Rorate Caeli

The Bergoglio Pontificate: “One Does Not Get Fully Rid of the Impression of Chaos” and “Autocracy” (Interview with Robert Spaemann)

The Philosophers Robert Spaemann and Hans Joas on the New Pontificate
“One Does Not Get Fully Rid of the Impression of Chaos”

[The following is not a full translation, but the main excerpts of the interview.]

Robert Spaemann and Hans Joas represent a kind of intellectual polarity in the current assessment of Pope [Francis] and the Church. In spite of the contrasts between these two philosophers, there are also some striking parallels. Spaemann and Joas both personally profess the Faith and Church and they have dealt with these questions professionally. Volker Resing [Editor-in-Chief of Herder Korrespondenz] moderated the interview.

Question: Pope Francis has been in office for two years now, . Again and again, he has surprised many people. He has raised hopes among some, but others are rather skeptical. How do you assess the phenomenon of Francis?

Robert Spaemann: My perception is ambivalent. Sometimes, I am thrilled by what he says. Sometimes, I only can shake my head. He does not fit into any of the clichés which one has ready to use here among us. His piety is very traditional. He speaks much about the Holy Family, he warns again and again against the devil – and this in a very concrete manner. We have not heard anything the like in many years. He says for example: “If you have chased away the devil, be attentive, he comes back and first looks very innocent.” He speaks like a Latin-American bishop who is fully rooted in the piety of his people. On the other side, in my view, his cult of spontaneity is not helping. In the Vatican, some people are already sighing: 'Today, he has already again another different idea from yesterday.' One does not fully get rid of the impression of chaos. And it is irritating how he prepares the Synod. It is the intention that two parties meet at the synod which the Pope wants to to lead into a dialogue whereby he himself plays the role of a moderator. At the same time, however, he takes sides already in advance by favoring the position of Cardinal Walter Kasper, he has excluded the Institute John Paul II for Studies on the Family from the pre-Synod consultations and tries with the help of explicit pressure to influence those consultations.

Question: How do you see the situation with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI?

Spaemann: There is also a problematic aspect. Pope Francis always stresses his close bond with Pope Benedict. In certain ways that certainly also exists. But I wonder why he throws so many people out of the Vatican who had been called in by Benedict. While I myself did not always see the wisdom in some of Benedict's staff decisions.

Question: What do you regard as being especially problematic with respect to Pope Francis?

Spaemann: Take the recent elections of new cardinals. There have now entered into the government of the whole Church completely unknown bishops who at times only have 15,000 Catholics in their dioceses. Bishops with larger dioceses, however, were passed by, even though one must have seen in them a certain extraordinary quality when they were chosen to be archbishops. Why are they then not called to the top? I ask myself, what will be the result in the end – next to a fleeting symbolic gesture? The upcoming Synod will especially have to show what the Holy Father intends.
Hans Joas: The greater danger is, however – and here we agree – that, through this dynamic that he [Pope Francis] fosters, he could break loose massive conflicts and the bad centrifugal forces could put in danger the Church as a whole. The analogy to Mikhail Gorbachev comes to mind – with all its differences: There comes a reformer from above and the changes make the whole edifice sway. That has to be avoided at all cost.

Spaemann: Pope Benedict always told me in reference to the reallowance of the old liturgy: A liturgical reform may not, as it was the case under Paul VI, come from above, but must grow from below. Only this way, conflicts can be avoided such as the ones with the Pius Fraternity [the Society of St. Pius X] after the Second Vatican Council.

Question: Professor Spaemann, how did you at the time respond to the first appearance of Pope Francis [after his election, on the balcony]?

Spaemann: 'O God, is this necessary?,' I thought.

Question: Does the Papal Office suffer in your eyes under the so-called Bergoglio style, or does he, rather, widen its possibilities of action?

Spaemann: That is difficult to say at this point. Perhaps, I will not live long enough to see myself the effects of it. It will show itself on the long run. It can be that Francis' way is perceived as a new start – or as a failure. I always try to find a standard with which to measure by reading the Gospels and the Letters of the Apostles. St. Paul says that there will come teachers who say things that sound beautiful for the ears and the people will follow them. But you, says St. Paul to Timothy, shall not be confounded. Pass on the treasure that you have received, in an unfalsified and unshortened manner.

Question: But do you not, then, propose a reverse conclusion that, if I find many followers, I am already on the wrong path?

Spaemann: No, of course not, but it also does not disprove it.
Question: The writer Martin Mosebach says Popes should not have any personal charisma. There exists a good division [of tasks]. In Christianity, the charismatic figures did not, so to speak, need an office.

Joas: […] Pope Francis can permit himself to utilize a laxer dealing with the papal office especially because he has a personal charisma. The charisma of the office is being modified by it.

Question: But what follows from this attitude of the Pope? Francis once formulated in one quote that he warns against a Christianity of ideas and requests a Christianity of deeds. How do you assess this [statement]?

Spaemann: I find this formulation awkward. Both have to come together. Francis divides the two areas of the Church – theology and practice. And wants to keep them separate. The theologians shall do their work, but the shepherds shall not pay much attention to them. It seems to me that he does not read much, and does not care much about theology. However, in my view both have to be brought together. The theology becomes bloodless and abstract when the pastoral experience does not flow into it. But vice versa, the pastoral care also becomes empty and does not know what it shall teach if it does not have a theological foundation.

Question: Again and again, Francis turns to the Gospels, a turning to the kernel, as he calls it. Not the teaching of the Church has to be at the center, but the freeing and loving message of Christ. Correct?

Spaemann: The message exists only in one interpretation. Anybody who reads the Gospels, also interprets it. Then there are only a few sentences where the answer is yes or no. For example, the question, whether Jesus is risen from the dead, can only be answered with yes or no, there is nothing in between.

Joas: Well, well, indeed! There is much to be said in between. What resurrection means, one can say much more about it than only yes or no. Does it mean return to the biological life, for example? What do we understand under resurrection?

Spaemann: Of course not return to the biological and therefore mortal life, but also not merely a vision by the disciples and “no spirit,” as the Resurrected One says, but rather life as “transfigured body,” which, if He wants, can eat with His disciples. And the tomb, it was empty, without that someone took away the corpse, that was what the Areopagites did not want to hear any more, and that is what some Catholics also do not want to hear today, but what they consider to be pious lies. But the teaching of the Catechism is unambiguous: Jesus does not only proclaim the loving God; He announces Himself to be the Judge of the living and the dead. The ones He will receive into His kingdom, the others He condemns. Therefore, the sermons of Jesus are filled with warnings. Do we want to ignore them? Does this mean to ignore the signs of the time?

Question: The pontificate of Benedict XVI was already mentioned once. You both have accompanied and observed it in different ways. How is your view back to the years of the German Pope? What did he reach, what were his weaknesses?

Spaemann: Ah, it is so difficult to compare these two pontificates and to weigh them against each other. There is a spiritual freedom that Benedict XVI has brought into the Church. Especially through his writings, he tried to explain in actualized ways the Gospels, without adapting it, but to explain it in such a way that the contemporary people can understand it. He has done here an infinite contribution. One can say, that which Francis has done well practically, that is what Benedict has taught with words. I do see here a continuity, even though they are completely opposed in their personalities. But that is the Church, that makes her what she is.

Question: What do you personally regard as the most important part of the pontificate of Benedict XVI?

Spaemann: I esteem especially highly that he removed some grave injustices in the question of the liturgy. He has tried to integrate into the Church the spiritual potential of those people who like to attend the old Mass. That is a great achievement. Francis sometimes turns up his nose at the friends of the old Mass, I consider this to be hurtful. Well, given. In Buenos Aires it was of all people Bergoglio who one week after the publication of Summorum Pontificum gave a significant Church to the followers of the old Mass. [RORATE NOTE: This is not at all correct, as Rorate reported at the time: a hybridized once-a-month Mass was offered, and, given the natural rejection by local traditional Catholics, discontinued shortly thereafter. No Traditional Mass was offered in the territory of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires by diocesan priests, and the only Masses currently offered are those of the Society of Saint Pius X, recently somewhat recognized.]


Question: Let us return from the papacy back to the Vatican. Pope Francis has taken upon himself the mission to reform the bureaucracy of the Curia. He regards clericalism as one of the main evils, the self-reference of the priestly leadership. How do you see this?

Spaemann: Pope Benedict was certainly one of the sharpest critics of papalism. Francis as a Jesuit, however, stresses by all means the prominent position of the Pope. He made this very clear in his allocution to the Curia. The pope has the unrestricted power of definition and also the full jurisdiction, something that the Orthodoxy for example completely rejects. Francis stresses that he can directly intervene in every diocese of the world. If Benedict would have said something like that, there would have been an outcry. But with Francis, the powers of the Pope are again stressed in a stronger way. And no newspaper is upset.

Question: Is the strong synodal approach of Francis, which Benedict already had started, the right way?

Spaemann: I can not yet assess it. When practice has distanced itself so far from the teaching, then something has to happen. It can also be that the synodal idea and also this upcoming Synod is capable to lead both together. For that, the bishops need to speak openly. It will lead to nothing when the bishops are merely allowed to say that which is welcomed in Rome. There needs to be a true dialogue. That there was an éclat during the recent Synod does not upset me. It has to be this way. But in the end, there will be the question of the outcome. Will the split within the Church grow larger, or can something be brought closer together? The Synod serves to take everybody along, that is a good thought, if only the pope omits to be moderator and partisan at the same time.

Joas: With regard to the changes in the Vatican, I considered the public humiliation of his employees in the speech of the Pope before Christmas to be problematic. A critique of such a manner has to happen either in a non-public form or there must be the possibility of expressed disagreement. To humiliate people publicly I consider to be autocratic in a negative sense.

Spaemann: This Pope is one of the most autocratic [popes] that we have had in a long time.

Question: To return to the Curia. Is that which has formed in the Vatican as a kind of Papal Court a phenomenon of illness in the Church, as Francis has put it?

Spaemann: I can not judge this in a conclusive, definitive way. Concerning the question of clericalism, I think we mourn more the failures of the 19th century than thinking of the present. Today, there is much less the danger that the clergy elevates itself than the danger that there is no respect toward – or rather, that there is even an aggressive rejection of – the priestly or spiritual form of living. Clericalism actually means an unseemly dominant position of the clergy. That is wrong, but I do assume the necessity of a spiritual authority: the pastor has this authority, then the bishop, and the Pope has the authority in any case.

Question: Does the clergy have a position that is too strong in comparison to the laymen?

Spaemann: No, not today anymore, that was perhaps once the case in the past. And where it is still the case, it starts to change.

Question: When we deal with the question of the remarried divorcees, we face a completely heterodox practice within the Church worldwide. Can it stay like that, that there are different ways of how to deal with this question in the Church?

Spaemann: No, it cannot be that in the one diocese it is dealt with in another fashion than in another one. Each bishop has authority in his diocese. But a true authority, for example, of a Bishop's Conference does not exist. Therefore, unified solutions are needed. And especially, things have to fit together. I cannot speak on the one hand of the indissolubility of marriage and of the sinfulness of extramarital sexual relations, and then on the other hand give the Church's blessing to a “new community in the bedroom.”

Question: Do you believe that there needs to be a change of the Catholic sexual morality?

Spaemann: Change is saying too much. But there needs to be a fundamentally different way of transmitting this teaching. If a greater adaptation to the modern 'way of life' of the Church would be the way, then Protestantism which goes this way should have fewer losses than the Catholic Church, which is not the case. The approval of the true indissolubility of marriage has to be the condition for admitting someone to the Sacrament of Marriage. Only in this way can a marriage experience the happiness that binds itself with the consciousness that this bond has been written in the stars from whence nobody can call it down.

Question: Are extramarital sexual relations a grave sin?

Spaemann: The Gospels say so. These are the words of Jesus. Then people say that it is too difficult for the people of today. Yes, it also became difficult for the people at the times of Jesus. When Jesus said that the marriage can not be dissolved, the reaction of the Apostles was not enthusiasm; on the contrary, they were shocked and asked who then still wanted to marry. They were shocked, just the same as people are shocked today.

[Original version in German - Herder Korrespondenz Spezial, issue n. 1/2015. A Rorate translation of the most relevant excerpts by Dr. Maike Hickson.]