The Symbolic Imperative of the Papacy Under Pope Francis: Kenotic Atonement

Posted on the 14 March 2013 by William Lindsey @wdlindsy

The Symbolic Imperative of the Papacy Under Pope Francis: Kenotic Atonement
As often happens, I’m feeling considerably out of step with much that’s being said following the election of Cardinal Bergoglio as pope yesterday. As a result, I hesitate to write about this topic today. What if I’m entirely wrong-headed, and misleading people who read what I write here? (But, then, if they had any sense, they surely wouldn’t be taking my flounderings at understanding and finding any path at all in the wilderness as gospel, would they?)
So please be advised: what follows is me thinking out loud. And “me” is not much—not a person of any great importance to much of anything that happens in this wide, fascinating universe. Just me trying to find some place in the cosmos, and a tad of understanding.
I won’t bore you with references to the many, many pieces of valuable commentary now coming out about the new pope. Readers of this blog are people who read widely and belong to many different discourse communities, and you’ll have read most of what I would cite here anyway.
To get to the heart of the matter: I’m struck by the predictability of what I read yesterday on all sides, after the announcement of the new pope was made. In the several different Catholic communities to which I have connections online—academic, activist, estranged and alienated, and so forth—there’s generally a discourse about surprises of the Spirit that leaves me cold, frankly. 
I can’t shake the feeling (and I intend to slight or demean no one in saying this) that so much of our intra-Catholic discourse has grown exceptionally infantile of late—under the previous two papacies, I’m tempted to argue. It’s all the Spirit. Everything is the Spirit. Great Holy Spirit weather, the disgraced Cardinal Mahony fatuously tweeted from Rome after he arrived there. Breezes of the Spirit wafting hither and yon in the mist, Cardinal Dolan told the media after he arrived in Rome—equally fatuously.
When the Spirit means everything, the Spirit means nothing. Or so it seems to me. And when the Spirit means something so trivial as these trite packaged soundbytes, then the Spirit really does seem to mean nothing at all, except a kind of genial pat on the back reassuring us that we’re capable good guys and gals, no matter what we happen to do or think. No matter how badly we represent Jesus and his values in the Christian community.
No matter whom we savage in Jesus's name . . . . I'll be blunt: when I hear Roger Mahony or Timothy Dolan invoke the Spirit, I generally turn anywhere but to the mouth doing the invocation to hear the voice of Hagia Sophia.
And then there’s the other end of the spectrum. I’m connected as well online to all kinds of people who have axes to grind with the Catholic church, many of them gay folks, not a few of them progressive activists who are heartily impatient with the obstructionism of Catholic officials in key human rights causes around the planet. And I find myself just as perplexed by the reactions of many of those folks to the papal election as I am by the rather childish reactions many members of the Catholic-it’s-all-the-Holy-Spirit club seem to be displaying.
For these folks, there’s no possibility of constructive change at all in the Catholic church, and the election of a new pope is beyond meaningless. They resent the attention lavished on this event by the media, and regard it as a distraction—though I’d like to point out to them that what the leader of a worldwide religious communion with its finger in pies everywhere chooses to say and do does matter. It deserves attention. It deserves their attention because it affects their own causes.
Predictability: I could have predicted these reactions from the two sides of my Facebook community, of the people I follow on Twitter, of the folks I read daily online at various news outlets. Reactions that don’t in any way meet—but they have to meet, it seems to me. Because I live somewhere in the middle of them.
And so do very many Catholics whom I know and care about today. Somewhere in the middle of the exceedingly childish notion that our religious community has a corner on the Spirit market and that our leaders—our leaders!—are bona fide channels of the Spirit, and of the notion that it’s all a bunch of hokum and who needs to listen to anything the Catholic church says or does, anyhow?
In becoming a theologian, I placed myself (or was placed—by the Spirit, I try to believe) there. Squarely in the middle. Trying to hear the Spirit while holding the secular and the sacred together. Because, ultimately, there is no such two-headed animal, sacred and secular.
There is only one wide, fantastic universe shot through with Spirit. Everywhere. And Catholics who keep speaking as if we uniquely own the Spirit and as if our leaders unquestionably channel the Spirit badly misrepresent the most fundamental insights of our sacramental tradition which is all about finding the divine anywhere that the divine resides.
And that is everywhere.
So Francis and his papacy: one of the strands of testimony to which we’re compelled to listen seriously now is the strand of deeply troubling testimony that suggests he was not merely silently complicit in the dirty war in Argentina, but took an active role in helping to hand over even fellow Jesuits to the dictatorship.
Or did he? Correctives and counter-statements are in the process of being posted online even as I speak. And there’s also the story now circulating that he saved the lives of some folks being hunted by the junta. And I’m willing to listen to both sides—to listen as widely as possible, as I try to understand Bergoglio’s connection to the events of the dirty war. 
This I will say right now, though—and this is based on what I’ve already read: I have a growing queasiness about what I think the untampered-with record will show. And I’m wondering if the cardinal electors would even have considered a Latin American candidate who did not have strong ties to movements resisting and crushing liberation theology in Latin America.
I’m wondering, to be quite specific, if Bergoglio is not simply in total continuity with John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the issue of liberation theology and on how the church should relate to dictatorships oppressing the poor. And this despite the simple style now being lauded by the media, and his concern for the poor, which would then, I suspect, be window dressing for the new papacy, to distract our attention from what the church did in that awful era of Latin American history.
From what it was directed to do by John Paul and Ratzinger.
We cannot escape from these truths. We cannot thwart investigations that try to delve into this history. We betray our own tradition in its most meaningful and gospel-grounded incarnations if we claim that anyone asking questions about this historical record is simply out to get the pope and the Catholic church.
And if these investigations do find that Bergoglio was more than silently complicit in the atrocious actions of the junta, then where does that leave us? To my mind, it leaves us at the same fork in the road that Benedict’s historic resignation has already left us: either the papacy reforms itself and the top levels of leadership in the church at the most fundamental level possible, or Catholicism will become (and should become) increasingly irrelevant to people of any kind of adult moral awareness at all throughout the world. And it will continue to bleed members at rates assuring the trivialization and eventual demise of the Catholic church in the developed sectors of the glob.
What do I mean by “reform itself at the most fundamental level possible”? Here’s an example: if it does turn out that the record shows unambiguously that Bergoglio took a more or less active role in colluding with the junta—or did so through silent complicity that clearly has blame attached to it (as distinguished from silence that results from there-is-no-other-option-to-be-considered)--then what the new pope needs to do immediately, it seems to me, is to get on his knees and beg forgiveness of all the families whose sons and daughters were disappeared by the Argentine junta.
He needs to get on his knees and beg forgiveness of all the poor throughout Latin America who were betrayed by the top leadership of the Catholic church under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, with his blessing (and how else would he have appeared on the papal balcony yesterday, I wonder?).
People are talking about this papacy as an interim papacy, since Bergoglio is 76 years old. They’re talking about the possibility of new symbolism with this pope who is a Jesuit who rides buses with the common folks and who has taken the unusual (especially for a Jesuit) name Francis. A resonant name when the church needs to be rebuilt.
If this is a transitional papacy that is all about symbolism, then to my own way of thinking, the symbolism of bowing before groups who have been hounded, tortured, harmed, dehumanized, and excluded by the church for far too long now is imperative for the Catholic church at this point in its history. We who have been treated in this way (I now speak quite specifically as a gay person) know better than to expect justice from the leaders of the Catholic church. For those of us who are Catholic and who have lost jobs and healthcare coverage and careers, as Steve and I have done, that justice simply won’t ever be accorded by the leaders of our church. We will go to our graves never having seen those who took bread from our mouths seeking to right the wrong they've done to us in the name of Catholic values and of Christ.
But an apology? An admission that what has been done to us and many others like us should not be thinkable in Christian communities? A request of our pastoral leaders that we forgive the misery they’ve inflicted on us and others like us?
Why is any of this unthinkable, when they ask this of us as a precondition for receiving absolution in the confessional, if we’ve harmed others through injustice?
One of the most powerful images of Christ in Pauline theology, a central one for all Christian traditions, is the image of the kenotic Jesus: he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself to become obedient unto death on the cross. If the papacy of Francis is to be a symbolic transitional papacy—if the symbolism is to have real significance and is not to be mere window-dressing—then I’d appeal to Francis as one tiny marginalized gay Catholic in a huge sea of Catholics to take the kenotic Jesus as the leitmotiv of his papal reign. As I think Francis himself did.
Bow before—kneel before—those the church has damaged so seriously at this point in its history. Kneel before them and ask their forgiveness:
• Abuse survivors 
• Women 
• The poor 
• Theologians 
• Gays and lesbians.

Keeping in mind as you kneel and ask forgiveness in the name of the entire church that a kenotic church with kenotic pastoral leaders walking in the footsteps of a Jesus who emptied himself is about atonement, as Jesus was. The ultimate pain for many of us—and it is a harsh and well-nigh unendurable pain—has been the pain of being treated as if we do not belong.
As if we are not one with you and your Catholic community. 
As if, in your own reckoning of things and in your reading of the gospels, we are not human in the same way you are human.
Atonement: at-one-ment. Bringing things back together as one. Bringing the fragmented parts back into wholeness. Mending what is broken, and in the case of the church, recognizing that the church breaks itself and not merely those it dehumanizes, when it chooses to treat some members of the body of Christ as less human than other members.
That’s my vision of a really meaningful papacy that does not squander the opportunities presented by Benedict’s historic resignation. And it begins with a pope willing to bow—to kneel—before those that the pastoral leaders of the church have very seriously hurt in recent years and to ask their forgiveness.
The papacy can, in summary, fulfill its pasotral role in the church at this point in history only by eclipsing itself, by deliberately and self-consciously repudiating anything and everything that smacks of monarchial trappings totally unbefitting the calling of the Petrine ministry, which is about emptying itself to become a servant, in the image of the kenotic Christ. The papacy can fulfill its pastoral role in the church now only by going out of business qua papacy, and by reconfiguring itself as what it was always meant to be: a ministry of service to the entire body of Christ, which is essentially about the at-one-ment of that body. 
The graphic: St. Francis of Assisi kneeling before a leper. The image is from Wikimedia Commons, and is by Christopher John, SSF, of Chuncheon, South Korea (Rivotorto).

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