The Franciscan Papacy: Rebuilding or Demolition?

The life of St. Francis is subject to much sentimental hype because of his love for creation and his identification with the poor.  The saccharine images on holy cards and sculptures in gardens don’t help the matter.  And Zeffirelli’s hippie-revolutionary film version of the saint is positively infuriating.  Pope Francis seems be subject to the same kind of misinterpretaion.

The media and the Catholic propagandists on the left and the right will continue to mythologize about St. Francis and Pope Francis’ selection of the name.  The pope himself has said the reason for the choice of name has to do with “peace” and “poverty.”  Oh, those two words: two little threads out of which the propagandists will weave a rope to hang us all with.  Sandro Magister puts it well:

In the pseudo-Franciscan and pauperist mythology that in these days so many are applying to the new pope, imagination runs to a Church that would renounce power, structures, and wealth and make itself purely spiritual.

But it is not for this that the saint of Assisi lived. In the dream of Pope Innocent III painted by Giotto, Francis is not  demolishing the Church, but carrying it on his shoulders. And it is the Church of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, at that time recently restored and decorated lavishly, but made ugly by the sins of its men, who had to be purified. It was a few followers of Francis who fell into spiritualism and heresy.

Rorate Caeli, as anyone familiar with the blog would expect, approves of this assessment and is critical of the Good Friday homily, given in the Holy Father’s presence, of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin Franciscan.  The preacher talked about evangelization and the need to get rid of accretions to life of faith that undermine the reception of the message. He said:

As happens with certain old buildings. Over the centuries, to adapt to the needs of the moment, they become filled with partitions, staircases, rooms and closets. The time comes when we realize that all these adjustments no longer meet the current needs, but rather are an obstacle, so we must have the courage to knock them down and return the building to the simplicity and linearity of its origins. This was the mission that was received one day by a man who prayed before the Crucifix of San Damiano: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church”.

It seems to me that both Sandro Magister and Fr. Cantalamessa are reacting to extremists: Magister, to those on the left who want to use Pope Francis as an excuse to reject Tradition and traditions; Cantalamessa, to those who regard Tradition as static.

St. Francis’ love for poverty was almost immediately misinterpreted, even by the friars, and turned into an ideology.  The Order was almost suppressed in the time of St. Bonaventure because of the internal strife that resulted from this misinterpretation.  But the problem was that the Franciscan charism is both radically evangelical and radically ecclesial.  St. Francis was a reformer, who wished to have for himself and his friars “nothing of this world.”  But he distinguished himself from other evangelical movements that were anti-ecclesial by his radical obedience to the See of Peter.  The rebuilding engaged in by St. Francis had this dual characteristic of restoration and reform.

I believe the real difficulty with understanding what is going on here is that St. Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis represent a more sophisticated way of thinking that will ever be appreciated by the pundits who communicate principally by soundbites, blogposts and tweets.  The zealots will continue to paint two-dimensional caricatures of these great men on the banners they wave in our faces.

St. Francis

St. Francis’ choice of poverty was not a judgment on any one else, but it did have an evangelical character.  People complain about the expression, wrongly attributed to St. Francis, but in my view, accurately reflective of his thought and actions:  “Preach the gospel always and sometimes use words.” They say that this is an excuse not to be evangelical.  But that is not the point of the expression at all.

Franciscanism is a way of life before it is an apostolate, and it is principally by the evangelical life that St. Francis and his followers rebuild the Church.  Franciscans are also committed to the apostolate of the preaching of penance.   But they are not committed by their charism to teaching, catechizing and theologizing, like the Dominicans, though none of that is excluded from their work.  Their apostolic calling is principally to edify their listeners by speaking briefly about “vice and virtue, punishment and glory” (Rule, c. 9), and to deliver the power of that message by their way of life.

In the Rule, St. Francis commanded the friars not to judge those who lived in luxury, but to “judge and despise themselves” (c. 2). On the other hand, St. Francis did not hesitate to preach against the vanity of the world, even to the great and mighty.  One time, when the soon to be Emperor Otto passed by Rivo Torto on the way to his coronation, St. Francis refused to go and watch him pass. And while he also urged the other friars to ignore his passing, he did send one friar to meet the cortege and ordered him to announce to Otto how vain and transitory was the glory of this world.

In other words, St. Francis defies being put into anybody’s box.  He was not an ideologue. He was not a revolutionary.  But he was a reformer.  He was not against the establishment—certainly, never against the magisterium.  He did not despise the wealthy or the structures of power.  But neither did he believe that power was the answer.  Nor was he blind to the problems within the Church and in the world or afraid to confront them.  He preached penance to whoever would listen, no matter what their station, and no matter what it cost him.

Pope Innocent’s dream of St. Francis holding up the Lateran was neither an affirmation nor a condemnation of the magnificence of the Basilica.  It was a defense of the radical message of the  gospel, handed on through the only Church Christ founded, which he built upon the Rock of Peter.  The Lateran Basilica is the pope’s cathedral.

However, as I have already pointed out, St. Francis was never against magnificence in the sacred liturgy, though he certainly was not Benedictine in what he prescribed for the friars, who, though obliged to the common recitation of the Divine Office, were not obliged to its choral recitation like the Benedictines.  The provisions of St. Francis for the Liturgy had to do with the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council, not with monastic disciplines.  There have always been marked differences in the Benedictine and Franciscan approach to liturgy. Both make the liturgy a labor of love, and a work of beauty, but the Franciscan approach has been characterized by simplicity.  The fact of the matter is that through the same provisions by which St. Francis forbade the friars from having property or any permanent residence, he also limited their ability to conduct magnificent liturgies.

St. Francis, then, as a “rebuilder” took Catholic tradition and developed it, according to Pope Benedict, as “an innovation of God” in order to respond to the needs of the times and to champion conciliar reform.

Pope Emeritus Benedict

I do not think it can be stressed enough that Benedict XVI’s views, however far to the left or right they may seem to lean, are those of a thinker, teacher and pastor, not that of a change agent or zealot.  Kierkegaard considered the gaining of disciples to be “the worst of calamities,” because of the ideas and projects that will end up being promoted by well-meaning disciples in the name of the master.  Those on the left will quote Benedict out of context on matters of ecumenism, religious liberty and the interpretation of scripture, while those on the right cherry-pick his writings for criticisms of Vatican II and to support their crusade to end the liturgical reform.

On the question of rebuilding the Church, Benedict XVI presents us with the same kind of problem.  Ecclesiastical reform is in a sense a “project,” but Pope Benedict deplores the idea the Church being treated as a “project” rather than the locus and means of encountering the Person of Jesus Christ.  But if Father Cantalamessa is criticized for saying that there are parts of the building of the Church that need to be “knocked down,” Joseph Ratzinger has nearly the same thing in 1982 in Principles of Catholic Theology, where he frankly discusses the problems with the Council, yet continues to affirm that it should not be abandoned:

The task is not, therefore, to suppress the Council but to discover the real Council and to deepen its true intention in the light of the present experience. That means that there can be no return to the Syllabus, which may have marked the first stage in the confrontation with liberalism and a newly conceived Marxism but cannot be the last stage. In the long run, neither embrace nor ghetto can solve for Christians the problem of the modern world. The fact is, as Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out as early as 1952, that the “demolition of the bastions” is a long-overdue task.

Several things here are worthy of note in order to place his call for the “demolition of bastions” in context. First, he talks about the “real Council,” an idea he reiterates in very clear terms during his last address concerning Conciliar reform, just three days after the announcement of his resignation.  Second, the distinction between the “real Council” and the “virtual Council,” corresponds to the opposition of the “hermeneutic of continuity” to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” a notion that was already in use by Ratzinger around the time that the above passage was written, but which became one of the most characteristic ideas of his whole pontificate.  Third, the “syllabus” to which he refers is the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, which condemns the religious errors of the modern era and to which Ratzinger opposed Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty and interreligious dialogue as a “counter-syllabus” (not “anti-syllabus,” as some incorrectly translate).  That Pope Benedict continued to hold to this basic position into his pontificate is clear from the famous “hermeneutic of continuity address,” in which he reaffirmed that the discontinuity between pre- and post-conciliar thought had nothing to do with principle, but with application.  (Read the address to see exactly why that is the case.)

So for Ratzinger/Benedict, the reform, or rebuilding of the Church, mandated by Vatican II, clearly does involve a bit of renovation, which must begin with, to put it frankly, “demolition.” Clearly, the position of the Church in respect to democracy and religious liberty has changed.  Very clearly, Pope Benedict’s support for the removal of the walls that had prevented religious dialogue and a more participatory liturgy are principles to which he held onto until the end of his pontificate.  But he never pretended that any of this is easy or simple.  He has bewailed the “spiritual desertification” that occurred as a result of the misinterpretation of the Council, and the “disasters,” “problems” and “suffering,” that resulted from the closing of seminaries and convents and from the banalization of the liturgy.  And so there is a question of removing the right walls and partitions, themselves additions, without damaging the structure and design of the Church itself.

Pope Benedict uses another metaphor that reflects the complexity of the “demolition/rebuilding problem in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy in which he compares the preconciliar liturgy to an ancient beautiful fresco that, though undamaged, had become covered over with additions and whitewash.  For the faithful, it was “largely concealed beneath instructions for an forms of private prayer.”  The Council removed and cleaned from the fresco all the build-up and revealed its true form and colors.  “But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions.”  Like Christ speaking to St. Francis, “rebuild my Church,” Pope Benedict tells us to get to work and stop the destruction of the liturgy, not by returning it to the state of “whitewash,” but by treating the liturgy with “a new reverence” and “a new understanding of its message and reality.”  So demolition/rebuilding or cleaning/restoration is not a simple broad-brush endeavor, but a selective process that can only be accomplished by renewed reverence and the proper understanding of what the conciliar reforms set out to accomplish.

Pope Francis

Partisans make more of the differences between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis than is warranted, just as partisans can make more of the differences between monks and mendicants, Dominicans and Franciscans, St. Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, and St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, than is really justified.  All of these varieties are characterized more by what unites them than by what separates them.  That is not to say that their distinguishing characteristics are unimportant.  Quite the contrary, what distinguishes them has to do with charism, with the specific movements of the Holy Spirit that are not accounted for by any “antecedent rule.”  Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4).

The institutional and charismatic will always be in tension, and great charismatic influences are dangerous movements, because radical change easily precipitates crisis.  It is easy to conceive law and grace to be in opposition.  It is a very old heresy, because the interaction between God and the human free agent inherently mysterious.  The law does not save us, nor can supplant the legitimate domain of prudence, but neither can grace and charism ever be lawless.  These are not problems that black and white reactions are going to resolve or that the conventions of left vs. right, modernist vs. traditionalist are going to adequately describe.

The “calamity of discipleship” is the tendency to be reactionary.  Reactionaries create black hat vs. white hat mythologies to correspond to their black and white ideologies.  Then they put the appropriate hats on the hero they worship and the villain they despise, ascribing the opposing ideologies to the protagonist and antagonist.  They create simple narratives that everyone repeats until all are clear on who can be trusted and who cannot.

In all of this symbolism is essential.  Did he wear the cape or did he not wear the cape?  What about the shoes?  Whose liturgy is more magnificent? Whose is more accessible?  To be sure the symbols are important. They say something significant, as I am sure both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been deliberate in their choices of style.  But we should not let the extremists define the terms of the conversation and dazzle us with sophistries about contradictions where only contraries exist.

One example of this the opposition posited between a beautiful liturgy and one that is simple.  Since when is magnificence the only measure of beauty?  The Cistercians simplified the Benedictine Liturgy, considering too much ornamentation in their Churches to be both contrary to poverty and to recollection.  Did that make their liturgy not beautiful?  Did it invalidate the older Benedictine approach?  Of course not. Franciscans took it another step.  Was St. Francis condemning the monastic tradition? Certainly not. But the aesthetic that measures beauty in terms of magnificence is a school of thought and a preference of taste, not the teaching of the Church.

We have an almost unprecedented grace of having two Successors of St. Peter alive at the same time.  Not only have they taken the complimentary names of Benedict and Francis, but they also symbolically represent these two schools of thought in a way that I believe is just as providential and inspired by the Holy Spirit as both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have claimed that this papal transition has been.

In the end there is no contradiction.  The rebuilding of the Church does require a bit of demolition, as both Popes Benedict and Francis affirm.  We all have to be careful not to go to the extremes and to fall into facile left/right dichotomies.  We cannot retreat into old comfort zones and protect ourselves behind a forest of secondary and tertiary precepts.  But neither can we imagine ourselves to be in an antinomian paradise and then blame our delusion on the Holy Spirit.

In the end the Benedict and Franciscan pontificates are in fundamental agreement.  The perennial principles will never change.  But as Pope Francis has said we cannot allow “pre-established patterns” to end up “closing our horizon to the creative action of God,” or as Pope Benedict has put it, quoting the great Franciscan St. Bonaventure:

Christ’s works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress.

8 thoughts on “The Franciscan Papacy: Rebuilding or Demolition?

  1. “In the end there is no contradiction.”

    Exactly. I agree with you. Overall this is a very good post Father – I just want to make a comment on the poverty bit.

    Say what you will about poverty – Clare and Francis meant it – as you know. I’m rusty on my historical dates and circumstances, but over time the Popes approved the rule – so no contention there. And yes, the primitive rule was mitigated to reign in and avoid the radical-fanatical stuff. Nevertheless, I think it safe to say the reforms attempted – especially in our day – part of the reasoning was to live evangelical poverty more generously. Somewhere in my files is an edifying photo of two of your friars walking an Italian street barefoot on a cold rainy day. I’m guessing that isn’t just for show, right?

    I’m not sure who equates poverty with stripped down liturgy sans beautiful vestments, or sees modern iconoclasm and auditorium looking churches as an expression of evangelical poverty. As far as I know, none of the reformers in history – except the protestants – were ever in favor of such things.

    BTW – the poetic interpretation and the visuals in Brother Son Sister Moon were superb. In fact the incident you relate with the friar and the Emperor was interpretted in the film – in fact I thought of that when the Holy Father came out on the loggia without the mozetta.

    But great post otherwise. Pope Francis continues the reform.

  2. Tunces,

    It was easy for St. Francis to be misinterpreted because his ideal and the Rule were radical in themselves. This misinterpretation was further exacerbated by the fact that their were other “evangelical movements” at the time touting poverty, like the Waldensians, who were positively heretical. It is one of the reasons why Innocent III needed to have that dream. He needed to know that St. Francis would rebuild and not demolish.

    When Joachimism entered the Order, the worst fears were realized. St. Bonaventure saved the Order from being suppressed by cutting a middle road, a road that is still controversial among Franciscans, some of whom, especially those with a Capuchin bent, believe St. Bonaventure was a sell out on the point of poverty.

    The Franciscan problem is very much a microcosm of the ecclesial problem. Franciscans have always been confronted with the challenge of interpreting and applying the ideal of St. Francis, whose primitive observance of poverty was most pristine when the Order and its communities were small, to the actual circumstances of life in different times and places. There has never been an easy solution, and the Church has contented itself with approving plurality in this regard.

    I agree with you that poverty does not mean ugly liturgy. But I do know some who would measure beauty almost mathematically by the degree of magnificence, There can be a danger to that.

    And yes, the visuals in Brother Sun, Sister Moon are stunning. Zeffarelli stated that his interpretation of St. Francis was not primarily historical. Fair enough. I just did not like the 60’s feel to a large portion of it, or what I thought was a rather anti-ecclesial bias to the film.

    Thanks for the support!

  3. “Simply” beautiful article about Pope Francis. I really like the phrase “simple, solemn.” Pope Benedict certainly was(is) very dearly loved. I think many have experienced a Road to Emmaus moment with Pope Francis. People really see Jesus in him that were unable to see before and he is winning over the hearts of many. He has a gift for awakening and gathering the flock together through his “simple, solemn” ways.

    The relationship between the bishop and the people was at the heart of the simple, solemn installation of the Successor …

    In Christ,

  4. We have an almost unprecedented grace of having two Successors of St. Peter alive at the same time. Not only have they taken the complimentary names of Benedict and Francis, but they also symbolically represent these two schools of thought in a way that I believe is just as providential and inspired by the Holy Spirit as both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have claimed that this papal transition has been.

    My thoughts exactly. I remain grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for such a gift. I do not wish to miss this blessing for one minute and am therefore sad and uncomfortable with the vile potshots tossed at Papa Francis and Papa Benedict. I am praying though and will continue to do so because rather than spend my time being negative and suspicious, I see the fruits of the gift that has been bestowed upon the Church. Just today, I read that many are coming back to the sacraments in Italy, in Argentina and perhaps in other parts of the world. What great news!

    I am new to your blog and much appreciated your commentary. I know I will find much consolation here and I will learn as well. Thank you!

  5. A great gift and blessing, indeed! This one brings tears to my eyes. How can anyone not love this Pope! 🙂

    “When he would visit here, he’d take the bus and then he’d just come walking around the corner, like a normal guy,” said Father Juan Isasmendia, a priest of the parish. “I’d say that over the 15 years he’s been walking down the streets here, at least half of the people have met him at some time and have a picture with him, meaning at least 25,000 people in this [slum] alone,” he said.

    “He came for all the big festivals and he did all the confirmations,” he said. “One time we had almost 400 people to be confirmed, and he did them all personally on one day. It took three and a half hours, maybe four, and he did it all.”

    In Christ,

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