On Monastic Papacies
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On the one-year anniversary of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, I felt a great silence within me. I had felt that same silence a year earlier, but then it was coupled with fear. I saw the pictures of the lightning bolt above St. Peter’s, and wondered if it was a sign that something momentous and mysterious had happened. Was this resignation God’s will? But then things stabilized, and the conclave began, as did the speculations.
I had dinner one evening with friends who were all playing the papabile game. It was a typical set of names, each signifying what we thought the Church needed, and many reflected a desire for deep continuity with Benedict, such as Scola, or Ouellet, or even Dolan. But a beloved Dominican colleague turned our conversation in a more interesting direction. He asked all of us about papal names. Not who the next Pope would be, but what name would be chosen. This was a more important question because it elevated our conversation from the very human question of “which man” to the more contemplative question of “whose man”? Everyone played this game too (I said “Gregory”), but our Dominican friend shook his head and smiled: “I think the next Pope will choose the name Francis.” We all laughed because of the almost slapstick way in which the mendicant rivalries of Dominicans and Franciscans play out in our circles. But he was serious. In praying for the conclave, this Dominican monk said he had a distinct vision, and the name just came to him. We all immediately said “O’Malley!”—thinking we were still playing at papal betting, I suppose—but the monk shook his head, and gently but firmly reiterated that he had no sense of who the man would be, only that his papal name would be Francis. I think we were all momentarily stunned by this private revelation. Could it be true? It was something to store away in the heart. What did it mean?
It got me thinking about names. And then, a couple days into the conclave, I received a phone call from NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Would I be available to speak with Melissa Block on the selection of papal names as a background segment on the conclave? I said I would, and drove down North Capitol Street to the NPR studio. On my way to the studio, the “Pope Alarm” buzzed on my phone. White smoke! I immediately thought: this is going to change the nature of this NPR interview! As soon as I walked into the studio, it was clear that everyone in the room had the same thought. They asked me to stay until the name was announced, and to help them assess its significance. I was in the right place at the right time. Like so many, we sat in Melissa Block’s office watching the television footage, awaiting any sign of the new Pope. The research staff was on stand-by, with files on all the major candidates, ready to prep us for the coverage. And then we heard the name, “Bergoglio.”
Bergoglio? Melissa Block turned to me and said, “Do you know him?” No idea, I said. “Do we have a file on him?” No we do not, they said. The researchers burst into three different directions at once, and came back within five minutes with several articles on Bergoglio for us to read. We both read quickly. What is the significance of this, and what is the significance of that? First Pope from the Americas, first Jesuit Pope, but most importantly, first Pope Francis. What did that mean? I had, in a sense, been prepared, by God’s grace, and a Dominican friar, to answer that question.
In the interview I stressed three things that we could expect from a Jesuit choosing the name Francis: (1) that he’d be a Pope who identified with the poor, with the weak over the strong; (2) that he’d be a Pope known for “receptivity” to every human life as a gift from God, which I said was indicated most dramatically when he asked for the prayers of the people, and waited in humble silence for them as every knee was bowed; (3) that his papacy might refresh the connection between the new evangelization and Catholic social teaching, that his teaching would hearken back to Leo XIII’s teachings in Rerum Novarum, in which the ordinary worker was protected against the abuses of the economically powerful.
The last point—identifying Francis with Leo XIII—was especially designed to complicate what I also knew would be a dominant narrative, namely that Francis would be seen as a “progressive.” The NPR researchers had presented us with a fairly conservative picture of Bergoglio, but I knew that behind every proper recognition of the mendicant nature of Franciscan monasticism, there was a powerful modern narrative that identified Franciscans with a Whiggish view of history (drawing on one heretical aspect of the Franciscan tradition that followed Joachim de Fiore). The power of that whiggish narrative has played out, more or less, the way I thought it would. Yet I knew it was untrue. I knew that the narrative about “change” was driven much more by the historical calculus of political liberalism than it was driven by any actual understanding. So I have spent much of the last year thinking about why we have viewed these two Popes through this lens. What follows is a thought experiment along those lines.
At some point, I started to think about the relationship between the Benedictine resignation and the Franciscan ascendance in light of their namesakes: St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi. These two Popes each signify different modes of apostolic existence that do have a certain kinship with their saint names, each of which represent monastic traditions that subsist in the great Tradition. What I want to suggest is how these two saints, and two Popes, correspond to two different philosophical modes of reflection on the modern intellectual challenges to the new evangelization: namely, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. I want to reflect on MacIntyre as philosophically “Benedictine,” and on Taylor as philosophically “Franciscan”—in order to shed some light on the kind of questions this symposium asks: Do we have a Benedict Option, and a Francis Option? What do we mean by “options”? Does philosophical reflection on these two monastic papacies help us think about the unique challenges of the Church’s mission in our time?
One might call Alasdair MacIntyre a theorist of communal survival. In After Virtue, he famously argues that we have experienced something catastrophic, the loss of a substantive and coherent account of the virtues, and that this leaves us with a stark choice.
If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (p. 245).
Compare that with the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world (Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, 16).
In both MacIntyre and Ratzinger, we see a Benedictine vision. Both the philosopher and the theologian see that, for all its benefits, something catastrophic has happened in modernity. For MacIntyre it is the eclipse of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of the virtues in a brave new Nietzschean world. For Ratzinger it is the idea of whole cultures so ordered to Christ that they might rightly be described as Catholic—and in another place, it is “the dictatorship of relativism” which has abolished tolerance in the name of tolerance, which has abolished universal truth claims in the name of an absolutist truth claim. For both men, it is a vision of survival in a world that seems to be darkening—which seems to be excluding not only Christian faith, but demanding that the Catholic faith conform to something “more universal.”
Is it any surprise that both men will give a mustard seed response? That they will look to the early days of Christian monastic existence that, in its ostensible cloister, paradoxically preserved the whole world?What matters now for MacIntyre is the preservation of local forms of community in which the tradition of the virtues can be lived and preserved, in which it can be handed down, to be recovered by the larger culture at some later point in time. In Ratzinger as well, there is the vision of the Church as a “creative minority,” as salt and light, as small or even imperceptible, but the secret heart of the goodness of the world healed, preserved, and illumined.
But when MacIntyre says we are waiting for another “doubtless very different” Saint Benedict, we know what he means. MacIntyre points us to the father of western monasticism because he sees him as an exemplar of a form of living the virtues that has survived moral entropy and social decadence before. Yet the conditions are different from the darkening of the pagan world. This is the darkening of a post-Christian world, a world that seeks re-paganization but will never attain it because Christianity cannot be undone. The need for a “very different” Benedict is a recognition that the challenges are different. In the vision of both men, the long range prognosis for modern liberal orders is that they are profoundly illiberal, and intolerant, of those communities formed in the virtues. For both, the Benedictine “option” isn’t really an option because it is simply living in contrast to the regimes of a false universal. This is sometimes cast by critics in a kind of “apocalyptic” mood. But it is not. The long range vision is hope for the world. Hope in history. They are profoundly hopeful about modes of communal existence, and modes of ecclesial existence, that are resilient. Benedictine monasticism, whether philosophically or theologically considered, is not a withdrawal from the world. It is not a retreat from it. It is not a relativistic slide into “incommensurability,” but an honest recognition that Christianity authentically and apostolically lived presents our contemporary world with a profound contrast and, frankly, a challenge. In this sense, both MacIntyre and Pope Benedict see the Benedictine contrast as preservative of the very possibility of a renewal of humanity from within and from without.
The story is different with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor attends to the conditions that have changed, conditions that might require “a very different” Benedict. The fundamental question Taylor asks is: why was it relatively easy to believe in God in the year 1500 but is relatively difficult in the year 2000? Taylor challenges the nineteenth century “secularization thesis,” which posited that the rise of the secular would entail the decline of religion. He does not see it this way. Rather, Taylor sees that the “very different” St. Benedict may look a lot like St. Francis.
As Taylor tells the story, “the years after 1000 see steady growth of a widely popular, specifically Christocentric spirituality…in practices of identification with his suffering” which he finds exemplified in the life of St Francis, especially the stigmata of Francis (Taylor, 64). Especially in the mendicants, but also in the practices of lay people, Taylor sees these “movements from below” as somewhat destabilizing for the hierarchical church. Monastic movements had “tended to focus on the cloister” but in the late twelfth century Taylor sees people “crying out for a new mode of apostolic existence within the world and indeed for the world …Some of these movements ended up turning heretical … others revolutionized the life of the Church, notably the new orders founded by Francis and Dominic” (Taylor, 93). These movements stressed Christ as “our brother” (indeed, the very name “friar” comes from the Latin frater for “brother”), as a brother very near to us, as a neighbor among us. Taylor calls this reform an “evangelical turning” to bring Christ among the great variety and detail of “real contemporary people.”
St. Dominic largely drops out of Taylor’s narrative (Taylor studiously avoids all mention of St. Benedict), but St. Francis of Assisi remains central throughout. Why? Taylor sees Francis as typical of the sainted monk who goes into the wilderness to “befriend” the “otherwise dangerous animals.” That is a typically modern way of viewing St. Francis—the peace-prayer Francis, the bird on the shoulder Francis. But he also attends to the danger, to the suffering, to the stigmata of Francis that can only be intelligible as a life lived in conformity to Christ crucified. In this way, the secular is seen as the desert, the time and place of temptation and danger for the Christian (“lead us not into temptation”), but in Taylor’s view, St. Francis shows us that this is precisely where the Christian is meant to stand as a witness to the truth that God can be worshipped in the desert, too (for only he can “deliver us from evil”).
Yet Taylor is circumspect whether St. Francis of Assisi can be understood in modernity—and one could extend this to Pope Francis as well. There is something about modernity that forces us to toggle between two ways of beholding Francis that speaks to the conditions of belief in our “secular age”: “There seem to be two very different stances in our civilization, which one can describe both as tempers and outlooks. What does one think of Francis Assisi, with his renunciation of his potential life as a merchant, his austerities, his stigmata? One can be deeply moved by this call to go beyond flourishing … or one can see him as a paradigm exemplar of what Hume calls ‘the monkish virtues,’ a practitioner of senseless self-denial and a threat to civil mutuality” (Taylor, 431).
That is, Taylor thinks we live in a world of “optionality” in which we often toggle between either a “transformation” or “immanence” outlook—or to borrow from another discourse, being on pilgrimage or at home in the world. We can view Francis—the saint or the Pope—as an apostolic existence that challenges our own, or we can simply make him a kind of satirical monk, one who does not really challenge us at all, or whose challenge we refuse to hear as anything other than senseless self-denial. That pretty much explains divergent views of both the saint and the Pope in modernity. But it doesn’t explain what Taylor is after in his massive tome.
As I’ve noted, Taylor does not believe the secularization thesis concerning religious decline. Rather, he views “religious aspiration” as a constant. Religion is not in decline, it has as a “new placement,” and our secular age is one in which we have found “new ways of existing both in and out of relation to God” (Taylor, 437). Rather than the toggle view of optionality, Taylor is taken with the idea of “different speeds” of the “experience of fullness” (Taylor is subjectively interested in degrees of participation in a common human experience, where MacIntyre is more objectively interested in the way in which lived traditions shape our experience of the world). Once again, St. Francis is central to Taylor’s account. He places the visions of the mystics in the highest speed, or in the closest contact with this “fullness,” and most exemplary of these mystics in Taylor’s view of Francis of Assisi. Why? Precisely because his experience is not ecstatic but incarnational. He is not moved by a “kind of vision of God’s power ‘out there’ … but [he is moved more intimately by] the heightened power of love itself which God opened to him … as a participation in God’s love” (Taylor, 729).
Someone at a lower speed, in what he calls “the middle condition,” could be drawn to such a saintly life even if they do not themselves live that sort of life. And this, he says, is the kind of life most of us live, “suspended between two infinities,” suspended between the natural and the supernatural. So what makes Francis of Assisi Taylor’s hero? Francis is the exemplar who shows that it is possible to break open an exclusive humanism through what Flannery O’Connor called the “grotesque”—“an extreme image” that helps connect our desire for the Holy with an everyday life that breathes disbelief. (Taylor, 732)
In this sense, Taylor might offer a compelling interpretation of Pope Francis as well. Taylor is certainly concerned with an “exclusive humanism” that would indeed mean dark days ahead for Christians. But his project is intent on forestalling that as an inevitability. And in this sense, Taylor and MacIntyre share something very fundamental in common: the virtue of hope in a fallen world. While I am much more MacIntyrean in my own outlook, Taylor’s vision is not incompatible with it. MacIntyre’s desire for local forms of community that live the tradition of the virtues cannot be seen as sealed-off from the world—this was often how MacIntyre’s use of the world “incommensurable” was interpreted, and was often how Ratzinger’s smaller, purer church was interpreted. Rather, the local forms that MacIntyre and Benedict envision are conversant with the city. This was always the strength of monastic forms of life. They lived according to a rule, they lived a life of ordered obedience (Franciscans as much as Dominicans, as much as Benedictines). But they also lived a life of mercy, of caring for the poor, of healing the sick, of educating the young. They cultivated pathways between the cloister and the city that made the Gospel credible in the world—even when they were in the desert.
Returning to Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, people of faith can say that they are both Peter. They both are charged with guarding the deposit of Faith as well as proclaiming it. They themselves are sainted monks who live the tradition of the infused virtues, and point us to our need for God’s grace, love and mercy.
The correlation with MacIntyre and Taylor breaks down. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are not divided by philosophical outlooks, as helpful as they may find them. They enjoy a deeper unity, not only as they share in the same Petrine ministry, but as they are conformed to Christ. Like those sainted monks who stand at the ancient and medieval roots of western civilization, they not only keep open the trails between the cloister and the city, but they descend and ascend alike on the same ladder of Christ whose sacrifice manifests God’s love and mercy on a Roman cross.
Perhaps in a way that the secular narratives have not considered, these two monastic papacies have been about “change.” If we can see past the “optionality” of Benedict and Francis, perhaps we can see the deeper truth that the change each of them represents is not the change from one to the other, but the change they both seek for each of us. They both call us to repentance. They both call us to conversio. They both know that it is only by turning to face Truth Itself that we truly can be changed.
When the emptiness of political rhetoric dissipates, perhaps we can see that these monastic papacies each point to the same kind of change. Neither liberal nor conservative, Pope Francis sees change in eternal terms. Like his favorite painting of the conversion of Saint Matthew, Pope Francis believes in change ordered to Christ in whom we ourselves may hope for transfiguration. That is what makes him so radical, and that is what should make each of us so hopeful.