Above, Italian journalist Sandro Magister, whose generally conservative letters about the Church and the Vatican are widely read around the world
Letter #45, Friday, July 2, 2021: Sandro Magister on the Problem of Personality
Is there a danger of “cultish” behavior in various movements in the Church… and in the Church as a whole?
Given the innate tendency of human to seek and follow a strong personality, the answer is “Yes.” Yes, there can be such a danger.
But this answer needs to be qualified immediately by noting that the danger is also present outside of the Church. Indeed, it is present in every human institution, every political party, every philosophical or social movement, even in sports, music, art…
So slipping into “cult-like” behavior is not a problem limited to religion, or to the Church, but a human problem, a human dilemma: how to have leaders, teachers, guiders, how to be a leader, teacher, guide, without excess, without deforming the due, healthy, reasonable relationship between teacher and student, leader and follower, master and disciple, hero and ordinary person.
Charisms of the Holy Spirit, or “Cult of Human Personality”?
Yet it is a legitimate question for the Church: How can leadership in the Church flourish and bear fruit without becoming exaggerated, cultish, without dominating, even abusing, the God-given individuality and dignity of students, followers, disciples?
Without causing spiritual misery?
Without damaging souls setting out on the ever-renewed search for greater closeness to God, greater intimacy with Christ, greater control over selfish impulses, deeper conformity to God’s holy will for the individual and the world?
And the Church has asked this question over and over again.
In fact, it is one of the glories of the Church’s history and tradition that this question has repeatedly come into focus and repeatedly been addressed by canon law and wise traditions.
This is, in fact, the essence of “pastoral care” — of caring for souls, guiding souls, assisting souls, strengthening souls, without oppressing souls.
The Care of Souls
The Church has a glorious history of wise formation and pastoral care.
The Church’s canon law specifically protects many “followers” in the Church from the excesses of their “leaders.”
Monks and nuns, for example, are protected from (possible) excessive authoritarianism on the part of their abbots and mother superiors.
And in the spiritual life, the Church is deeply aware, and teaches in her centuries-old tradition, that individual souls often need protection from unwise and over-zealous (we might even use the word “fanatical”) spiritual counselors.
The touchstone of this care is the Logos, the “Word,” the “Reason” of God, that is, Christ.
The Logos inspires with “sweet reason” — but it is not for this reason weak.
The Logos is strong, even implacable, iron-like — but it is not for this reason lacking in tenderness, for it seeks to bring life to souls, not death, to open and fructify them, not close and deaden them.
This is why the Church is rightly called “mater et magistra” — “Mother and Teacher.”
And this is why an article today from Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister is so interesting and important.
Magister speaks about the danger of a “cult of personality” in Church institutions, then cites a very thoughtful essay on the matter by the Italian Catholic scholar, Leonardo Lugaresi.
And I chose to send out this article in its entirety because I thought it might turn out to be helpful in the coming months.
Here below is the complete text of Sandro’s letter of today.
“Long live Francis!” The Serious Risks of a Personalization of the Papacy (link)
By Sandro Magister
It is no mystery that Pope Francis has very little sympathy for those ecclesial movements — from the Focolarini to the Neocatechumenals, from the Legionaries to the Charismatics — which instead were so beloved by John Paul II. Proof of this is the decree of last June 3 that imposed stringent term limits on their administrative positions, in some cases essentially beheading them.
The silence with which the movements have reacted to the decree is an indication of how badly they have digested it. However, it must be said that in recent years there have been too many cases of “appropriation of charism, personalism, centralization of functions as well as expressions of self-referentiality, which easily cause serious violations of personal dignity and freedom and even real abuses,” as stated in the explanatory note that accompanied the decree.
The number of “scandals” that have marked some movements at the hands of their own founders is now high enough to make such an acute observer of Church life as Leonardo Lugaresi, a scholar of the early Christian centuries, say that “we are in the presence of a comprehensive phenomenon, disturbing and in some ways mysterious, that we could call a crisis of charisms.”
In a recent in-depth commentary, Lugaresi has analyzed the profound nature of this crisis, and identified it in that polar tension which is typical of Christianity, between the universality of God’s love for men and the “mystery of the election” by God of a single person, or of a single people, through which his saving love reaches everyone.
In the person of Jesus, true God and true man, this polar tension is resolved in the “most vertiginous of mysteries.”
But what is valid for Jesus, and for him alone, “no longer applies to any of his disciples.”
Each has his own “personality” that is not always able to make itself transparent to the “charism” given by the Spirit.
And “perhaps the trial that the Church is going through, with the crisis of charisms, is a healthy jolt that serves to purify and rectify our awareness of that gift.”
But look out. Lugaresi cautions that “in the present ecclesial situation, the problem of personality also seems to directly affect the Church as institution, meaning the very pole that should, by its nature, be in beneficial tension with personal charisms.”
And this is also true for the Pope, because “in the Church a process that we could call the personalization of the papacy has been underway for some time,” a phenomenon that many “consider “providential,” but of which “there is now a clearer view of the negative aspects as well.”
Lugaresi writes and explains this in the final part of his essay reproduced a bit further down.
But his entire commentary is worth reading, on this other page of Settimo Cielo:
> Il problema della personalità nella Chiesa. Il papa e i movimenti
Another must-read from Lugaresi is his latest book, published in 2020 but already anticipated in one of his essays from 2018 reproduced on Settimo Cielo, on the Christianity of the first centuries presented as an example for today’s Christians, a minority in a secularized West:
> “Vivere da cristiani in un mondo non cristiano”
[End, introduction by Sandro Magister; beginning, excerpts from an essay by Italian scholar Leonardo Lugaresi]
WHEN ALL BELIEVE THEY KNOW THE POPE
by Leonardo Lugaresi
In the Church a process has been underway for some time that we could call the personalization of the papacy.
By this expression I mean the prevalence, in the perception of the faithful but also in the style of exercising papal authority, of elements that pertain to the personality of the one who is the “
pro tempore” wielder of this, relative to his institutional import that is instead separate from the person who happens to bear it on his shoulders.
In the simplest terms, this means that by now, for almost all of us, Francis, or Benedict, or John Paul, or whoever it may be counts quite a bit more than the function of the pope as such.
It would be very interesting to study historically the phases of this process, which must be kept distinct from the analysis, already well explored historiographically, of the institutional development of the papacy. […]
I hazard the hypothesis that a first stage in this personalistic evolution of the pope as “perceived,” who is increasingly overshadowing the real one, was completed around the figure of Pius IX.
It was not for nothing that St. John Bosco (who could see what was coming!) admonished his boys never to shout “Long live Pius IX!” but rather “Long live the Pope!”
It is probable that a decisive juncture, in the personalistic evolution of the papacy, was then represented by the pontificate of Pius XII, the “Pastor angelicus” [“Angelic Pastor”] who not without reason was in 1942 the subject of a famous documentary film the viewing of which, under the profile that interests us here, is very instructive.
The centralization of the Church in the figure of the Pope was a distinguishing feature of that pontificate and there is limited validity in the objection that in that case it was the person of Eugenio Pacelli that vanished in the institutional role and not vice versa, because all the same even in that apparently negating, transcending, sacralizing form it was still the personality that came out front and center.
Even the perception of the pontificate of John XXIII, in universal popular sentiment, was essentially determined by the personality of the “good pope” (as was said, with an unprecedented formula on the auspiciousness of which there is much food for thought), which since then has been significantly inflated over every other aspect of his reign.
In the pontificate of John Paul II, then, the process of personalization — this time based without pretense or hand-wringing on the gigantic human personality of Karol Wojtyla, for so many of us so irresistibly fascinating — took giant steps, with effects that are probably irreversible or very difficult to reverse.
In all this, of course, a decisive role is played by that more general phenomenon of the mediatization of experience which involves all of us to an equal extent, inside and outside the Church, although I do not know if it has yet been adequately studied and understood precisely in its influence on the ecclesial events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The physiological tension between the institutional dimension of authority and the personality of the subject who exercises it “pro tempore,” which has always existed, in today’s entertainment-driven society is being exacerbated (and in part also distorted) by the media communication system, which exalts, amplifies, and distorts the personality of the leader and makes him deceptively close and familiar to the people, projecting his silhouette on the screen of public representation in such a way as to cloak his institutional function.
All believe they know him and are indeed somehow familiar to him, because they have seen him countless times onscreen but even more so because they have heard him speak and act according to a communicative style intentionally made to give — at a distance! — the impression that he is addressing each of us, as in a relationship of close proximity.
A while back, who could ever say he “knew the pope,” apart from the inhabitants of Rome? For everyone else in the Catholic ecumene the reigning pope was little more than a name.
His acts of government and magisterium passed almost exclusively through the peripheral institutions of the Church, in a strictly hierarchical way: from the pope to the bishops, from the bishops to the parish priests, and from these to the faithful.
Today, on the contrary, there are more and more Christians who may not even know who their parish priest is, but know very well (that is, they believe they know) the Pope.
Thus the idea of the pope as “parish priest of the world” is taking hold more and more: one may think, in this sense, of the function performed by Francis’s daily Mass at Santa Marta during the long months of the pandemic suspension of the liturgy.
Why then am I putting forward the thesis that here there is, in addition to an undeniable pastoral opportunity, also a problem for the Church?
Because, as has been said, the personality — any personality! — in its function as a tool of transmission for the Christian proclamation (that is, a clay vessel that contains a treasure, according to the indispensable metaphor of Saint Paul), cannot do other than be of help to some and of hindrance (or at least not of help) to others.
Now, if one refers to the charismatic personalities that lead the various ecclesial movements, this fact is compensated for by the fundamental freedom that each baptized person has, in their regard, to take up or leave aside the type of appeal that each of them issues; and the “many mansions” of the different charisms that the Spirit continually elicits in the Church allow anyone who may wish to find the one most suited to his own personality.
With the Church as institution, however, the matter is more complicated, because on the one hand its hierarchical structures concern and govern all, and no one can declare himself exempt from them with impunity, while on the other hand it too cannot help but embody itself in persons, each with his own personality.
If the relationship between “institutional personality” and institution is not conducted with the utmost Christian authenticity and methodological rigor, it is inevitable that problems will arise, even serious ones.
As long as one remains at the low and intermediate levels, the drawback presented by a personality that overshadows his own institutional function in a way not positive for others’ faith can be solved relatively easily, by virtue of the freedom accorded to the faithful.
If, for example, the overflowing personality of my parish priest is not a help but an obstacle to my journey of faith, nothing prevents me from going to another parish.
But with the Pope, obviously, all of this does not work, because there is only one Pope (even now, no matter what some misinformed people say!) and that goes for all.
That he, like everyone, should have a personality is natural.
But that in the concrete exercise of the Petrine function, over the last one hundred and fifty years and for a series of reasons that cannot be explored here, the influence of the papal personality should have kept growing to the point of becoming predominant, as it is today, I do not believe to be a good thing.
The excess of personality, if I may so express myself, in the case of the Pope can even become divisive, thus ending up, paradoxically, contradicting one of the fundamental requirements of Peter’s ministry, the safeguarding of unity.
I will stop here, because I certainly do not claim to be able to exhaust such a delicate and complex problem.
It is enough for me to have posed it, advancing the thesis that it is necessary to protect the Petrine “munus” from the risk of personalization, correcting, as far as possible, a decades-long trend that perhaps in the past many of us considered providential, seeing only its positive aspects, whereas now we also have a better view of the negative. (Leonardo Lugaresi)