In Materialist Praise of Pope Francis as Jesuit

This is a translation of an article by John Brown, originally published in Voces de Pradillo, 21st September.


(image by @deadelvis_blog)

In Materialist Praise of Pope Francis as Jesuit

The Jesuits were always famed as people who were convoluted and not to be trusted. It was for this that ideologues of the Reformation considered them the legitimate heirs of Machiavelli, and Pascal, in his Provincial Letters, railed against them with his savage irony for their practice of doublethink. The reader of Pascal will recall those long and hilarious quotations that the philosopher makes from the Jesuit confession manuals in which the doctrine of intention is set out. For Jesuit moral theology -as well as for Spinozist ethics, by the way- the ethical meaning of an act is determined not on account of its materiality, but its intention. To give an example that Pascal lifts from one of these manuals: when a priest appears in public without a cassock he commits a mortal sin, but if he has taken off the cassock so as not to dishonour it, since he is heading somewhere to fornicate, this act is no longer a sin. If a priest fornicates, he commits a mortal sin, but if he does it in order to satisfy a bodily craving and not to offend God, he no longer commits it.

To sum up: with a good Jesuit confessor to hand, damnation is an unlikely prospect. To be damned there must be an explicit and determined will to be damned. One has to obey, independently of the acts that are carried out, a kind of categorical imperative of evil (malum radicale) which Kant describes thus: “the source of evil cannot lie in an object determining the will through inclination, nor yet in a natural impulse; it can lie only in a rule made by the will for the use of its freedom, that is, in a maxim” (Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 31: VI, 21).

What for Pascal with his Jansenist rigour is a reprehensible stance and a monstruous doctrine is precisely what allowed the Society of Jesus to enter into contact with every variety of civilisation and to develop, long before liberation theology emerged, a pastoral ministry that was respectful of indigenous cultures. Renowned examples of this pastoral ministry are the Reductions of Paraguay, the missions of Peru and the remarkable adventure of the Jesuits who became mandarins in China and were on the verge of turning the Chinese empire into a Catholic country. The idea that acts matter little and what is essential is the intention thus translates into a political maxim very close to that of Machiavelli, for whom tactics must always be subordinated to the strategic finality. The stance of the Jesuit is a political stance, but as such it responds well to the essentially political character of the Catholic Church described by Carl Schmitt. The Christian politician that is the Jesuit knows how, as Saint Paul says, to be “Greek among the Greeks and a Jew among the Jews”, since what matters is not the rite but the effective intention.

Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, is a Jesuit and this Jesuitism of his is not incidental but an essential characteristic of his thought and action. The doctrine of intention is present in each of his declarations, not as hypocrisy, but rather as evangelical liberation of human reality, of restoring to nature its innocence. Thus, when he reminds people that there should not be so much importance given to matters of sexual morality and that people should not be tormented with such matters, he is subordinating human acts to the intention that inspires them, he is refraining from considering any concrete act as ‘intrinsically evil’. Thus he can claim that even atheists who do righteous work and obey their conscience save themselves, thereby defending in the name of Christianity a complete freedom of thought in line with that claimed by Spinoza in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Acts may be very diverse as long as there exists a true intention. Sin, however, exists, and it exists in that malign will to lose oneself, in that absolute will to disregard the other, in the incapacity to love that liberation theologists named as “objective sin”. An objective sin is the result of a malign will: politically orchestrated misery, torture, State assassination, exploitation, cannot have as their end an obedience to a moral law of love and respect for the other.

Despite the huge plasticity of the evangelical message, not everything goes. Bergoglio, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, saw fit to associate with the effective head of State of the Republic of Argentina, General Videla, because a politician speaks with the devil himself. This does not mean that he shared his perspectives in the slightest, as was the case, lamentably, with other sectors of the Argentinian church. Bergoglio may have attended official Junta receptions, but above all he was a regular in the slums, in the places where the poorest lived. This does not make him explicitly a liberation theologian, but Jesuitism remains the stance that makes a theology of liberation possible. There are no liberation theologians in Opus Dei nor can there be any, because Opus Dei focuses on acts, and classifies human acts as intrinsically virtuous or perverse, without it mattering to them the intention with which they are carried out. Opus Dei professes a legalistic Christianity that has very little Christian in its essence, and is very close to the Pharisaical Judaism that subjects life to the thoroughgoing empire of the Law.

The Jesuit pastoral style allows Pope Francis to address the poorest in a direct and open way: on the island of Lampedusa, visiting the clandestine migrants abandoned to their fate by the State and by most of the Italian left, in Brazil with the people of the favelas, and in Rome itself, by proposing that empty convents take in the undocumented and the homeless. He is understood to have said that “I have never been right-wing”, thereby separating himself from those on the right who brandish Catholicism as a weapon, and placing in a difficult situation those Spanish clerics who act politically hand in hand with the party of the neo-Francoist right. There are those who say that this is merely words and gestures, but words and gestures produce effects. They are already producing them. Bergoglio knows -and says- that a Church that exclusively proclaims a reactionary biopolitical message against women and sexual freedom has its days numbered.

There is a need to abandon the image of confessionals transformed into ‘torture chambers’ and of the sinister paedophile priest and embrace once again the messianic message of the new time. In this sense, Francis as the head of the Church is proving adept at reconciling two characteristics of this longstanding institution that have often stood in opposition: messianism and political capacity. They are two characteristics that the left always claimed for itself and that it has now abandoned in the name of realism and ideological intransigence. Let us hope to learn something from the current teaching of the Church by getting rid of the equivalent of the paedophile priests and the Pharisees, those sinister bureaucrats, the sad reciters of dogma, and those sadder still who praise sanguinary despots as champions of liberty.


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3 responses to “In Materialist Praise of Pope Francis as Jesuit

  1. This is an excellent take on Francis, especially compared to the fantastical dross of major news outlets, including the Irish Times.

    I think it is still too far removed from Francis’ most pressing characteristic – he is a cardinal appointed in the JPII-BXVI era. He will be a reformer in the sense of continuing Vatican II. He will not be a reformer in any way that radically diverges from his Polish and German predecessors. In Catholic terms, he will maintain a hermeneutic of continuity, not rupture.

    As far as his Jesuit identity goes, I think it is probably hugely significant that he considers himself a “mystic” Jesuit, not an “ascetic”. I am hopeful that he will continue as he has started but I neither think there will be radical changes on the (about five) issues that still linger from the Reformation, never mind a serious engagement with the social agenda more prevalent in the West in 2013. Does that make sense?

  2. Excellent piece. Thanks for putting it up. Need to think about it a bit, and I really do think it’s too early to start ‘believing’ in Francis, but daring to hope that the Church might (begin to) redeem itself seems possible now.

  3. Eoin O'Mahony

    I am thankful for the work done here and skeptical of the prospects for change in equal measure. Beyond that, this far flung colony of Rome will cling by its nails to pietistic devotionalism.

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