The Personalist Project

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.

Comments (9)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 22, 2013 8:22am

Devra, in the main, I agree. But I have to admit that since the last election, I've been acquiring that mentality you describe so well:

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.

I am sometimes actually asking myself whether we have not arrived at a moment in history, something like the end of the dark ages and the beginning of the medieval period, where the best hope of preserving what can be preserved lies in a sort of new monasticism.

I'm thinking not just in terms of avoiding contagion, but of establishing real communities rooted in faith.  It's about buliding our sense of identity. 

I can't shake it.

Devra Torres

#2, Jun 24, 2013 6:53pm

Katie, your comment, along with one by John Janaro (on facebook) has made me see the need for a lot more distinctions, which I think will fit better in a follow-up post than in a comment.  I think there's a both-and answer here: it's not as if we have to choose between fear-driven isolation and throwing ourselves and our children to the wolves, in the name of being leaven in the loaf.

Stay tuned!

Patrick Dunn

#3, Jun 25, 2013 10:51am

I struggle with this too.  While I want to be, and I know that I ought to be, involved in that sweet joy of evangelization, I sometimes find myself thinking: "let the dead bury their dead."  I struggle with the frustration of trying to reconcile being all things to all people with my sense that some people just want you to bend over backwards for them - it's they who are self-referential: "We piped you a tun but you did not dance...".

I am not worried about "survival" or even the culture in itself.  If Christian culture continues to go by the wayside, then maybe in God's Providence it will, as Ratzinger thought, lead to a stronger Church - perhaps a group of believers who are more authentic.  It's not 'the faith' they are enamoured with, but Christ.  Some people, I think, put their faith in Faith - or its seeming triumph.  That is idolatry.

Devra Torres

#4, Jun 30, 2013 9:56am

Patrick, I think I see what you mean, though I'm not positive.  I think "let the dead bury their dead" can't possibly apply to the people we're called to evangelize--nobody's absolutely unreachable until the end of their earthly life.  It's certainly true that some people aren't interested in honestly listening--we're all "self-referential," some more dramatically or obviously so than others.  But we can't declare anybody hopeless until they're dead, and sometimes the cold are more reachable than the lukewarm.

On putting your faith in Faith, or the historical triumph of Catholicism, rather than in Christ--yes, that's a subtle trap.  The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced there's no solution to anything except by way of the person: there's no getting around one-on-one evangelization--hopelessly inefficient as that seems--and there's no getting around the effort to realize that Christ is a person, and we're not treating Him like one if we're only interested in the triumph of a bunch of objectively true propositions.  This doesn't mean we should become relativists, or indifferent to the truth, of course.  I think this article makes some good points, closely related to the subject.  What do you think?  

Patrick Dunn

#5, Jul 4, 2013 8:48am

Dear Devra,

Letting the dead bury their dead probably was not the best phrase for me to use.  And I agree that we can't declare anybody hopeless.

I was trying to appeal to shaking the dust from our feet in testimoy against them, if you will.  The Church today seems to be stressing evangelization very strongly, but isn't there another side to this too?  Isn't there a sense in which the divisiveness of Jesus (that families will be divided, etc.) should be 'respected', in a sense, due to the fact that some likely will (or seem to) reject Him?  Rev. Jacques Philippe, in In the School of the Holy Spirit, argues that "it is just as important to help devout people become even holier-and faster-as it is to help sinners be converted.  It benefits the Church just as much.  The world will be saved by the prayers of the saints."

I think we can 'lose' ourselves in false evangelizing efforts.  Pope Francis' warning against a self-referential Church should be balanced, I believe, by Benedict's (Ratzinger's) insights: the little flock of beleivers must be preserved, the salt cannot lose its flavor, in trying to reach a world so foreign to Christ.


Patrick Dunn

#6, Jul 4, 2013 8:56am

I think it's nearly impossible to reach a world that 'knows' in a superficial way that "God is dead," but which hasn't yet realized the horror (like Nietzsche did) of what that means.  Some people don't understand what the problem is, that they even need God - the "horror of their own poverty."  It is more important, it seems to me, to be evangelists (at this time, anyway) implicitly: by standing apart (though not hiding away), like a city set on a mountain, fully authentic ourselves first and getting more accustomed to living as such.  Suffering our own conversions more completely first while time takes its course and the world struggles in the desert for the most part unawares - not out of coldness, but out of a recognition for what seems to be reality at this moment in time.

Of course, I'm not the Pope and I can't claim to know what the Holy Spirit is doing at this moment, how He is leading.  But I do pray that we are listening and not just engaging in self-perpetuated activities of evangelization.

Devra Torres

#7, Jul 5, 2013 5:44pm

Patrick, I think I see more clearly what you mean now.  I don't think we disagree, or not much.  I'm thinking of evangelization, especially "the new evangelization" as something broad enough to encompass ministering to the far-off sheep who were never in the fold in the first place but also strengthening all the others--I remember when John Paul II started talking about the "new evangelization," meaning a whole new way of looking at preaching the Gospel--not as if there were just, on the one hand, those who had been evangelized and were part of Christendom, and, on the other, those who hadn't heard the Good News yet.  Now we have all kinds of combinations--people from nominally Catholic cultures, or formerly Catholic cultures, or post-USSR cultures, or people who've been sacramentalized but not really catechized, or people who've been catechized but in a protestant- or jansenist-influenced way--and then people within the kind of micro-communities we've been talking about.  I don't think we should focus on "evangelization" if that's understood as compromising or watering down the Gospel message, or neglecting the mission of helping devout people becoming holier."

I'm short on time now, but there's much more to say.

Patrick Dunn

#8, Jul 8, 2013 10:12am

Hi Devra,

I think I see what you mean too. 

(I noticed that Pope Francis talked about this in a way in his Angelus yesterday, saying "The peace of Christ is to be brought to everyone, and if some do not receive it, then you go on."

That's sort of what I meant.)

Patrick Dunn

#9, Jul 19, 2013 10:48am

Just this morning I came across a transcript of a talk given by Fr. Fessio, SJ in 1996 in Washington.  He suggests that new monasticism approach that you spoke of before, Katie, and he points to the family as the place where the true renewal will come about:

The idea excites me - I think he's onto something.

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