The most updated diagnoses of the religious phenomenon in the West converge in defining it as “low-intensity.” Fluid, with no more dogmas, without binding authorities. Highly visible, but irrelevant in the public arena.
Even Catholicism is reshaping itself this way. And the pontificate of Francis is adapting in a spectacular way to this new phenomenology, in its successes and in its limitations.
As a good Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio instinctively goes along with the signs of the times. He is not even trying to stem the growing diversification within the Church. On the contrary, he is encouraging it.
He is not responding to the cardinals who submit “doubts” to him and ask him to bring clarity.
He is giving free rein to even the most reckless opinions, like those of the new general of the Jesuits, the Venezuelan Arturo Sosa Abascal, according to whom it is not possible to know what Jesus really said “because there were no recorders.”
And he himself has been telling some whoppers, without any fear of toppling the fundamental articles of the Creed.
Last March 17, during an audience at the Apostolic Palace, to explain what he means by “unity in difference” he even said that “inside the Holy Trinity they’re all arguing behind closed doors, but on the outside they give the picture of unity.”
On April 19, in a general audience Saint Peter’s Square, he said that the death of Jesus is a historical fact but his resurrection is not, it is only an act of faith.
On April 4, in a homily at Santa Marta, he said that on the Cross “Jesus made himself devil, serpent.”
And these are only the latest of a not-small collection of reckless statements, which however glide away like water on marble, without effect on public opinion both Catholic and not, for which this pope continues to be popular in part because he will say anything, with tranquility.
Luca Diotallevi, one of the most observant sociologists of religion, has identified a number of similarities between the pontificate of Francis and the Donald Trump phenomenon, among which is a shared resentment against the establishment.
The price has been paid by the Vatican curia, but above all by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, which today is a shadow of its former self, when it watched over even the slightest word that came from the pen and mouth of a pope. Francis ignores it altogether.
The national episcopates have also disappeared from the news, starting with the Italian episcopal conference, once powerful, now annihilated.
The metamorphosis of this “low-intensity” Catholicism is glaringly evident in the political arena. The United States and Italy are two examples.
In both countries, Catholics are present in large numbers and at the highest levels, more than in the past. In the United States Trump’s “chief political strategist” Steve Bannon is Catholic. Five of the nine supreme court justices and 38 percent of governors are Catholic. 31.4 percent of congressmen are Catholic, ten percent more than among the adult citizens of the country as a whole.
And yet, in spite of this solid presence of Catholics in politics, it is not the case that the inalienable principles of the Church on the matters of divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality have a proportional influence on the laws. On the contrary, they are ever more removed.
In Italy it is the same way. All of the recent heads of state, from Mario Monti to Enrico Letta to Matteo Renzi to Paolo Gentiloni, have been practicing Catholics, as is the current president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella. A large number of cabinet members and parliamentarians of all the parties are Catholics.
But the Church’s influence in the political sphere is almost nil, as proven by the laws on homosexual unions and the end of life.
A “political Catholicism” on the level of a Sturzo or a De Gasperi is long gone. But there is also a pope whose deliberate intention is to hold himself and the Church back from any high-intensity engagement in political issues that divide consciences. And this is another reason why he is so popular.
This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 17 of 2017, on newsstands April 30, on the opinion page entitled “Settimo Cielo” entrusted to Sandro Magister.
Here is the index of all the previous commentaries:
In the photo below the title, the first person on the right is the Argentine theologian Emilce Cuda, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Buenos Aires, very close to Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the same university and a prominent advisor and ghostwriter for Pope Francis.
She is the one who reported the words of the pope on the Most Holy Trinity, within which “they’re all arguing behind closed doors, but on the outside they give the picture of unity,” spoken on March 17 during an audience with the group Catholic Theological Ethics in The World Church, to which she belongs. They were made public by the English vaticanista Austen Ivereigh, the trusted biographer of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
For the category of “low-intensity religion” as applied to the new forms of the religious phenomenon, see the essays by Bryan S. Turner, “Religion and Modern Society,” Cambridge University Press, 2011, and by Luca Diotallevi: “Fine corsa. La crisi del cristianesimo come religione confessionale,” Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna, 2017, this latter with a chapter on “Italian Catholicism at the time of Francis.”
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)