Massimo Faggioli: “Everything changed on October 7th; for the Pope, governing the Church by himself is a limit” (link)
by Giulia Belardelli
The historian of religions to Huffpost: “In the relationship with Judaism and Islam, one cannot rely on scripts from the past, nor improvise. We need a Pontiff who is less generous with words, more thoughtful and attentive.” The failed mediations because “the Vatican is seen as part of the problem.” The detachment from the West which “hurts more,” in a Church which “is changing its face, it is multicultural, more complicated to keep together”
November 27, 2023 at 7:56 pm
The Huffington Post (link)
Massimo Faggioli is a historian of religions, professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia, and author of several books on Catholicism. Huffpost reached him for a reflection on the Catholic Church, on the pontificate of Francis, on the changes in relations between religions resulting from the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Prof. Massimo Faggioli, Pope Francis’ recent meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian delegations sparked much controversy and infuriated the rabbis of Italy. What does that episode tell us about the way Bergoglio is handling this and other delicate international issues?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: One question concerns the degree of involvement of the Secretariat of State and the diplomats of the Holy See in the organisation, timing and structure of these meetings.
This is an important issue: it is not clear whether there was coordination with those who have long-standing professional experience on the meaning of these meetings and their consequences.
It is a more general aspect of Francis’ pontificate, where a marginalization of the Secretariat of State is perceived, not only with respect to the government of the Roman Curia and the Vatican, but also with respect to international issues.
What happened on October 7 opens an extremely delicate international issue, which in my opinion changes the coordinates of the last 60 years of dialogue and relations with Israel as a state, with Judaism, and with Islam. I believe there are limits and consequences for a pontificate that handles these things on a very personal level.
This, from my point of view, is a limit: it is a style that can work for relating to other types of interlocutors, but here I believe that there are limits and also a price to pay in terms of misunderstandings and tensions that would be better avoid.
Is Pope Francis’ management style personalistic?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: More than “personalistic,” it is personal.
The point is that we are in the presence of a style of government that does not trust, and does not rely, on filters and institutional mechanisms.
But the Holy See has a specificity on the international, legal, political and diplomatic level that needs those filters, since relating to states and bodies of international law is different from relating to a diocese or a monastery or to activist movements.
Do you think that Pope Francis is not concerned enough about the effects of his style of government on the Church as an institution?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: I am sure that there is no provocative intention and that Francis is convinced that this is the best way to act.
The question is what is the perception in the Vatican, in Santa Marta [where several dozen employees of the Vatican, several dozen officials of the Secretariat, live], of the consequences of certain words and certain actions and what is said to the Pope.
We know that the first thing that happens to those who occupy positions of vertical, monarchical power, is that those around him stop telling him the truth, or stop telling him what they really think, limiting themselves to saying what they think the monarch wants to hear.
It has always been like this, but when certain filters or institutional mechanisms fail, the problem becomes more serious.
When the style of government is set in the relationship between the Pope and the Church as a people, it is obvious that the very idea that there are mediators is relativized or despised.
But these mediators are important: they are those who must not only bring the voice of the Pope to the rest of the Church in the world, but also proceed in the other direction, that is, make other voices and other bells heard.
Is the image that of a particularly lonely Pope, who has retreated?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: I believe that Francis governs more alone than his predecessors.
In his predecessors, at least, there was something called “the papal apartment,” with a visible and identifiable secretary having a filter function.
This had some negative implications, from an imperial court, but the door through which to pass to raise certain issues was identified.
Now there is no papal apartment, the Pope’s secretary is an invisible function, which rotates every few years and has no visibility.
There is a relationship with the Roman Curia that is very difficult to understand, in the sense that there are some cardinals to whom Pope Francis is very close, but it is not at all clear what the role of the Roman Curia as such is in his pontificate.
The reform of the Roman Curia that was published last year has weakened the function of the Secretariat of State and made the Roman Curia more receptive to the global Church, but at the same time has also re-centered it more on the Pope.
This is also seen in the new “fundamental law” of the Vatican City, which was published in May 2023.
These are contradictory aspects: there is a Church which, at the urging of Pope Francis, is moving towards being more “synodal,” but at the same time it is also more “papalist.”
Is this contradiction the result of a populist choice?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: It is one of the effects of the pontificate’s emphasis on the relationship between the Pope and the people: the Church as the People of God.
It is an emphasis that has effects on the style of government, but also — for those who deal with it as theologians — on broader scope.
For example: what does it mean to be a priest or bishop or cardinal in a Church that defines itself as a “people”?
There are many open questions.
In my opinion, it is not a political type of populism, against which Pope Francis has spoken very clearly in recent years and in a critical way.
But it is precisely one of the effects of an ecclesiology — that is, of an idea of the Church as a “people,” with which the Pope relates directly.
It is a broader element of this pontificate, which does not have to do with political populism, the destructive potential of which Pope Francis has sensed, from Trump onwards.
From the war in Ukraine to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Vatican’s mediation attempts have so far produced no results. What’s not working?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: Mediation can be done when those who propose themselves as mediators are not only accepted, but are not seen as part of the problem.
And instead, both for the question of Ukraine and that of Israel, the Catholic Church and the Holy See have a different position compared to other conflicts.
This is due to a complicated history, in which Catholicism, the papacy, the Vatican were seen as part of the problem of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism first, and then of the criticality of the relationship between Catholicism and Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
The Pope’s efforts are generous.
More than mediation, I believe it is a humanitarian mission: mediation means putting oneself in the middle, and so far it does not seem to me that the Vatican or its emissaries have had this opportunity to “sit between” the two or to make them talk, but they have tried to speak to conflicting parties and other influential powers, at different times and in different places.
This was done by relying on channels that are different and parallel to those of Vatican diplomacy.
Once again, it is not clear what type of coordination there was with the Secretariat of State and with Vatican diplomacy.
But — I repeat — the two cases of Ukraine and Israel are different from others, since here Catholicism and the Roman Church have long been part of the issue and part of the problem.
Everything is more difficult and more delicate.
For this reason I believe that greater verbal discipline would be necessary.
Every word, every gesture should be carefully weighed and calibrated and the result of a consultation with the experts of the Holy See in this field, leaving nothing to good instincts and improvisation, because this lends itself to risks that do not help people to accept the true intentions of Pope Francis and the Holy See.
Was there an underestimation of the impact of the Hamas attack?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: October 7th, in my opinion, constitutes a watershed.
In the relationship with Judaism and Islam, we can no longer rely on scripts from the past, and even less can we improvise.
This is a dialogue with an Israel that is different from that of the Second Vatican Council or even that of the early 1990s, with which the Holy See signed the fundamental agreement.
Today Israel is different and the relationship between Judaism and Israel is different.
At the same time, the Islam with which Pope Francis, since the early years of his pontificate, had thought of building a dialogue is also different.
Now that Hamas is seen as the liberator by many Muslims and many Palestinians, the dialogue can only be different.
All this requires an effort of thought and reflection that no individual can do alone, not even the Pope.
After the watershed of October 7, would it be appropriate to review the document signed with the Grand Imam?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: I don’t think that agreement should be cancelled.
Clearly this is a historical event that forces us to rethink its parameters and boundaries.
What does it mean to engage in dialogue, with which interlocutors?
It means starting a process of intellectual, mental and spiritual conversion that the Pope cannot do alone, and it also means measuring words and gestures in a very conscious and very careful way.
We need a Pope who is less generous or more careful with his words than he is.
I think of the interviews and the proliferation of books that come out with him as an author or with his introduction or preface…
In my opinion, a phase of verbal continence is necessary, relying more on those who know the situation on the ground, on those who know from within the Israeli world, the international Jewish world, the Islamic world.
It is a very complex job.
But it must be done, taking into account that what the Pope says is measured more by the authority than by the quantity of his words.”
Is Pope Francis anti-Western?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: There is no doubt that the Pope is critical of some aspects of the West, but so were Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
On some points we applauded him, such as when he criticized a certain American culture on the death penalty or capitalism.
I don’t think Francis is anti-Western.
I think it is typical of a Latin American culture to be suspicious of the intentions of the West and the United States.
His attitude is part of that culture, just as it was part of John Paul II’s culture to be extremely suspicious of any openness of Catholics towards socialist or communist parties.
There is no condemnation of the West, but there is a distancing that is integral to what is happening in global Catholicism today, which is largely no longer — and will no longer be — dominated by white men of the ‘Western Europe or North America.
The fact that the Pope considers the West as something not comparable to Catholicism is nothing new; it was already evident when he visited Cuba before the US in 2015 or on other trips.
Today, however, this distance of the Pope towards the West hurts more because he joins an internal rift and a state of confusion in the West itself.
Does he stand with those we perceive to be the oppressors of the Palestinians or with those who have kidnapped and raped Israeli women?
Faced with this rift, a part of the West would like reassurance from a Pope who has never hidden that he is different.
We have now passed ten years of pontificate. How has the Church changed with Pope Francis?
Prof. Massimo Faggioli: My thesis on this pontificate is that it represents a phase of very strong acceleration towards the globalization of Catholicism, which is no longer made up of the West connected to some peripheries, but where the West becomes a periphery like the others.
Just look at who are those who study theology today in pontifical universities or in Catholic universities in Northern Europe or North America: increasingly non-European and non-Western.
It is a historic moment because the Church changes face, in a literal sense.
Which means new energies: a multicultural Church.
At the same time, it also means a much more complicated Church.
This can also be seen within the same Church — as in the Catholicism of the United States of the second Catholic president, Joe Biden.
It is a more global, less European, more multicultural, more diverse Catholicism, but also more difficult to hold together.
This, in my opinion, is the fundamental figure of a pontificate that has accepted the challenge of helping the Church to be more global and more multicultural.
This means some changes in regime and language.
It is clear that these changes are very annoying to those who have always harbored the idea that Catholicism is the pillar of the West.
It is a historical weight that Pope Francis co-interprets and accompanies, but which he did not produce: it is the result of unstoppable forces.
It is a pontificate that, in my opinion, must be understood in this context.
[End Faggioli interview]