The Church is a People: not an aristocracy or an audience

The Church is a People – not an aristocracy or an audience
Historical and theological literature shows us that socio-economic dynamics have had a huge impact on the evolution of the Catholic view of marriage and sexuality.
Massimo FaggioliOctober 3, 2016
Attempts to make the post-synodal, intra-Catholic debate of today look like a sequel of the 1970s (see the recent appeals and counter-appeals on Humanae Vitae) have helped expose some fundamental dynamics currently at work in the Church.
An interesting signal was the recent Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Unchangeable Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline, published a few days ago.
This declaration (August 29, 2016) contests the conclusions of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies of 2014 and 2015, as well as the pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. And, yet, it never mentions Pope Francis – not even once.
The document’s intention was to show the “real” teaching of the Church. But one of the unintended consequences was that it also highlighted the apparent difference between two different Catholic worlds – the Church of the People of God and the Church of a sociological and spiritual aristocracy.
One of the most interesting elements of this Declaration of Fidelity is the list of the first signatories. There are three cardinals of the Catholic Church (Raymond Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta; Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna in Italy; Janis Pujats, archbishop emeritus of Riga in Latvia) and there are members of Catholic academic circles.
But the most remarkable signatories are the members of the Catholic aristocracy – aristocracy not in the figurative sense of “the elites”, but in the literal sense.
There are princes (like Dom Luiz of Orleans-Braganza, Head of the Imperial House of Brazil; Carlo and Elisa Massimo from Italy); dukes, duchesses, and archduchesses (Paul and Pilar of Oldenburg, Germany, and Alejandra of Habsburg).
Among them are also advocates of the return of aristocracy for the restoration of a “Christian society”, as opposed to pluralist democracy (Dr Adolpho Lindenberg, co-founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and President of the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute in Brazil).
Being a member of the aristocracy (or of the academic guild, for that matter) should not disqualify one from the public debate in the Church. And it is not my intention here to ridicule the list of signatories, or their reasons for disagreement with other Catholics.
But this list says something of what has happened in the Church concerning sexual morality and tradition during these last fifty years. And it reminds us that every theological debate, especially on matters that are relevant for the social message of the Catholic Church, always takes place in the social, economic, and political context of the relationship between the Church and society.
I have spent part of my time recently with two fascinating books: Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin. The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity and Peter Brown’s Through the Aye of a Needle. Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. These two books explain how complicated it was for the Church to interact with the Roman imperial culture and legislation on two issues that are crucial for the position of the Church in society – sex and money.
Harper’s book, in particular, shows that the issue of sex surfaces in any great readjustment between Christianity and the world. Moreover, it shows that this great readjustment (brought about especially by St Augustine and his ecclesiology of the Church of saints and sinners) was not a struggle between the Church on one side and “the world” or “secular society” on the other side.
It was first of all a struggle within the Church. During the first centuries, the tension was between monastic-ascetic ideals and the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”. What happened in the Church of the 4th and 5th century was the formation of matrimony through the adoption of many elements of Greco-Roman marriage (monogamy, private relationship, conjugal unit, and sexual exclusivity) against the prevalence of monastic-ascetic ideals. Complete sexual renunciation was an unstable element for the Church in that period.
Now, what is happening today with Amoris Laetitia is part of another readjustment between the Church and the world, beginning with a readjustment within the Church.
The criticisms unleashed against Francis’ teachings are unprecedented against a pope in modern times. But this is not personal. We are in another phase of the transition (which did not begin with Francis) from a Church driven by an aristocracy to a Church of the People of God. It is the transition to a realistic, experience-based theological appreciation of human sexuality, a theology not detached from the creative chaos that life is.
The list of signatories featuring monsignors and cardinals, princes and ambassadors represents a Church that is very different from the Church of Francis and of most Catholics. It is not only a difference in theology or ideology (thought there are real differences), but also a difference in the socio-economic conditions of Catholics.
This is not new. Historical and theological literature shows us that socio-economic dynamics also had a huge impact on the evolution of the Catholic view of marriage and sexuality in the early centuries.
Dealing with modern family and marriage, contraception and divorce from an upper-middle class or aristocrat Catholic background is different from doing so in a poor or working class family. To deny this is disingenuous (or worse). Again, this is not new and it is not something Pope Francis brought to the Church by himself.
The abdication of Catholic aristocracy is not happening today because of a Jesuit Latin American pope. It is not a matter of theological and ecclesial populism. During these last fifty years, from Vatican II on, the Church started to acknowledge that the distinction of vocations in the Church between the spiritual aristocracy of the hierarchy and the spiritual proletariat of the people is no longer working. If in the Church of today there is an aristocracy, then this aristocracy is made of saints and they are not necessarily the clarissimi (most distinguished and eminent) that the Latin of the early Church used to call monks and celibate.
The debates over Amoris Laetitia and Humanae Vitae are an indirect and disguised way for the Western Catholic establishment to deal with Francis’ pontificate. They show that the social dynamic of the Catholic Church has radically changed, but not because of the initiatives of some modernist theologians. It is because the Church’s teachings are disconnected from the existential reality of most Catholics worldwide.
The experience of a married Latin American, African or Asian couple says more about Christianity than the signatures of European or North American cardinals or of the last descendants of the royal house of the Habsburg – or of a bourgeois European or North American Catholic. The spiritual aristocracy of those who were able to embrace a strict interpretation of Humanae Vitae on contraception should not be normative for the whole Church.
This shift from a Church led by aristocrats to a Church of the People of God interacts with modern language of communications and the way the Church uses it. The inner-ecclesial debate on marriage and family has ceased to be a strictly theological debate. Now it is also about making an appeal to the audience.
But fortunately the Catholic Church is one of the last institutions on earth that is resisting the temptation to turn its “people” into an “audience.” Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality is also trying to avoid what is happening to secular democracies – contempt for the elites and the popularity of populists, such as Donald Trump-like characters.
Media audiences respond to the message in the short period of a news cycle or an electoral season. Catholics are not members of an audience, but of a people.
And people respond to big shifts (including papal teaching) in decades, generations and centuries. Amoris Laetitia is just at the beginning of its reception, just like Humanae Vitae.
Plain and simply, the jury is still out.
The author
Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Rising Laity. Ecclesial Movements Since Vatican II (Paulist Press, 2016). He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Similar Posts


  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Catholic conservatives constantly paint Vatican II Catholics as well-heeled elitists. And both in the Anglican and the Roman churches, the voice of Africa is hailed as one that a European elite has scorned — and it is a voice calling not for revolution or liberation but the most reactionary attitudes to sex-related topics.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Interesting! Hadn’t noticed the preponderance of aristocratic signatures but most of us pay little heed to such titles or these delusions of grandeur nowadays. It is ridiculous though that we still refer to some in the Church as ‘Your Eminence, Your Grace, Monsignor, VERY Reverend’ etc; and we make it worse by robing them in garments of lace and silk, tassels and embroidered mitres set off with items of expensive jewellery. As if Jesus would wear such apparel if he were to come on earth today. He’d be more likely to dress like some Jesuits we know in old threadbare pullovers and well worn trousers.
    This transition Massimo talks about from a Church driven by an aristocracy to a Church of the People of God is taking a long time but we are such slow learners that it seems to take centuries to build up the confidence to actually question, discuss and debate these issues.
    On a sadder note, I’d like to send good wishes to Bishop Liam McDaid of Clogher who seems to be a decent man and to have the smell of the sheep about him. I remember he sent me a handwritten reply to an invitation I had sent on behalf of the ACI to an event in Dublin. It was warm and friendly, courteous and gracious and I was very impressed that he hadn’t replied as the others did through a secretary. Didn’t he often attend Clogher ACP meetings? I wish him every blessing in his retirement and never ceasing, loving support in his ongoing struggle with Parkinson’s. May he continue to be a good listener and counsellor to priests and to people and to his fellow colleagues.

  3. I’d like to second Mary’s good wishes to Liam McDaid who always seemed to me too to be a good and decent man. I was always impressed when he would attend ACP meetings in his diocese. I would also like to wish him every blessing in his retirement. A Donegal man, of course.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    A French friend tells me that the false story about gender theory in French school texts, vehiculated by the Pope and denounced by the French Minister of Education, is propagated by French ladies with the particule de noblesse who are rich enough to print 20000 copies of pamphlets which they distribute. Shocked at the disappearance of traditional France, above all in the marriage equality legislation, and steeped in the most reactionary views, they brew up these sensational tales, and have given the impression that extremist gender theory is rife in Framce, where in fact it is known only to a tiny minority (and associated with the late translation of Judith Butler’s most provocative book). The Vatican have embraced with ridiculous enthusiasm the gender theory panic, seen as ideological colonization of children’s minds, whereas it appears to be nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.