediately contradicting himself when he goes on to say that “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.” The book of nature is one, but somehow excludes the artificial while being allowed to include all sorts of abstractions. I do agree that the nature is one, but the incoherent naturalism of natural theology is on full display here; a real “naturalism” would have to accept abstractions and the artificial which would mean nature does not provide us with a secure foundation for ethics. Perhaps the most condemning example of this reactionary idealist logic is on display in Benedict’s (then Ratzinger) condemnation of liberation theology in the 1980’s when left-wing priests, nuns, and laypeople were being murdered by US funded death squads. A perfect example of thinking that material reality would follow ideas leading to disastrous material results. I doubt that Pope Benedict XVI had any particular desire for these priests, nuns, and laypeople to die, but at the end of the day it is the ideas that matter and so the modernizing aspects of liberation theology appeared as more of a threat to the “overall moral tenor” of Latin America than the actual murder and oppression of Latin Americans. All of this is setting aside that one of Pope Benedict XVI’s criticisms, specifically that the atheism of Marxism made it inappropriate to be used in theological reflection, was incoherent even from the perspective of the Roman Catholic theological tradition which always included non-Christian sources. Ivan Petrella makes this point in one of his books. During a hearing to decide if Leonardo Boff would be officially silenced, Boff pointed to a lattice window in the Vatican and said “Cardinal, you cannot look at liberation theology through a window like this, where it is framed in little lead squares. You have to go and feel what it’s like to be poor. That’s where this theology is made, it’s the cry of the poor.” Benedict was then invited to come visit the slums of Brazil and his response was truly reprehensible, saying that his duty was to the universal church. Another abstraction.

I think it is safe to say that Benedict’s reign as theologian-king failed, as Catholicism continues to decline in the places it was once very powerful. In Europe and North America much of this had to do with the child abuse scandal and there Benedict did not adequately address the issues or even began to think what the problem might actually be. Again, he defaulted to the idealist notion that this was a problem of ideas — gay ideas! And insultingly he put out a directive to root out as many seemingly gay priests from the seminaries as possible, without noting any difference between homosexuality and pederasty. I have to wonder what the converts are going to do now, what new fantasies are going to have to be constructed in order to sustain this form of life. Perhaps even Benedict had to recognize his failure, in the same way Rowan Williams did in the Anglican Church, and step down from the throne.

Pope Francis is clearly not a theologian-king. We can make a distinction between the kind of theological work done by Benedict and that done by Francis prior to becoming Pope in so far as Benedict’s was far more respectably academic. What little Francis wrote before becoming Pope is incredibly pastoral and more pragmatic than systematic. In some ways he is likely to be closer to the theology of Rahner than to Balthasar. Rahner’s work is also characterized by a certain pragmatic spirit, attempting to push forward here and there and to conserve elsewhere. But it is at the social level we see that played out the most, a certain openness to being influenced and in conversation with others who do not fit well into the doctrinally rigid categories. This is why we have seen Francis express openness to those who declare themselves “spiritual but not religious”, along the same lines as Rahner’s anonymous Christians. He has also expressed, both in his role in Argentina, willingness to bend rules. There is some suggestion that he would have supported same-sex unions, provided they were not called marriage, which, while I disagree with it, is at least reasonable since the status of marriage and its relationship to the State is far from clear in the contemporary world.

Thus far Francis has appeared to be unconcerned with a systematic, theological vision built upon academic abstractions. It would be easy to celebrate this and my use of the usually derogatory term “academic abstractions” might suggest that’s my leaning. But my issue is not with academic abstractions, so much as bad academic abstractions like the idealist ones we find in Benedict. Undoubtedly Francis will be subject to abstractions, but these will be more diffuse and more difficult to analyze than Benedict’s. This could be good in so far as it may free Francis up to make room for the active or creative powers in Catholicism. But it also means that Francis will continue to surprise, as he has surprised and shocked conservatives, but also as he is sure to disappoint liberals (i.e. the decision to continue the crackdown on American nuns). The lack of a systematic theology just means that the direction of and possibilities for his papacy are unclear. Even if he is not a theologian-king, he is still a Pope.

16 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the End of the Theologian-King

  1. It’s an idealist approach to say that education and economic politics are insufficient without considering what people generally do (i.e., the moral tenor of a society)?

  2. “Idealist fantasy of material reality following ideas” is an absolutely gorgeous expression. I think this fantasy is rife throughout academic leftism overall. It’s particularly clear in cultural Marxism, as well as those descended from Althusser’s Marxism. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow it.

  3. That’s what’s going on in Caritas in Veritate. In section 51, from which you quote, Benedict is identifying a “grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today.” The “moral tenor” he’s identifying as important is explicitly on the side of practice, not ideas.

  4. I’m not contrasting practice to ideas, I’m contrasting dealing with material reality to the idealist notion that reality is dependent upon abstractions rather than vice versa. Just because one says “I’m talking about practice” does not mean that one is in fact talking about practice. So, all of the practices that Benedict talks about in Caritas in veritate are subject to abstractions primarily (family being chief among them). I am fairly certain you’re just looking for a fight though, so please feel free not to comment here after this.

  5. I like the observation in your post that the lack of an ideology (er, systematic theology) is not exactly a clear improvement on the having of a bad one. It doesn’t make one better, just less predictable.

    I also like your diagnosis of Benedict’s attitude as an “idealist fantasy.” It strikes me as an extension of the “ecclesiolae in ecclesia” idea, which is an idealist attempt at solving the problems of the “visible” church’s contradictions by postulating an invisible spiritual church within the visible one. By clinging to this unfalsifiable assertion, one can always explain failures in practice (say horrific sex-abuse scandals as per your example) with some kind of appeal to the visible/invisible distinction. But then the idealist purity is besmirched by the kind of arguments that (I think) show what a sham the technique is in the first place: the invisible defect (of ideas) in the abusive priest is a consequence of the priest’s material way of being (his sexual orentation). To the idealist fantasist this probably seems like some sort of coup, “look, I can get two birds with one pebble — i can dump on pederasty and homosexuality at the same time!” To everyone else it should sound like, “look, my reason for condemning this one thing is the fact that I spuriously connect it to this other thing which I also condemn; and at the same time I think that my practical condemnations in general are just purely consequences of my theology!”

    So is the pragmatic, non-systematic theologian style of Francis supposed to be escaping this ridiculous idealist fantasy, I wonder, by a flight to the “pastoral” — ie., the condemning of things straight up rather than trying to finneigle a theological veneer for one’s reactionary positions? That’s like Republicans saying all they need to do to win votes from women, hispanics, etc. is say the same old shit only door-to-door this time. All the Church needs to do is stick to the same positions only put them pastorally rather than theologically…

    Good post.

  6. Re: “Idealist fantasy of material reality following ideas” – I do think Benedict’s early obsession with Gadamer and appropriation of hermeneutics as an anti-method is lurking below the surface here. I’ve just been doing some work on Charles Taylor’s gradual deterioration into ultra-Catholic RO-lite, and I have this vague hunch of the sort: ‘all hermeneutics leads to Benedict XVI’.

  7. @Dan: I think the Habermas-Benedict exchange showed that the pope’s adoption of hermeneutics was a bit half-hearted. It seems to me that hermeneutics, when given a social theoretic flavoring (of the sort Habermas gave it following Schutz), tends in the direction of discourse ethics. Which is opposed to Benedict’s insistence on a sort of normative anthropology. From what I understand Benedict also just shamelessly used the label of hermeneutics to roll back as much of Vat. 2 as he could (RCs needed a “hermeneutics of continuity” I believe he said).

  8. But I don’t actually know anything about Benedict’s “early obsession with Gadamer,” so I probably shouldn’t be commenting on your comment as if I knew. Sorry.

  9. No, you should!! Because that’s really helpful Robert. I guess I’m just very half-heartedly wondering myself whether Benedict in the end is the more authentic hermeneut than Habermas, i.e. the normative anthropology reveals the hidden truth of what hermeneutics is after… Or something! (Anyway, the Gadamer obsession is pretty obvious in the Eschatology book, for instance.)

  10. @larvalsubjects

    This critique has been going around leftish academic blogs for a few years already. And just like anything else going around those blogs it left “materiality” pretty much intact.

  11. @ Dan, ‘normative anthropology reveals the hidden truth of what hermenutics is after.’ I love it. My acquaintance with Gadamer is shamefully thin, but I’d buy that for more than a dollar as a description of the underpinnings of Heidegger’s project (which a whole lot of French people subsequently tried desperately to convince themselves wasn’t what was going on there).

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