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Spiritual Worldliness: Pope Francis’ Critique of the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 27, 2013

My use of “pope” in the title is a little misleading, because I am going to write about what Cardinal Bergoglio said of the needs of the Church in the congregations preceding the conclave at which he was elected. But amid all the speculation we have heard in recent days about the new pope’s priorities, only one report has struck me as particularly interesting.

This was the report by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana that he had been authorized by Pope Francis to release the notes he had made for his address during the meetings of the cardinals leading up to the conclave (see Cuban cardinal: before conclave, Pope Francis challenged Church not to be narcissistic). The complete text of these notes, as presented by Cardinal Ortega, has been provided by Vatican Radio.

I will not speculate whether these notes are, in effect, an outline of the intended course of Francis’ pontificate, but they certainly contain some strong language. Because some of that language is a bit abstract, however, it will be useful—after briefly summarizing his notes—to provide some concrete examples of what Jorge Mario Bergoglio meant as a cardinal, and has now released publicly as Pope.

He advised that the next pope needed to overcome a tendency within the Church to be self-referential or narcissistic. The Church, he said, needed to “come out of herself”, moving not just to the geographical but to the “existential” peripheries (the troubled material, moral and spiritual edges on which people live their lives), in order to evangelize effectively. When she fails to do this, the Church becomes self-referential, which is a kind of sickness. This leads her into a very serious spiritual evil, which the great theologian Cardinal Henri de Lubac called the worst evil that can befall the Church, namely “spiritual worldliness”.

Now it is important to understand this properly. The Church in her essence cannot be sick. Essentially speaking, she is the body and the bride of Christ. She becomes sick only through her members, and especially those among her members who represent her in the specifically hierarchical capacities demanded by her Divine constitution. So when the future Pope Francis referred to being self-referential, to narcissism, and—speaking very plainly—to spiritual worldliness, he was not criticizing the Church “without spot or wrinkle” as described by St. Paul in Ephesians 5.

No, he was talking about a certain attitude among the Church’s members—narcissistic, self-referential, worldly in their very spirituality—which makes the Church as an institution extremely ill.

A Partial List of Examples of Spiritual Narcissism

This critique of a certain malaise in the Church can refer only to one thing: When we start defining the Church according to how we ourselves are, we are committing this sin of narcissism; we are being self-referential. And in this sense, we are making the Church self-referential in all of her operations, which must be carried out through her members. Let us consider some practical applications of the Pope’s thesis.

  • When theologians and academicians redefine faith and morals according to their own desires (chiefly, in our day, through the cancer of Modernism), they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When laymen use the Church for their spiritual comfort while rejecting whatever Catholic teachings they do not like, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When people at any level in the Church decide they are not called to express the way, the truth and the life of Christ to others because it is outside their personal comfort zone, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When affluent Catholics constantly find excuses, including legal and political excuses, for not stretching themselves to serve the poor, including immigrants, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When those with strong feelings about certain traditions and the liturgy claim that they alone are the bearers of the true light of Christ, dividing themselves from others and from obedience to ecclesiastical authority, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When cardinals and bishops refuse to speak truth to power, preferring to enjoy life with “people who matter”, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When Catholics invest their emotions and their sense of mission in unapproved apparitions or other similar phenomena, as if these hold the key to everything, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When priests alter the liturgy to suit their tastes or fail to teach the fullness of Catholic doctrine, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • When religious communities depart from their founding charisms and pursue essentially secular goals with a spiritual veneer, they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.
  • Whenever anyone defines right and wrong in terms of chronology (“Come on, it’s 2013! Don’t be so medieval!”), he or she is being narcissistic and self-referential, and making the Church sick.
  • And when Catholics fail to seek constant enlightenment from both the Church and the Holy Spirit in prayer, preferring to go on spiritually without making any real effort to lay bare their own spiritual weaknesses—preferring the comfort of an apparently serene but half-hearted and surely one-sided Christianity—then they are being narcissistic and self-referential, and they are making the Church sick.

This is what Cardinal Bergoglio was explaining to his brothers just before they elected him pope. He may have used some academic language to refer to the problem. Indeed, Pope Benedict had done the same, calling it “self-secularization”. But it really is not so difficult to understand. When we make the Church into what we see in the mirror, instead of stretching ourselves to the “existential peripheries”, we plunge the Church into spiritual worldliness. We make the Church sick.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 29, 2013 12:00 PM ET USA

    You know, we constantly have to re-examine our hearts to see who we are ignoring in our living of the Gospel. We write so many people off because we just don't believe that they will accept what is not our message, but God's. I am glad that Pope Francis is offering such a strong example of what missionary work ought to be today. The fields are white with harvest.

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Mar. 28, 2013 11:22 AM ET USA

    Thank you Dr. Mirus ... this helps to convey the Popes message to "the masses" in much more diagestable form.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 28, 2013 7:23 AM ET USA

    Thank you!

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