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So You Want to Own the Church?

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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