Action Alert!

The Ideal of Pope Francis: the Servant Church

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 23, 2013

“When the Church becomes closed up on itself it gets sick.” With that single sentence, uttered during a prayer vigil before Pentecost, Pope Francis summed up the most important theme of his pontificate.

Before the conclave that elected him, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio reportedly captured the attention of the cardinal-electors with a short address in which he spoke about the need to escape from a “self-referential Church.” He has also spoken of his longing for a Church “that is poor, and for the poor.” All these phrases point in the same direction: toward a Church that exists to serve.

What exactly is this thing that our new Pope fears? What is a “self-referential” Church? The term is not easy to define. Clearly the Pope wants a Church that serves God, and serves the People of God, without regard to itself. But how can we know if, or when, the Church is acting that way?

It’s all too easy to reply that the Pope wants to serve the spiritual rather than institutional needs of the Church. On one level that’s certainly true; the spiritual needs take priority. But it is dangerous to assume that the “institutional Church” is somehow separate from the spiritual body. The Church is an institution, established by Jesus Christ on this earth rather than in some ideal spiritual realm, and run by mortal men with human weaknesses.

That institution, moreover, has material needs: churches in which to enact the Eucharistic liturgy, rectories in which to house the priests ordained for that purpose, convents and monasteries, hospitals and schools. A healthy Church will be constantly growing, steadily building, thereby creating still more material needs. When he speaks of a “poor” Church, Pope Francis certainly does not intend that dioceses should suddenly sell off all those churches and hospitals and schools. As a faithful steward the Church should care for these properties, to ensure that they last, to ensure that they serve the people well.

If the Church is morally obligated to look after her own material needs, what does Pope Francis mean when he decries the “self-referential” Church? I think that single sentence at the Pentecost vigil summarizes his point neatly. The “self-referential” Church is the Church that has closed up on itself—the Church that is absorbed with self-preservation rather than with evangelization.

The “self-referential Church”—the Church that is distracted from its true purpose by all-too-human concerns—has been a special concern of mine for years. I once spent 258 pages trying to explain, with concrete illustrations, what Pope Francis conveyed in that single sentence on the eve of Pentecost. Now, inspired by this new Pope’s teaching, I propose to try again: not only explaining the danger of the “self-referential Church,” but also proposing a way to escape that trap.

For today, consider just one way in which the Church can become closed up within itself: by responding to danger with an eye toward preserving a public image. How many times, in the past decade or two, have we found that a scandal took root because some diocesan official thought a grievous wrong should be covered up in order to protect the Church from public criticism? That attitude—the attitude that spawned the sex-abuse scandal—is, I submit, a perfect example of the “self-referential” Church.

The Church is the Body of Christ. How much effort did Jesus devote to protecting his own reputation? He declined to answer his accusers, even with his life on the line. He died as a condemned criminal. When the jeering crowd suggested that He come down from the Cross to prove Himself the Messiah, he ignored the taunts. Think about it: Jesus, the Lord of the universe, had the power to come down from the Cross. By doing so He would have silenced the scoffers. He surely would have restored—indeed immeasurably enhanced!—his own public stature in Jerusalem. But He did not do so, because that was not his mission. His mission was to serve; his mission was to suffer.

The mission of the Church is the same: to serve and to suffer. The self-referential Church sees public obloquy as a disaster to be avoided at all costs. A healthy Church sees the contempt of the world as a sign of spiritual progress, another welcome opportunity to conform ourselves to the image of Christ.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 26, 2013 5:54 PM ET USA

    I agree with what Phil Lawler says here, but in light of the pope's remarks this week about atheists -- totally orthodox and proper in my view, but widely and wildly misinterpreted-- I would like to see Phil's take on this proposition: Church leaders, particularly the pope, need to choose their words very carefully always; if a thought can be twisted to lend talking points to those who hate the Church, it must be couched in absolutely unambiguous language. Post facto explanations are never good.