The language of Pope Francis

Much has been written about the broad differences that separate Pope Francis from Pope Benedict XVI, and the comparison tends to be at the latter’s expense. This must be personally disconcerting for Francis. For, indeed, he has said many times that he frequently consults with his predecessor. But, perhaps more than this, it is hard to find anything that Francis has said or written so far that can be taken as contradicting Benedict’s thinking. Apart from the obvious differences in personal style, the one thing, in my view, that distinguishes the present pope from his predecessor is perspective—and this is most evident in the distinct vocabularies they use.

Benedict’s language is that of Western modernity. He looks at the complex transformations of the world outside, and asks how the Church must deal with the crises and challenges of the modern world. He says that the Church must respect the distinctions that have come with modernity—among others, that between faith and reason, between government and the pastoral function, between the vocation of politics and the education of consciences, etc.  Mindful of these distinctions, he nevertheless warns against thinking of these as unbridgeable dichotomies. Faith without reason is blind, but reason without faith is empty, he says.

While he acknowledges the diversity of standpoints in the modern world, Benedict rails against the “dictatorship of relativism.” Of modernity, he says (Light of the World): “In this world, secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other…. The question is: Where is secularism right? Where can and must faith adopt the forms and figures of modernity—and where must it offer resistance? … This tremendous process is the real, great task of the hour. We can only hope that the inner strength of the faith that is present in people will then become powerful publicly as well as by leaving its imprint on public thinking too, and that society does not simply fall into the abyss.”

Francis looks at the same world, but from a different vantage point. It is not the challenge of modernity he problematizes so much as the world’s worsening split into “center and periphery.” This distinctly Latin American vision is the same “dependencia” perspective that informed the popular struggles of the Third World against imperialism in the decades of the ’70s and ’80s. That framework explained poverty in the margins as a consequence of pernicious capitalist accumulation at the center. Dependency thinking opposed the deception fostered by the so-called “trickle down” theory of global capitalism.

It is this framework that Francis has brought with him to the Vatican, and he applies it not just to the center of the world economy but to the Church itself. He looks at the Church from the periphery—“the outskirts,” as he sometimes refers to it—and asks what it needs to do to revitalize its redeeming work in the world.

The answer comes in two parts. First, the Church itself must break out of its “self-referentiality” in order to see how irrelevant many of its obsessions have become in the light of the realities of the periphery. Second, cleansed by self-distance, it may then dare to go out once more into the world to preach what is essential about the faith—“the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.” The joy of evangelization which should result from this is often stifled, he says, “when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.” (Evangelii Gaudium)

Anyone who has read Benedict’s works would surely find these ideas familiar. At one point in Peter Seewald’s series of interviews, Benedict remarks: “[W]e really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed; in which the one gospel has to be proclaimed in its great enduring rationality and in its power that transcends rationality, so that it can re-enter our thinking and understanding in a new way.” In the same vein, he says in reply to another question: “It is becoming clear that a Church does not grow by withdrawing into some national shell, by separating herself, by shutting herself up in a certain culture and absolutizing it, but that the Church needs unity, that she needs something like a primacy.”

It is the vocabulary that spells all the difference. Benedict is very much at home in the language of modernity and its functionally differentiated social systems. He sees a world that more and more leaves little space if any for the spiritual, the transcendental, and the mysterious. Francis, on the other hand, sees a world riven by the logic of exclusion, where those in the margins of society find themselves irredeemably excluded from meaningful participation in nearly every sphere of modern society. It is to them, he says, that the Church must reach out if it is to find its place in the present world.

Not being a theologian, I can’t say if these papal views are in any way inconsistent with one another. But, as a student of society, I am amazed by the way these variable motifs bring to the fore the limits of modernity. Modernity is supposed to sweep all of humanity into the circuits of a functionally differentiated global society. Yet Francis speaks of the total exclusion of entire nations and societies, and, what is more, that this is occurring in the shadow of modernity itself. Like Benedict, he alludes to the limit of modernity, and the beginning of faith.

Kierkegaard once wrote that there is a name for that which we cannot think: “God.” That, in many ways, is what the two popes have been saying.

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