In the opening line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, stately, plump Buck Mulligan bears “a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Holding the bowl aloft he declares, “Introibo ad altare Dei.” Mulligan, in this symbolic action, expresses Joyce’s critique of Christianity: a combination of sadism, the razor, and narcissism, the mirror.
The natural Christian response to Joyce is defensiveness or dismissiveness, possibly peppered with ad hominem attacks against the author. Joyce, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Raised in a Catholic culture, his knowledge of Christianity was not lacking. His work frequently references obscure theology and ancient Church councils, and he was a shrewd and insightful observer of human psychology. Although his criticism is not true of authentic Catholicism, there must have been something in what Joyce saw of the Church that led him to conclude that communicants at the High Altar were spiritually on par with Homer’s lotus-eaters or with Leopold Bloom masturbating in the bath.
It is striking that Cardinal Bergoglio, on the eve of his election as Pope Francis, observed that “The evils that, over time, occur in ecclesiastical institutions have roots of referentiality, a sort of theological narcissism.” According to a document released by Cardinal Ortega containing the notes for Bergoglio’s address to the conclave, “The Church, when it is self-referential, without realizing it, believes it has a light of its own; it ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives rise to this evil that is so serious that of spiritual worldliness . . . . Put simply, there are two images of Church: the evangelizing Church taking leave of itself which religiously hears the Word of God and faithfully proclaims it . . . or the worldly Church living in itself, of itself, for itself.”
Bergoglio called for a pope who would dedicate himself to helping the Church to move outside of herself to become a fruitful mother. He was subsequently elected by the conclave to be that pope.
Spiritual narcissism is one of the great evils that plagues the Church. It is tempting to place the onus for this kind of self-referential Catholicism on others: dissident theologians, heterodox priests, and salad-bar Catholics. This, however, is itself a narcissistic approach: It assumes that whatever is unlovely in the Church lies outside of the tantalizingly beautiful image of oneself in that pond over which the Spirit broods.
Joyce did not criticize a postmodern culture of pro-choice Catholics, lukewarm liberals, and milquetoast bishops. He observed spiritual narcissism in the Catholic culture of early twentieth-century Ireland. The roots of this problem are not to be found in post-Vatican II laxity. Indeed, Pope Francis has been clear in calling all the faithful to go outside of their own comfort zones, “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to . . . the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery, into the existential peripheries.” Not only those who have replaced the faith with their own convictions are implicated, but also those, like Joyce’s lotus-eaters, who have allowed the faith to become an exercise in self-referential ritualism and legalism.
This is a great challenge for the faithful because it calls into question the very practices by which Christians feel themselves to be a holy people, consecrated, “set apart.” The comforting habits of the faith, the laws of the Church, the language of Christian discourse, the liturgical rubrics, all have the capacity to become idols unless they are ordered towards a profound and concrete communion with the other.
I suspect that this is why Francis has chosen to scandalize those who serve these idols with his actions: not wearing the correct liturgical garments, washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday, etc. He brings into focus the feeling of pride one takes in knowing what kind of vest the pope is supposed to wear, in being able to quote the rubric which states that the feet of “viri selecti” be washed—and in knowing that the Latin phrase excludes women. In doing such things the pope has chosen to scandalize the faithful in order to inspire the world.
He has done so to call the Church to a more radical engagement with the culture. At present, evangelical witness is frequently hampered by a cliquish Catholicism, which desires a rarefied faith, inaccessible to those outside the Church. Such Catholicism is concerned primarily with the creation of a Christian culture in which the faithful might be sheltered from the pervasive evils of the world. Even when it seeks to expand the fold, the focus is frequently on converting those who worship Christ but who are not in communion with Rome. If outreach to the broader culture exists at all it is in the form of an attack: The lies of secular agendas are exposed, the sins of the world laid bare, and sinners are called to repentance in terms that could only be meaningful to someone already steeped in Catholic theology. The bottom line is the maintenance of a uniform militaristic front, which allows the faithful to consolidate their Christian identity in a desperate last stand against the ungodly depravities of Neo-Sodom.
Not only Francis but also his predecessors have called the Church to something more. Pope Benedict XVI recently directed the Curia to pursue a genuine dialogue in which “it is necessary to learn to accept the other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking . . . True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding”that is correct. But all the same, the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth.”
He goes on to address those who are concerned that in the process their Christian identity might be compromised. “As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth . . . . On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”
A dialogue of this kind is necessary, not only to convert the world, but also to save the Church herself from narcissistic insularity. Only through radical communion, through the intersubjective exchange of “gifts of self” between the Church and the world is it possible to escape from the circular self-love which keeps Christ trapped within the Church, knocking at the door from the inside, trying to get out.
Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. A regular columnist for the National Catholic Register, her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including This Rock, The Catholic Answer, and New Oxford Review.