Pope Francis has shown himself to be his own man. In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, the Holy Father turned back efforts to create a precedent for relaxing the clerical celibacy requirement in the Latin Church. He also opposed the calls for women in the priesthood, deriding them (rightly) as a form of clerical “reductionism.”
In the past, I have written about my forebodings. I feared that Pope Francis would authorize married clergy in the Amazonian region, which would have set a precedent sure to be exploited by those eager to change the priesthood throughout the West. I am pleased to have been mistaken.
I never doubted the Holy Father’s strong will. I repent of my fears that he would use his tremendous energy and tenacious determination to undermine the discipline of celibacy for the priesthood—a discipline that serves, in the Church in the rich world of Europe and North America, as the only visible resistance to the sexual revolution. Faced with pressure to signal openness to “change,” Francis showed steadfast commitment to the spiritual wisdom of the Latin Church—not unlike Paul VI’s courageous refusal to be cowed by “experts” in the debate about contraception.
Querida Amazonia is about much more than the controverted question of who can be ordained to the priesthood. Francis speaks about environmental issues in the Amazonian region. As had John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he calls for “dialogue” and a “culture of encounter.” I find these notions off-putting, not just because they are vague, but because they traffic in the clichés of late-modern secular culture in the West. The Church should use her own theological language, not the world’s ersatz spiritual vocabulary.
The apostolic exhortation manifests a deep tension. There are calls to cultivate and celebrate “diversity.” These slogans have strong technocratic implications. They treat culture as something to be managed as rainbow coalitions are confected and diversity pageants are staged. Elsewhere the document calls for “sustainable management” of the Amazonian ecosystem, and by implication the cultural ecology of the region as well. At the same time, Pope Francis criticizes the technocratic mentality, as he did in Laudato si'.
This tension is not limited to Francis’s magisterium. It characterizes almost all of our thinking these days. We desperately want to believe that we can solve our problems with management techniques rather than the hard work of leadership.
Francis strongly affirms the evangelical mission of the Church, repeating his observation that the Church, although deeply concerned about the material well-being of God’s creatures, is not an NGO. But other weak formulations undercut this strong emphasis. One section opens: “The Church is called to journey alongside the people of the Amazon region.” Alongside, rather than transforming and fructifying from within?
In today’s Church, the arguments for married priests and the ordination of women draw upon theories of “inculturation.” The idea is that the truth of the gospel takes distinct forms in different cultural situations, drawing upon the language and practices of specific times and places in order to communicate eternal truths.
In a key passage, Pope Francis repeats a formulation from his earlier apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.” There is something right about this formulation. God reveals himself to man, who is always already formed by the cultural milieu in which he lives. But in this approach there is a temptation to adopt a postmodern mindset that substitutes culture for nature.
When this happens, the proper theological affirmation of our created nature too easily gets translated into an improper affirmation of each and every cultural context. Grace does not destroy but perfects nature, St. Thomas teaches. But in many instances grace does destroy culture, or at least some aspects of a culture. Pope Francis indicates as much when he observes the ways in which the gospel insists upon the dignity of all persons, especially the least among us. In many cultures, this affirmation of equality before God is revolutionary and not a journeying “alongside.”
There is a further problem with this formulation. Grace is distinct from nature, because God’s creative act is distinct from his redemptive and consummating act in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But grace is not distinct from culture in this fundamental way. On the contrary, the supernatural life of Christian discipleship creates a culture. The way of Christ is not a sentiment or internal conviction but instead a way of life (which forms our sentiments and shapes our convictions).
We must beware theories of inculturation. They almost always participate in the anti-metaphysical assumptions of postmodern thought, assumptions that treat culture as the foundation of human reality rather than nature and the created order. The Francis pontificate is by no means uniquely vulnerable to this seductive view. In the mid-twentieth century, Catholicism rejected scholasticism. In so doing, the Church discarded the intellectual tradition that had guarded against the anti-metaphysical trends that have dominated modern intellectual life since Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican revolution.” All of us need to recover the metaphysical horizon for our theological reflection. In the meantime, we can be grateful that Pope Francis has guarded the Church’s wisdom about the discipline and formation of priests.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.