So You Want to Own the Church?

Andrew M. Haines
By | December 29, 2013

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Thomas Peters wrote recently that “the soul of [the Franciscan] papacy is up for grabs.” If that’s true, it’s a gambit long in the making, but perhaps only recently matured enough to identify. With the middle clearing fast, and with “dissenting Catholics” poised to snag leadership of both Christianity’s evangelical and spiritual traditions, the “soul of the papacy” proxies for something far greater—namely, possession of the Church herself.

While much truth shines through Peters’s claim, the ultimatum suggested is misleading. We should always, of course, “put our money where our mouth is […] show our compassion for the poor with concrete acts […] show how much we care that we are catholic and how much that reality forms who we are and inspires what we do.” As Peters says, “That’s the choice we face in 2014 and always.” And there’s nothing to quibble with, here.

But that somehow the perennial Christian struggle includes laying claim to the Church itself is, I think, more than a bit alarming. In fact, the very idea that someone should “own” the Church stands at odds with Francis’s entire program. I can’t help but wonder if the realization proposed above is really just another manifestation of the abiding urge to remove the Bishop of Rome from the mix once and for all. Francis has been thoroughly assimilated by those for whom toleration is the highest virtue; he has also been roundly rejected by those who praise fierce competition as the cornerstone of prosperity. In a word, the Holy Father has been reduced to a non-factor by those who pay most attention to him. And to the unaffected middle, such a triumph has been communicated on the cover of TIME.

I don’t impute to Peters all—or perhaps any—of this. I suspect that he, like many others, is searching honestly for a solution to the Gordian Knot of a pope who preaches Christianity in the midst of a world—and especially an America—that has excised such a category from its memory. Nevertheless, the ultimatum to “grab” at Francis’s purportedly vacant chair is false; even dangerously so, since it accurately represents what many take to be the unassailable truth.

On the contrary, it’s possible (and I would say even probable) that this papacy offers another way forward—one geared directly against a polarized modernity that has eluded some of the sharpest minds of our time, and which has metastasized to deadly levels in our society and culture. For the first time in a great while—perhaps even in our lifetime—an opportunity has arisen to attack the malignancy at its core, and to produce a radical, universal remedy against its re-introduction to the organism. (This doesn’t mean indestructibility or perfect health, of course, only the death of one disease, albeit a chronic and consuming one. And it most assuredly does not mitigate the impact of previous popes, who have, according to Francis, very much paved the way for his own apostolate.)

If modernity is characterized by “grabbing,” either on the part of the liberated state or individual, then the hallmark of true Christianity is subsistence. The Church is, in the words of the Holy Father, a grande fratellanza—a “great brotherhood”—the needs of which are provided for not by power plays and ahistorical avarice, but by cooperation and caritas. As such, the message of Christianity is nothing other than an affirmation of the centrality of such organization for true happiness and beatitude. And its practice is an unflinching charity toward the poor and downtrodden.

In a word, the Franciscan way is the nemesis of malignant modernity, precisely because it operates on the tumor swiftly and undetected. It is a glowing blade that cauterizes as it cuts, giving the perception of warmth while severing cleanly. Its single stroke is not deterred by movements toward the right or left; both are rendered raw and scarred, since both are attached to the disease.

To own the Church, as Francis is showing us, is not to own the organism under attack and in need of healing, but rather to act as doctor. A doctor knows what health entails: he reads, studies, and teaches of healthy lifestyles and healthy habits. Yet as surgeon, he is concerned less with knowing about health and more with producing it. His actions are imbued with ages of knowing, but they are performed instinctually. If he seems ‘uncertain’, ‘weak’ or ‘sloppy’ in his treatments, it’s not because he fails to understand what’s required, but because his certainty is thorough and non-linear—focused on an objective rather than a method.

If the soul of this papacy is up for grabs, then the one who owned it before has lost his grip. The Holy Spirit, from what I hear, is impressively dexterous. And that stinging sensation you feel isn’t due to his bad aim.

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  • robert

    “…but because his certainty is thorough and non-linear—focused on an objective rather than a method. Precisely! The press loves to talk about Pope Francis’ “approach” or “methods” as though he were working through a Peter Drucker or William Demming textbook. The Pope is not applying some management manual, but is being used by the Holy Spirit. This is neither a change in style as some on the right would say or a change in management method. It is a way being! It is his Charism as a priest , bishop and now Pope. The Church, as you argue, cannot be possessed. But its earthly leader, the Vicar of Christ, is being led by the Spirit, not an ideology, left, right, or center. When we are all possessed by the Spirit, we are truly One, not Jew nor Greek, nor left or right. We cannot own the Church as members of a faction, but Christ in us can possess us and make us His One Body. Let us pray we have the courage to be possessed by Him and let Pope Francis be lead by the Holy Spirit without attempting to own and possess the Pope for our own petty and small vision of the Church.

  • Jonathan

    “The Pope is not applying some management manual, but is being used by the Holy Spirit.”

    That the Pope is “used by” (or even, as some have said, “chosen by”) the Holy Spirit is problematic, to my mind. I believe that the only thing that the Holy Spirit absolutely guarantees is that the Pope will be free of heretical error in his guidance of the Church. As to whether the Pope will be guided in all ways by the Holy Spirit or be chosen by the Holy Spirit, I must go with this commentary:

    “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined….There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”

  • GNW_Paul

    Your comment is technically correct in the absolute sense, but still misses the mark. Yes, the only guarantee in the articles of Faith is that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church (and the Pope) from teaching error. However, you seem to be reducing the power of the Holy Spirit preventing error alone. If such were the case how could we love the Church as our Mother?

    Certainly we do not have a guarantee that every Pope is “chosen by the Holy Spirit” or that the College of Cardinals are prevented from thwarting the Holy Spirit’s choice. Having watched the coverage before, during and after the conclave I submit that in general the cardinals did look to the Holy Spirit for guidance, and sought seriously to follow the will of the Holy Spirit. My personal, subjective feeling in prayer and in seeing Francis in his Papacy is that this is indeed the providence of the Holy Spirit.

    Now of course, none of that guarantees that this is indeed what God intended, but I find it disheartening that so many seem to be so willing to circumscribe the power of the Holy Spirit just because they feel like things aren’t going the way they personally want them to go.

  • Kevin

    What I don’t get and wish some one would help me understand is Francis said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

    If Francis is fair he would also have to say, ““If someone is slave owner and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

    Or “If someone is racist or child molester and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

    This is moral relativism at it’s most destructive.

    Francis also said we should “stop obsessing” about abortion.

    We have 8-10 million children murdered by abortions every year.

    If Francis said in 1942 we should “stop obsessing” about the people murdered in the concentration camps wouldn’t this be moral relativism again?

  • An Van Vu

    I agree with Paul. The Holy Spirit essentially is positive. He preserves but mainly inspires.

  • Talma

    Kevin, You are absolutely right about moral relativism. But what has not been stated is no gay person seeks out the Lord or has good will. They are dead in sin and haters of God. So the Pope is missing the mark on gay and abortion issues because of wrong theology. The Pope will eventually throw away doctrine and embrace the social gospel which is not a gospel at all.

  • Kevin,
    You are making the same mistake the media has made.
    When the Holy Father was speaking about those of a same sex attraction he was not confirming them in their sin. ” If one has good will and is searching the Lord ” is not a description of a typical gay lifestyle. If they are truly following our Lord then they are pursuing a celebate life.

  • John

    Kevin and Talma, please read the actual quote from Pope Francis. I think it speaks for itself.
    “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
    The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed
    insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
    For the entire text of this interview, visit

  • TeaPot562

    Consider a context for the comment: “But who am I to judge?”
    Certain behavior – adultery, murder, child rape, bestiality – is objectively morally disordered (“evil” is the traditional expression.). However, both since we are NOT God and because we are all sinners, and need to be forgiven;
    we are not in a position to judge whether the person who has committed one of these acts will eventually repent and be forgiven, or will finally be damned. Since we are not in a position to judge that person’s final destination, “Who am I to judge?” seems appropriate.
    Does this make sense?

  • TomD

    @ Talma: “. . . no gay person seeks out the Lord or has good will. They are dead in sin and haters of God.”

    While homosexual acts are gravely disordered, and the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered, the fact that a person is gay does not prevent them from seeking out the Lord with good will, if they resolve to live chastely and follow God. This is the theology of the Church that the Catechism teaches (CCC 2357-2359).

    We must always strive to clearly make the distinction between acts, inclinations, and the person. All persons are sinners, committing acts and harboring inclinations that are disordered and sinful, but all persons are capable of seeking out God. God calls all of us to Him.

    “Homosexual persons are called to chastity . . . they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (CCC 2359).

  • TomD

    @TeaPot562: I think you’re on to something, and it is due, in part, to our confusion about the modern usage and context of the word “judge.”

    In the Old Testament, to judge, or judgment, was something equivalent to “to determine or pronounce a person’s guilt or innocence after inquiry and deliberation.” However, and especially in the modern sense, to judge means “to form an opinion through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises.”

    Ultimately, only God judges in the OT religious sense and Jesus was reminding his followers of this when he said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” I do not believe that Jesus was admonishing us not to form opinions about right and wrong behavior, even strong opinions, as St. Paul certainly did his fair share of that. Jesus was primarily admonishing us not to presume to know or determine a person’s guilt before God.

    But at the same time, and in the fully Christian sense that perhaps Pope Francis meant, we should also be very circumspect about forming opinions of other people, since we are all sinners. This is not to condone disordered or sinful behavior, only to caution us in forming opinions of other people.

  • Katholikos

    Isn’t it amazing how many people have misunderstood what Pope Francis said in that interview? Those who think his comments mean that he will order Catholic priests to “marry” same sex couples or that abortion will no longer be called a sin must not know what the Church teaches and certainly didn’t listen carefully enough to what the Holy Father said. It’s particularly sad that some Catholics are so upset about it — or so thrilled at the idea that the Church will change moral teachings. They should know what the Catechism says about people who are homosexual, which is that they are children of God like all people and should be loved and respected as such. Pope Francis went no farther than that in what he said.

    The Catechism goes on to state clearly the grave sinfulness of sexual acts between two people of the same sex, just as Pope Francis went on to state that he is “a son of the Church” which should have made it clear that he won’t be changing any moral doctrines.

    The sentence he ended with “Who am I to judge?” reminded me of a time I was in a position to ask myself that. Before Mass, I saw that a couple I’d known slightly for many years would be in “my” line to receive the Body of Christ. I liked them and thought they were good people but since both are men, I had a moment of panic about giving them Communion. Then it struck me that their relationship could be chaste and that I’d surely given Communion to adulterers,
    thieves, and more…