“This Pope is creating a certain atmosphere”
[" Whatever breaks from continuity is not good for the Church"]
Romain Leick and Walter Mayr
May 23, 2015
Author Martin Mosebach thinks it dangerous that Pope Francis serves emotions above all else and is making his mark through his appearances at the cost of the Church.
The Georg Büchner Award winner Mosebach, 63, is a conservative, sometimes even reactionary, Catholic. Mosebach has spent many years looking at the role of the Church in the modern world. In his 2007 book “The Heresy of Formlessness”, he criticised the effects of the Second Vatican Council which ended in 1965 and brought about a new orientation to the Catholic Church. In 2014 he published his novel “Das Blutbuchenfest”.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Mosebach, you have spent the last year in Rome. Have you been able to connect with the general enthusiasm for this Pope?
Mosebach: I remember the moment in March 2013 when a cardinal informed the waiting crowds that a new Pope had been elected who called himself Francis. At that moment I knew what problem would face the Church.
SPIEGEL: Because the name was itself a programme – poverty and humility instead of finery and power?
Mosebach: Yes, Francis of Assisi is simply the absolute counter-figure of the papacy: the antagonist of the institutionalised Church. He never wanted to be a member of the hierarchy himself. He was profoundly loyal to the hierarchy but he represented to himself, for his monks and nuns a completely different model, an anarchic Model. He operated under Innocence III., a power seeker, who attached great importance to hierarchy and authority.
SPIEGEL: Pope Francis bears a contradiction to himself just by his name?
Mosebach: The Church, which is made up of many opposites, also lives within the opposites between Pope and Francis of Assisi. It is fruitful for the Church. She needs the institutions and the anarchic Christians. But these two poles cannot both exist in one person.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps that was the intention of the Pope: To show from the beginning that he wants to lead the Church back closer to the foundations?
Mosebach: To which foundations? The Church must always go back to the foundations because it is an historical institution and refers to a specific time – the so-called fullness of time into which Jesus came. She must always strive in this direction because it is a matter of preserving the essence of the Faith. In the present time we are concerned with a reduction of religion: its transcendental dimension threatens to become invisible. And that means that the foundations that are understood as the current state of society are not the foundations of the Church.
SPIEGEL: That suggests a return to the origins. The early Church was indeed a movement of the poor, the weak, the oppressed and outsiders.
Mosebach: The phrase “The poor are the treasures of the Church” applies to the history of the Church. Jesus Christ loved the poor but not as the hindered rich, but rather as those who bear smaller burdens and can more easily turn to the Kingdom of God. Jesus prompted the rich to become poor, not the poor to become rich.
SPIEGEL: And why do you not believe that that is a programme for the papacy?
Mosebach: What is concerning about Pope Francis is the atmosphere he creates – as though an entirely new Church has been created which has never existed before in this way. As though Francis is correcting centuries of abnormal development and is creating a new type of Church without dogma, without mysticism. A Church which finds itself in compliance with the current social consensus.
SPIEGEL: You are worried about assimilating with the spirit of the times?
Mosebach: At the very least, Francis is moving in this direction. And he allows this assimilation to advance by being ambiguous in what he says. The whole thing seems to be systemised.
SPIEGEL: But the public appreciates his clear statements.
Mosebach: Just take Francis’ comment that Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits. Lots of laughter, great pleasure over a casual remark. But also an ambiguous comment on the question of contraception which can be interpreted as very puritanical as well as very permissive. He throws snappy comments out into the room and with them causes spontaneous enthusiasm because it sounds so unofficial, so un-papal, so un-curial. And then afterwards, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the thankless task of somehow repairing the damage and explaining how one should understand these comments according to Church teaching. The Church is not free in Her teaching, after all.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps Francis has set himself exactly this task – blasting tradition and its guardians, the curia?
Mosebach: Mrs. Merkel can change her party programme when she finds it advantageous to do so, but the Pope is bound by Tradition. He cannot move from it by even a millimetre. Only then, only by that measure is he the Pope. He is not free. He has to care for the continuity of Tradition. That is his principal task.
SPIEGEL: But a Pope can come up with something new?
Mosebach: Figures like Francis of Assisi, founders of orders, mystics… they can all explore the religion in every direction and risk a lot. The Pope can not.
SPIEGEL: Is theology the weak side of Pope Francis?
Mosebach: I think he is simply not interested in it. I mean that quite frankly in the nicest possible way. The scientific theology in the universities has contributed a lot to the disintegration, the desensitising of the faith in the 20th century. No one is satisfied by theology any more. But the simplicity of Francis does not necessarily open up an alternative to theology.
SPIEGEL: Do you also include his style within that – the renunciation of the red shoes, the golden cross and so on?
Mosebach: Naturally there is a criticism of his predecessor in doing that. However that actually has the fatal effect that it now seems that the regalia of the Pope is just a matter of taste. But it is not. To submit oneself to the office also means unquestionably taking on the clothes that belong to the office. The ideal Pope must take on the regalia that signify his office with devotion, just as a prisoner takes on his convict’s jumpsuit.
SPIEGEL: Francis openly embraces Benedict. That is surely a sign of respect. Or should he just ignore him?
Mosebach: That would be appropriate and in no way offensive. Because a retired Pope does not actually exist any more. He does not have the freedom all other Catholics have of expressing himself freely. But even if Benedict were dead, it would be irreverent to separate from him so demonstratively. He who does everything differently is also sending out a clear signal that that which came before him was wrong.
SPIEGEL: That is how it appears, even in Germany, where Pope Benedict XVI was seen very critically.
Mosebach: The Germans are an hysterical people, their reactions always fluctuate so unreasonably. At the beginning there was “We are Pope” and at the end the Pope had become a non-person. Already as a curial cardinal, Benedict had maintained a position definitively opposite to the German bishops in certain questions, such as the abortion advice centres. They felt reprimanded. No love ever developed. Francis is less interested in the German church.
SPIEGEL: What does this Pope want?
Mosebach: It is very difficult to reach any concrete conclusions based on his comments and actions. This Pope creates a mood, he is creating a certain atmosphere. But the atmosphere is no doctrine. It was very revealing to hear him say: “Who am I to judge?” A nice sentence, an apostolic sentence, but he cannot say that as Pope.
SPIEGEL: It was one of the sentences that aroused great approval.
Mosebach: Naturally! The public love the foggy rapture. The dogma fades, the dogmatic mountaintop is now up in the clouds and we live on the Earth all so jolly and don’t see it all so austere.
SPIEGEL: But the core of the evangelical message – the incarnation of God, the sacrifice on the Cross, salvation – remains unshakeable.
Mosebach: The incarnation of God, the incarnation of the Creator, is a distinctive feature between the Christian faith and other religions. Swapping the places of the Creator and the Created in one great castling move: That is the uniqueness of Christianity. Even the philosophical opponents of the Church feed off this.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Mosebach: It is about nothing less than the deification of man. The anti-clericalism of the enlightenment with its ideas of the autonomy of man is nothing more than a Christian heresy.
SPIEGEL: Even the enlightenment, the coming of age of man, depends on Christian revelation?
Mosebach: The enlightenment is completely inconceivable without Christianity. That is why it is also so peculiar to deplore the lack of enlightenment in other religions. The motive of the incarnation is the prerequisite for enlightenment.
SPIEGEL: Would the Pope also see it in this way?
Mosebach: He would probably avoid the word ‘heresy’.
SPIEGEL: He conducts himself rather as the boss of a global non-profit organisation.
Mosebach: But he isn’t. The Pope does not have to be mindful of votes, although this sort of approval currently sustains Francis’ authority. It sometimes seems to me as though Francis is making his mark at the cost of the Church. For example, he veers around Bishops so extraordinarily ruthlessly. Had Pope Benedict gone around an individual bishop like that there would have been uproar. According to Catholic law, a bishop has his office from Christ and not from the Pope; he should have a very strong legal status with respect to the Pope.
SPIEGEL: Is Francis looking for a showdown within the Church machine?
Mosebach: We have a Pope who, on the one hand invokes the tender Church, on the other hand reacts very strongly and interferes in dioceses. To the public it looks like this: Here the dynamic, unconventional, courageous Pope with the golden heart; there a crusty, dead, faithless, rigid machine. But it isn’t that simple.
SPIEGEL: His harsh reckoning with the curia, in which he reproached the cardinals with spiritual Alzheimer’s and materialism sounded like a declaration of war.
Mosebach: Yes. Imagine the chief editor of SPIEGEL giving his heads of department such a speech.
SPIEGEL: The cardinals tolerated the lecture amazingly unaffected.
Mosebach: In the Curia there is a high linguistic ability to phrase scandal away. Francis’ speech was a strong piece. As in every corporation there are dubious figures in the Curia, but there are very many loyal and dutiful personalities. They were all lumped together. Anyone who now says they work in the Curia presents themselves as someone who is schizophrenic, afflicted with Alzeihmer’s, faithless and greedy for money.
SPIEGEL: Should some of them not offer their resignations?
Mosebach: Again the Pope is serving emotions and prejudices. But he shouldn’t denigrate the institutional side of the Church, rather explain what it is there for. Besides, when one declares war on corruption it would be right to say that corruption in this and that instance is a mortal sin, which excludes one from Communion.
SPIEGEL: Does Francis focus too much on charisma rather than clear leadership?
Mosebach: Charisma has absolutely no function in the papal office. The first Pope was Peter, the man who disowned the Lord. The charismatic one was Paul. The best Pope is someone who recedes right behind the office. Someone who bends under this office as under a heavy load. The garments that Popes used to wear are an image of this. The Popes used to literally disappear under their regalia. And one should not have been able to see them at all because they were only a substitute for Christ.
SPIEGEL: And not the popular preachers the media demands?
Mosebach: What I miss with Francis is the readiness to bend under the office. That would be humility and modesty and then it is insignificant whether the Pope sleeps in the Palace or a hotel.
SPIEGEL: He gives people the feeling that he is one of them. What is wrong with that?
Mosebach: Plain, relaxed, unpretentious Popes have been a regular feature in the Church’s history. John XXIII for example gave himself a decidedly simple profile. And occasionally even naïve. But he did not make himself seem as though he were the first Pope to correctly understand the Church.
SPIEGEL: Francis also takes uncomfortable positions that oppose the spirit of the times.
Mosebach: That is true, but that does not say anything about the style of his leadership. He is the one the public, especially in the West, hails, not the Church.
SPIEGEL: Can Francis revive the Church in this country where he arouses the enthusiasm of the faithful at the cost of a Church that is seen as ossified?
Mosebach: We are witnesses to a bold experiment. It is important to remember that it ultimately does not depend on the current Pope. I say that as a Catholic for whom the Pope is an authority I truly take seriously. At the end it depends upon the continuity. Everything that benefits continuity is good for the Church. Whatever breaks from it is not good for the Church.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Mosebach, thank you for this interview.
[Rorate translation. Original version in German.]
[Rorate translation. Original version in German.]