I was in St. Peter's Square when John Paul II died—one of those moments that changes the world and your life forever.
Later that week, I marched through the same piazza at dusk—slowly—behind a column of Polish soldiers on the final day of public viewing. (By that point, the ushers near the rails of the Confession were wearing down, and we were allowed to linger almost endlessly.) That night, I slept on the cobblestones of Via della Conciliazione, forced to relocate a few times by news crews and bright lights until finally settling in with a throng of chattering pilgrims.
I stood just north of the obelisk at his funeral—after nearly suffocating in the press of a crowd when the gates finally opened at dawn. I shared a three-foot-by-three-foot patch of cobblestone with a friend, a father, a little boy, and a Polish man named Robert. The latter is a mechanic, and I know nothing else about him; but I still think of him often.
Two weeks later, I was in the same square, but on significantly different terms. My near suffocation this time was the result of sprinting almost ten blocks from the Lungotevere in Prati at first news of white smoke. This time, I only got as close as the colonnade (still on Vatican territory by about two feet). Yet my view of the center loggia was unobstructed, as was my joy at that now-famous utterance: Josephum.
And all of this at the ripe old age of nineteen.
I had apparently picked a good semester to study abroad. And, of course, it would never be enough. About two years later I returned to Rome to study theology, and I lived there for another year. There are stories to fill a book, and maybe someday they will. The most important thing is that Rome, to me, is still a home. It's been etched onto my heart by life changing—even world changing—events, many more personal and powerful than that book could ever contain.
It's a similar thing, I suspect, that happened to Jorge Mario Bergoglio as he emerged on the Loggia delle Benedizioni on March 13, 2013. He, too, was an outsider, and his stunned, motionless, and unceremonious expression made that completely obvious. The first read, of course, was that Bergoglio was outmatched, both by the job and by his predecessors—perhaps the most ironic judgment of the century. I can only imagine what was actually going on in that moment: he was overwhelmed by the reality that confronted him; he gazed upon the City as it gazed upon him; he presented himself to it, as bishop and father, and demanded its first obedience be an act of piety on his behalf. (Make no mistake, his request for prayers could not be left unheeded, and though meekly requested it was an imperative with weight like none other.)
In that brief second of silence, Pope Francis became a Roman.
The interesting thing is that for most new "citizens," like me, Rome is primarily mater mundi—a persona and force that sparks change, growth, zeal, and understanding. For Francis this is true, too, but something more must be said: namely, that Rome is also (as the relief on his cathedral reminds us) omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum [...] caput. From the "outside" these two names appear similar, and even function similarly. Across the board, the City is the cause of one's being "Roman." From the Chair of Peter, though, the City is the head of the entire Body of Christ, and the one who sits on it shares in the power of that causality.
While Roma mater mundi is limited to those who are already Romans—those who are part of "the world," and who share its culture, values, and traditions—Roma caput omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum is universal. It is both of these that claimed Francis a year ago this week, and understanding that is incredibly useful in our efforts to "read" and react to his papacy at present.
The purpose of the current symposium at Ethika Politika is to explore the connection between Francis, Benedict, and the moral philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre. So far, three excellent analyses have emerged: by C.C. Pecknold, John Haldane, and Sam Rocha, respectively. Each of these has emphasized something of the relationship between Francis and Benedict (either the popes or the saints), and has made some recourse to MacIntyre as a hermeneutic by which to gain insight on this interplay. For my part—keeping in mind the "Roman dimension," above—I wish to comment specifically on the moral situation that the Church finds herself in currently, and to ask whether there is something illuminative in the awakenings of a "pilgrim pope," who is now also the citizen par excellence.
To begin, maybe the simplest way to describe our historical moral situation is indebted. Despite the fact that we're more tightly "networked" than ever (a term that gains new significance every day, with each new cloud platform or app we encounter), morality has never been more fragmented than it is now. MacIntyre diagnoses this phenomenon in After Virtue, and gives many supporting arguments there, as well as in its pre/sequel, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? A summary of the situation (in my terms, not necessarily MacIntyre's) is that moral vocabulary is overspent, and that we have a tough time cashing it out in our day-to-day lives. The greatest "debt" occurs in terms of community, which for most people has little to no moral intelligibility (this precisely according to the fact that "community" works as the banner mantra for our age). What's more, this debt against community is significant: It's not a paper debt that can be over-leveraged for long periods of time; instead, it's entirely real, since community is the source of our language, of our concepts and terms, and even of our knowledge of what's best, and what will make us happiest.
Modern morality operates at at a sustained and ever increasing deficit. And the amount of money we owe back before we can trade on its terms is staggering.
To me, it seems, there are two contributing dimensions to this moral crisis (i.e., crisis of community): one is an "organic" dimension that has to do with those who are part of a community and their roles and responsibilities toward others and the whole; the other is an "economic" dimension that views one's own community alongside other communities and aims for the greatest collective outcome. The organic dimension looks only as far as one's own community boundaries—with a primary focus on one's own personal boundaries. The economic dimension looks outward—and it imagines what one's own community looks like as part of the broader social picture.
Morality, to be generally meaningful, requires both of these dimensions to work in concert. The rift we face presently, in contrast, could be described as the isolation of either of these dimensions from the other. The utter incommunicability of many popular socio-political views is evidence of this, as some focus exclusively on economic considerations (e.g., the marriage equality movement) while others exclude the economic dimension in favor of self-preservation at all costs.
The fallout from this dichotomy is likewise twofold: One can identify the cultural and human stagnation that results from unfettered sexual ethics; just as clear is the rampant inability of self-serve values to account and accommodate for the needs of other, real human beings. In both cases, ideology takes over for integrity, and community is reduced to a principle (at best) rather than something actual.
The response by the two most recent popes to this crisis of community is, on one level, clear. As C.C. Pecknold discusses in "On Monastic Papacies," Benedict's approach to community aligns fairly closely with MacIntyre's, insofar as each emphasizes a "mustard seed response." Similarly, hardly a single point of Francis's focus on community has escaped mass media attention and scrutiny. He may frequently be misrepresented, but his unswerving attention to the poor among us, and the call to Christian charity, is impossible to miss.
Yet while Benedict's "moral theory," although comprehensive, is relatively easy to digest, Francis's remains enigmatic. This is because, as Sam Rocha seems to indicate, Francis's theory is hardly a theory at all, and digestion is simply not the point. To the contrary, Francis operates from a "radical realism"—one, as the pope himself tells us, "rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom." This is how things are for Francis: simple, straightforward, actual.
It's reasonable to suggest that this "priority of the real" has been deeply informed by Francis's own life experiences—the most immediate of these, and the one most connected to his ministry as Successor of Peter, being that of his Roman welcome one year ago today. (It was, in another sense, even more drastic than that: indeed, the very birth of "Francis.") That moment, I believe, can teach us much about the way the Holy Father views community, and by extension the way he views the morality indebted to it.
What I have called the organic and economic dimensions of community run, in terms of the earthly City, parallel to Francis's double identity as civis and episcopus—both familiar responsibilities, yet now understood in a new and unfamiliar context. In terms of the heavenly City—i.e., the Church, the Body of Christ—these dimensions also have parallels: namely, episcopus and (through a specific type of participation) caput. This is, of course, the case for any Roman Pontiff; although with Francis, in a particular way, the whole spectrum of this complex civil identity came to rest without warning and almost ex nihilo. Most popes have been Italians, and many were even Romans (or a close equivalent) from birth. All popes have been Europeans (some from North Africa, but all of these before 500 AD). Bergoglio shattered the mold.
To fully grasp Francis's program, I think, is not only to learn of his primary self-identity as "sinner," an identity that has surely charged his now famous, "mercy-centric" style. Equally essential for understanding Francis qua pontifex is to appreciate the breadth of the span from one bank of his own vocation to the other—banks located, no less, in different grades of existence. (There is surely a more eloquent way to express this. I mean to convey that while "citizen" is natural, and fully available to anyone, caput is something proper to Christ, and experienced only through particular, divinely appointed participation by the direct action of the Holy Spirit.)
I would suggest, here, that Francis's sudden elevation to the See of Peter—as a total outsider, and thus as a sort of "pilgrim pope"—makes possible a unique approach to community, and more importantly to resolving its present crisis. Within his own pontificate, in fact, exists a microcosm of the indebtedness problem: The geographical, civil community that has historically lent total identity to his newfound role as Bishop of Rome, and by extension to the earthly features of his role as Vicar of Christ, is not his own. On another level, and because of this, the "vocabulary" of the papacy—of the curia, of the Romanesque—seems for Francis to be overspent. This is not to say that the truths of the papacy do not still apply, just as moral truths still apply even if their terms are functionally broken. It does mean, however, that the "cash value" of papal customs and traditions is difficult to assess, and even rather easy to devalue on the level of practice.
The results of this dynamic are, I think, evident in Francis's interaction with the world—both with members of the Church and, in a particular way, those beyond it. The Franciscan ministry has been defined by a consistent emphasis on reframing the concept and content of "community" (indeed, the same grande fratellanza that the pope spoke about in his first homily to the cardinal electors). On the physical level, it has included embracing the deformed and destitute; on the spiritual level, it has seen an unwavering, almost fanatical focus on the presence of poverty, and on the effects that an encounter with and embrace of the poor has on the soul. Across the board, it is a pedagogy of gesta over and above verba (and where words are concerned, their character is by and large sensational).
But why the preoccupation with neediness? Why the jarring, sometimes explicit rejection of familiar features that, for many of us, make the Catholic tradition so rich and beautiful?
It might just be this simple: the possibility for evangelization—an act that requires us to speak and teach about goodness (morality), and which sets the stage and points the way toward salvation—rests squarely and solely on the possibility of a cohesive, inclusive community—a grande fratellanza—that recovers the commonality amongst unique persons rather than emphasizing their individuality. This is not the same as the (oftentimes shallow) egalitarianism of "equal rights" movements. The telos of Francis's program is the realization of the common identification of Christ in each individual human life. The method, however, is an unapologetic refrain of poverty, emptiness, dependence, neediness—a focus on the common condition of all things as impoverished without the redeeming potency of the God-Man. Francis, it seems, seeks actively to reduce all things to their basest condition—to relative nothingness—in order to reconstruct them in an intelligible, accessible way. The exemplar of poverty is a model for the receptivity that this basic starting point affords.
It is tempting to think, along with the popular media narrative, that Francis relishes poverty for its own sake. But this, I am sure, could not be further from the truth. Facing the reality of poverty head on is a sort of austerity tactic, intended not to glorify neediness but instead to reduce some of the communitarian deficit, and to recover the meaning of our moral language.
The brilliance of the Franciscan papacy, as I see it, is the ever so subtle shift from the total evisceration of the individual (something we all, in our fallenness, crave to witness) to her radical transformation in Christ. Moreover, it will become evident with time, I think, that this dynamic on the personal level is paralleled by a similar movement on the level of the Church: As a "new citizen," Francis can locate rather acutely the stress points of a culture that he still views, in large part, from the outside. The compactness of that culture, its community, and its usefulness as a vehicle for evangelization stands to benefit greatly from this gaze.
The final mission of any pope is to bring the Good News of salvation to all people, within the walls of the City and beyond it. In this particular historical moment, that includes recalibrating the tools of evangelization for what is amounting to a seismic shift in the availability of such simple terms as good and bad, better and worse, right and wrong. By maintaining a strong focus on the meaning of poverty in the Christian worldview, Pope Francis is working to guarantee an intelligible, universally available point of departure, not only for Christians who seek to evangelize in a secular age, but also for non-Christians and the non-religious who themselves struggle to make sense of emerging attitudes so completely divergent from any example in our past.
Like the death of Pope John Paul II, I suspect that the birth of Pope Francis was a moment that changed the world forever. In a single moment—in a way never before realized—a complete stranger was made the famulus par excellence. For him, the indebtedness of mores to community is doubly actualized. And in his struggle to make sense of this question for himself, he can't help but bring us—the whole "connected," globalizing world—along with him.