The papal obsession with getting close and concrete

The papal obsession with getting close and concrete

The Pope's "El Pais" interview was about many things yet mainly about one: the need for the Church to be close to people, and concrete. Francis is convinced that the greatest threat to the contemporary age is gnosticism, which shows itself in the Church as fundamentalism and legalism.

Pope Francis’s weekend interview with the Spanish daily El País  — available in English on its website — was one of his longest and most substantial yet, that covered a great number of themes. But there is one that runs through it, almost obsessively.

It is not, for him, a new idea. Francis has insisted many times before, both as pope and archbishop, that the Church must be close to people and their reality and not take refuge in ideologies, bureaucratic structures, and worldliness.

But he kept returning to the point so insistently throughout the interview, and with such an apocalyptic tone, it is safe to conclude he perceives a battle being played out at the heart of the Church.

For example:

  • Asked about the hierarchy being ‘asleep,’ he said what he most feared in the Church’s pastoral agents (whether lay or religious, priests or bishops) was those who have “been anaesthetized by worldliness.” The first Christians were permanently on the move, and in contact with people, whereas “the anaesthetized have no contact with people. They are defended from reality.” The anaesthesia in this case, he explains, is “spiritual worldliness,” which turns pastors into clerks and produces clericalism.
  • Asked about his greatest concern for the Church, Francis answers: “that it never cease to be close … A Church that is not close is not the Church … What identifies the Church is its closeness.” Closeness, he says, means “seeing in the neighbor the flesh of Christ.”
  • “Either Christianity is concrete, or it’s not Christianity,” he says after talking about waiting and seeing what happens with Trump. The first heresy, he goes on, was gnosticism, which represented “an airspray religiosity, of the non-concrete. From what is concrete,” he adds, “we will draw the consequences,” warning: “We are really losing the sense of the concrete.”
  • Asked about the parable of the Prodigal Son Francis identifies the resentment of the elder brother as akin to “those who take up a posture that defends them from contact,” and who “are going to be uncomfortable with any change, with whatever the Gospel proposes.”
  • Referring to the risk of people disappearing into “ideological caves,” Francis said people are always more comfortable with an ideological system “because it is abstract.” In the “restaurant of life you are always offered the dishes of ideology,” he says, adding that these are “shelters that prevent you from connecting with reality.”
  • On communication, Francis notes that when it loses “what is fleshy, what is human” it becomes “liquid” and “dangerous.” Digital communication, for all its possibilities, is risky if it does not make way for “the human, the normal, what can be touched.” The non-negotiable part of communication is what is concrete, he says, adding: “We are not angels, but people of the concrete.”
  • Finally, when asked about his occasional tongue-lashing of Vatican bureaucrats or priests and religious, Francis replies: “What I most insist on is neighborliness, on closeness.” Noting how there are always groups that are “a bit more fundamentalist,” he says they are “good people who prefer to live their religion that way” but “I preach what the Lord asks me to preach.”

In the pope’s mind the greatest sickness and temptation facing the Church is a desire to flee from concrete human realities into the static comfort of ideology and structures that keep people distant. These temptations produce clericalism, fundamentalism, a numbing distance from reality and a tendency to be scandalized by the Gospel.

The path of holiness or resistance to these temptations is to remain in the concrete, the real, the fleshy, the human.

None of these ideas is exactly new; he has been expressing similar themes since at least the early 1990s. But the continued insistence on them is remarkable. It is as if, in Francis’s daily reading of the signs of the times, he sees a cosmic struggle between the Christ of the incarnation and the rise of a new contemporary gnosticism: “We are losing a sense of the concrete.”

It is the temptation of our technological, technocratic age, capable like no other of creating self-contained capsules of self-referentiality. The new euphemisms for errors — “post-truth,” “alternative facts” — show how little objective reality there is left for many people.

The gnostic illusion of the wealthy west is that technology has made it possible to construct almost anything without reference to external realities: who, when, or even if, people should be born and die; what our gender should be; what our lives mean.

In western politics, gnosticism is bipartisan: it is as visible in the nice-sounding abstractions of the liberal technocrats as in the reality-defying assertions of the nascent populists.

Francis has long perceived in this rise of gnosticism a feature of our age — it underpins his critique of the technocratic paradigm in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Sí. But he sees it also, closer to home, right in the heart of the Church, among those who recoil from flesh-and-blood reality, preferring to remain in the realm of ideas, principles, theories and laws.

It is an attitude that starts not from the complex nitty-gritty of real people’s lives, but the seductively neat principles of abstraction.

Catholic gnosticism, Francis suggests, is found in clericalism, legalism and fundamentalism. It is especially strong among the keepers of knowledge, the doctors of the law, who are more inclined to trust in the power of the world  — concepts, doctrines, norms — than in the fleshly poverty of Christ made visible in those who suffer.

When the Catholic gnostics speak, it is hard to glimpse the carnal reality of God — Jesus Christ, visible in the vulnerable and suffering — because He has been buried in layers of gnōsis or special knowledge. Truth is not a person, an experience, a concrete act of mercy, but something remote and nebulous, that can only be grasped through expertise, or enlightenment.

It is hard not to avoid thinking of the furious reactions to Amoris Laetitia, and the insistence on uniformity, inflexible doctrine and the immutable objective universality of the law.

The exhortation’s insistence that individual, complex cases — concrete human realities — might be opportunities for God’s grace to be discerned and recognized is constantly dismissed, angrily, as mere subjectivism, special pleading by sinners who wish to avoid what is asked of them.

There was no question about Amoris Laetitia in the El País interview, and no reference to the four cardinals’ dubia. But maybe Francis was commenting on them all the time.

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