I’ve been mulling over Pope Francis’ oft-repeated warnings about the “self-referential church”—as this Vatican Radio article describes it:
…a church that is closed in on itself, stagnant…only looking to and relying on itself. He spoke of a “narcissism that leads to a routine spirituality and convoluted clericalism” and prevents people from experiencing the sweet and comforting joy of evangelization.
The self-referential church neglects the injunction to go out to the “ends of the earth,” avoiding any spontaneous, unscripted contact with the outside world. This is partly out of sheer preoccupation with its own internal affairs, but also because its pastors fail to see the point of dealing with the sheep who aren’t already within it—as if the 99 were thriving within the security of the fold
and only one, the exception, was wandering around lost.
But as Pope Francis has pointed out, it’s the other way around. "Today we have one in the pen and 99 we need to go looking for." Some are lapsed, and some have never really been introduced to the shepherd in the first place. The pastor who isolates himself from the 99 is no pastor at all; he’s more like a “hairdresser for sheep.”
The sheep on the outside, if they’re considered at all, are viewed as dangerous. It’s a bunker mentality, and it has a certain appeal to, say, apprehensive parents looking out upon a landscape of reckless hedonists, regulation-happy collectivists, self-absorbed politicians, clueless relativists, resolute terrorists, and useful idiots. They figure their best shot at survival is to ghettoize themselves and their dependents as thoroughly as possible and try to avoid contagion.
The only trouble is, this contradicts the essence of the Church.
It contradicts the essence of the person, too. The self-referential person, like Arnold Lobel’s crocodile in the bedroom, prefers to stake out a small, manageable bit of territory and concentrate on that. He’s “controlling” (an overused word, but one that describes a real disorder), and he abhors complications. And it's true: there’s nothing more liable to spawn complications than other human beings.
But “it is not good for man to be alone.” Man is designed to enter into communion with others. Even the self-referential person can dimly sense this, so he seeks the kind of relationship found in those unfortunate lyrics: "I love the way you make me feel"--self-absorption masquerading as something higher. Or he focuses his God-given other-directedness to digitally enhanced images of other people and remains stuck in pitiable isolation.
Here's the original (and much more appealing) plan: the person falls in love—bumps up against another human being in all his or her unmanipulable otherness. Children arrive, and there's nothing like children to coax or compel a person out of his own little self. The children grow up, sporting individual personalities. Complications break out right and left. The would-be controlling parents meet their match.
Then maybe things go smoothly, and the family forms a cozy, cohesive unit of easy mutual understanding. In fact, it may start to become a little insular: a self-referential family. But wait: one of the kids brings a son-in-law, mother-in-law, and father-in-law into the picture, and that's the end of that.
And so on.
So, as usual, Pope Francis has hit upon something that demands an unflinching examination, not of large, impersonal meta-structures, but of you and me. The solution to the problem of a self-referential church will have to pass by way of the acknowledgement and the healing of the self-referential person.