This evening my Facebook feed lit up with the headlines, “Pope: Church must not turn priests into ‘little monsters'” and “Pope Francis warns priests can be ‘little monsters’ if not trained properly.” The news stories concern a “conversation” Pope Francis apparently had with a large group of religious superiors general back on November 29, 2013, and they are peppered with heartening remarks like: “We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps” and “The ghost to fight against is the image of religious life understood as an escape or hiding place in face of an ‘external’ difficult and complex world.”

Even though this is two months old, the headlines are cropping up tonight because the Pope’s remarks were posted only just today, January 3rd, by the Jesuit publication Civilta Cattolica, under the title “Wake up the World!”. (This is the journal which published Francis’s September interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the English translation of which appeared in America Magazine as “A Big Heart Open to God”). Luckily for English speakers, Civilta Cattolica has posted an English translation (PDF) done by Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, in addition to Italian and Spanish.

I am still reading through the 15-page document, but one part in particular caught my attention:

“Great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only when it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches.

It is not a good strategy to be at the center of a sphere. To understand we ought to move around, to see reality from various viewpoints. We ought to get used to thinking. I often refer to a letter of Father Pedro Arrupe, who had been General for the Society of Jesus. It was a letter directed to the Centros de Investigación y Acción Social (CIAS). In this letter Father Arrupe spoke of poverty and said that some time of real contact with the poor is necessary. This is really very important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.” (pp. 3–4)

Though I think Pope Francis’s theology is actually more conservative than most of the media understand it, I find the above quote pretty close to radical, at least within a papal context. Is the epistemic privileging of “the margins” over “the center” not similar to the “hermeneutic of suspicion” advocated by many feminist and postcolonial thinkers? To be sure, the way Francis uses the term “ideological” is not how it’s used in feminist/postcolonial theory, so there is that. And the above quotation might take on a different coloring by the end of the document. What do our readers think? How “radical” do you find remarks to religious superiors general, if at all?

11 thoughts

  1. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by looking at reality from the periphery. I think, when contrasted with everything being equidistant from one’s own perspective, it sounds like he is advising the brothers to use their imaginations to understand others’ experiences, which, while being really important, isn’t that novel. I didn’t get the feeling he thinks we should revise doctrine based on the experiences of those at the margins, which, as a non-academic, is how I understand the idea of a hermeneutic of suspicion (hopefully I’m not mistaken). I do think he believes that immersing ourselves in marginal experiences should radically affect how we do things. I don’t see him really setting forth any epistemological claims about whose voices get to form doctrines, except maybe by accident (his use of the word hermeneutical might not have been technical). He is speaking here to people who already have voices because they are priests, asking them to further refine their own imaginations by placing themselves at the margins. A good thing, yes. Radical, not really. I’d like to think otherwise though!

    Also, props to the frequent posts lately…it makes me so sad when a month goes by and no one posts on this wonderful blog!

  2. I’m surprised to see the margins described in such epistemological terms. Without the larger context, I assumed this was a theological statement congruent with his practice of going out to the margins in order to meet Christ in / bring Christ to the marginalized.

    It’s possible that he meant “only” an exercise of imagination, but that seems odd considering just how much walking the talk we’ve seen him do. Also, I’ve acquired a greater appreciation for the spiritual importance of imagination and empathy recently, through reading Astell on Weil and Stein. So even if he is “only” advocating a mental exercise, I’m not sure its value should be discounted.

    On the other hand, I wonder who he thinks are in the margins? I’d bet he doesn’t think women are there; my impression is that he thinks women are in some cherished central enclosure.

    And where does he think the center is?? The passage feels to me a bit like an indictment of the modern notion of the neutral objective viewpoint, but I don’t think that’s what it actually says. Nor do I think it’s trying to suggest that we all, each, naturally inhabit the center of our own epistemic universes, and should move out of them (via the practice of empathy). The power words look to me like “calmness” and “peacefulness.”

    Maybe it’s actually just all about Rome vs the rest of the world? Are all these superiors IN Rome?

    1. Gaudetetheology–Yes, I also feel like that’s the case:
      “I wonder who he thinks are in the margins? I’d bet he doesn’t think women are there; my impression is that he thinks women are in some cherished central enclosure.”

    2. Yes, I appreciate how much walking of the talk Pope Francis does! I guess my thought about the practice of empathy, as you so eloquently put it, was an attempt to boil something concrete from his imprecise language. He uses some ambitious philosophical words vaguely, which renders his meaning ambiguous. I felt like Sonja was hopeful that Pope Francis’ remarks implied that marginal experiences could be applied to alter Church doctrines about reality or the Church’s method of interpreting reality. Because of the audience, I felt his statements were more limited– an elaboration on how the brothers could immerse themselves in turbulent, non-central experiences in order to learn to practice the Faith more lovingly, without any epistemological alterations within the Church itself. Not that that trivializes the spiritual importance of imagination and empathy. It’s just not as far reaching as how I thought Sonja saw his remarks. It kind of frustrates me how vague he can be because I always feel inspired by what he says without knowing how far the inspiration is supposed to reach, exactly. He reminds me of…the papal Unamuno?

      1. Ah, I think I see the distinction you are making.

        I was intrigued by this, though:

        It kind of frustrates me how vague he can be because I always feel inspired by what he says without knowing how far the inspiration is supposed to reach, exactly.

        I’m curious what you mean by “supposed to reach”?

        I wonder if some of this is a register mismatch between the speech of a pastor and the ears of a theologian. Francis is primarily a pastor, not a theologian (thanks be to God), and I think we must allow that to condition how we hear him.

        I’ve been thoroughly immersed in a paper by Redekop on reconciliation and mimetic structures of blessing for the past couple of days, and have definitely noticed that Francis’ discourse and ministry have the qualities of open, creative, reconciling discourse that he describes.

  3. I think the quote is revolutionary and if we were to put it into practice then it would revolutionize the Church.

    I see our task as not so much to analyze where the Holy Father is coming from but to put it all into practice, taking up his invitation.

    God bless

  4. To see Reality as it is you have to transcend the conventional left-brained mind upon which all modern Western philosophy and theology is based. A mind which instantaneously objectifies and reduces to thingness everyone and everything
    Paraphrasing and extending Paul: the left-brained letter/word always kills the Living Spirit instantaneously.
    Such was also the recommendation of William Blake in his admonition to cleanse the doors of perception so that one could see the world anew in each and every moment.

    First transcend the mind, not the body.
    Inwardness and all thinking is flight from Life and Love.
    Only the body is Full of Consciousness

    Therefore, be the body-only, feeling into Life.
    Surrender the mind into Love, until the body dissolves in Light.
    Dare this Ecstasy, and never be made thoughtful by
    birth and experience and death.

  5. Some additional thoughts:

    – In all the mentions of these remarks that I’ve come across, I had just assumed that “remarks to a group of religious superiors general” had included the superiors general of both men and women religious, because it wasn’t marked one way or the other. In fact, after clicking through to get the translated remarks, I see that it was actually the Union of Superiors General of Religious Men. I thought I’d call that out here in case anybody else missed it. I’m also curious whether others made the same assumption that I did.

    – On rereading the post and the excerpted remarks, I think the connection to a hermeneutic of suspicion is unwarranted, for two reasons. First, as I read it, he is not actually privileging the margins over the center: merely lifting up the margins as having some real value. Second. I think the hermeneutic of suspicion is always contrasted over against the hermeneutic of trust, and I get a very firm sense of the hermeneutic of trust not only from his larger body of discourse, but also from the emphasis on truth and reality in the excerpt. I think what he’s saying here is that your perception of truth can be distorted if you never go out to the margins, not that the church’s definition of truth needs to be revised based on the experience of the margins.

    Not that I think he would necessarily rule that out, either, depending on how it was presented and in what area; but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying here.

    The more I thought about this excerpt and the audience to whom he was speaking, the more I felt that his underlying image was of the superior’s quiet, calm, well-ordered office in the center of the friary, several layers removed from the friary’s interfaces with the world: where the brothers sell bread in the shop, or buy groceries at the store, or meet people who ask their prayers.

  6. What I always find most radical about Pope Francis is that he is not seemingly operating from any ideological position, but rather from a more Christian one. I have a problem with either “side,” even the “side” that I am most associated with myself, claiming some kind of papal privilege.

    Francis’ stance is radical in that he is advocating for the margins in ways that I have not seen in my lifetime. He lives out of a particular place that changes everything. I always remind people that he has not changed one teaching and is unlikely to do so. Yet, he embodies something that we have not seen so much of in recent years. For that, I am grateful, because this embodiment seems to live at the margins and not in the center.

    Great post Sonja!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s