The church is more than just the pope

Jan 16, 2015 | 17 comments


Thomas Reese SJ urges Catholic lay people everywhere to use the window of opportunity offered by the present papacy to end their passive role in the church.

“…There will be no ‘Francis effect’ if when people return to the church they do not meet someone like Francis at their parish. Going to confession today is like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know whether you will meet the compassionate Jesus or some angry, judgmental crank who thinks it is his job to tell people how bad they are. This is a form of abuse about which the church has done nothing….”

Click here to open another window for this important article on the site of the US National Catholic Reporter.


  1. Mary Vallely

    Totally agree with Thomas Reese here and I would imagine Pope Francis would nod his head in agreement also. He no more wants to be idolised or be followed like a rock star but would remind us continuously of who he is following!
    We can blame clericalism and the hierarchs and the structures that keep us out and we do blame them, of course, but can we accept some of the blame for this lack of passion for the message of the Gospels, this lack of joy in the Word of God ourselves? Our passivity?? I must say I was taken aback by Thomas’s indictment of the poor welcome we give strangers in our churches compared to the welcome they are given in Evangelical ones. What is it that they exude and why don’t we exude it more? Got me thinking now. Reminder to self. WE are ALL church.
    Thanks for posting this! 🙂

    • Sean O'Conaill

      To be fair, evangelical welcoming can be the ‘love bombing’ of strangers solely for recruitment and income purposes, and can therefore develop its own kind of cynicism and capacity for repellance. Irish Catholic reserve, on the other hand, can come across as coldness. We have not yet been trained for a ‘post-Christendom’ situation in which anyone who wanders in could be in exploration mode. This comes from decades of silence among ourselves on what exactly we believe and how it should affect our relationships with the changing human context. When will we begin chatting together, clergy and people, about all of this? Why not right now?

  2. Noel McCann

    A simple but powerful analysis of the current delicate situation in the church. The ‘culture’ must change radically. Positive and innovative structural adjustments, while very welcome, bring to mind ‘deck-chairs and the Titanic’.If the lay faithful do not “pick up the ball and run with it” the culture will remain unchanged. Surely the most challenging statement in Thomas Reese’s article is “There is no room in the church for passive observers”. Our passivity over the decades has contributed hugely to the survival of the culture of deference in our church. The ACI must work to encourage and empower people to throw off the shackles of passivity and deference, to grab that ‘ball’ and ‘run’ [hard & fast] while there is still time to influence the result of the game. This will not be easy because we are being challenged to play a game we have never played before. Do we know the rules or even the shape of the ball, never mind the ‘make up’ of the opposing team!!

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    “There is no room for passive observers…” applies whole-heartedly to the planet. The Church by way of its hierarchy has grown an audience and what we need right now is an army.

    In my neck of the woods, the 5 years after the financial meltdown of 2008, poverty has increased by 77%. During the same time, the number of millionaires increased by 50%. Wasn’t it Pope Benedict who in March of 2008 listed 7 new social sins, 3 of which included references to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and one signaling sins against the environment. What is the hierarchical follow-up to a statement like that when we now know the “financial meltdown” was orchestrated (how else would 50% more millionaires pop up out of nowhere?)?

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I look at the Pope as being a lawyer of sorts – a supreme agent – there is not one person’s attention he can’t garner right now. The religion is grass roots but the negotiating doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be. The Pope has yet to be put in a self-sacrificial position and this is what needs to be done.

    I think the last thing that needs to happen is to somehow show him that current world powers are using both man-made physical and economic disasters to manipulate stock markets, influence economic trends and in extreme cases, justify war.

    Once Pope Francis has the upper hand, a balance can be immediately restored by implementing a “resource” based economy which will put the environment and global human health in the forefront of everything we do, thereby eliminating the three points you’ve made. To do this, global asset above a certain level will have to be frozen for a period of time.

    Oxfam is correct in what they are saying – analysts often suggest that this has been the case since the year 2000.

    Elitists have been trying to use disaster to divert the world’s attention during this period but their goals have hidden in plain sight. If 1% of the world’s population truly owns greater than 50% of the wealth, this can’t be simply vulgar and anti-social, it needs to be illegal.

  5. soconaill

    I’m not sure that world powers operate as conscious malign individuals. For me a far more important factor in the global crisis is what René Girard calls mimetic desire – our tendency to adopt, usually unconsciously, the desires of others. This is operative both in the febrile consumerism that threatens the environment, and in the status-seeking that fuels the world’s plutocratic and competitive elites. (Even money accumulation becomes a competitive game, with the wealthiest seeking a mention, and then ever-higher placement, in the Forbes rich list.)

    The biblical name for mimetic desire is ‘covetousness’ – but this word has been mistranslated in the Catechism as avarice – the particular fault of the miser. This misses a target that exists in all of us, and that deeply influences all culture in every era. It also disables homilists from observing the psychology of desire. ‘Materialism’ misses the target also, because ‘isms’ are deliberate, conscious ideologies while desire operates below the level of the conscious, deliberative mind (unless it is somehow drawn to our attention).

    It was Christendom that blinded clergies to the true, everyday meaning of covetousness – because they couldn’t directly criticise the ostentatious competition of the social elites upon whose excess wealth they also believed themselves to be dependent.

    Mimetic desire also underlies all violence: it is envy of the wealth of the west, as well as a sense of moral superiority, that fuels jihadism. (Envy arises out of a mimetic desire that is somehow frustrated.)

    Some day a pope will grasp fully what Girard is teaching us. Why not this one?

    For a fairly good summary account of Girard see:

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Sean, have you ever heard of Operation Northwoods? This was not a mimetic desire by any stretch of the imagination.

    Here is an article from May 2001 (New York, I might add) that explains it pretty clearly :

    Operating as conscious malign individuals doesn’t really describe the sort of individual vindictiveness necessary to hatch such a plot but it has been consistently done throughout history in the highest echelons of government. Why wouldn’t it happen now – especially with the “rich getting richer” off the world-wide disasters that have been playing out the last 15 years.

    Can you imagine if George W. Bush had been presented with such an option to justify a war with the middle east? I’m not sure that he would have had the “chutzpa” to say no. Keep in mind, this was a top secret memoranda written by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The only person who disapproved of this was Kennedy himself. They planned to kill John Glenn as he took off for outer-space and would have done it if Kennedy had agreed!

    But the Pope has it right, I believe – “…today’s terrorism is not a product of a traditional history of anarchism, nihilism, or fanaticism. It is instead the contemporary partner of globalization.” or was that Baudrillard?

    I appreciate the information on Girard. I don’t believe that the 1.9tn owned by the top 80 billionaires in the world are completely unconscious to the fact that they have amassed the wealth of 3.5 billion people.

    There is something special about these 80 people that I can’t really put a finger on and it is something they all have in common, surely.

    • soconaill

      That’s a fascinating article right enough, Lloyd Allan, on ‘Operation Northwoods’. Of course the US military would excuse themselves by saying that in the end they knew they could not act unilaterally on such a scheme, and that their job was to brainstorm military options for the president.

      But can’t you see how mimetic desire was very likely to be active there – for a ‘win’ in the power struggle with that ‘hate object’, Castro? Desiring what he had – dominance in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida – the US generals were furious that after the Bay of Pigs they couldn’t get it.

      The trigger for mimetic desire is always a sense of one’s own lack of something important, a lack that is seen as diminishing oneself in the eyes of others. The arch example is Adolf Hitler, slighted by his father, and by the Vienna art college – and ever desirous thereafter of proving his own superiority.

      As to what drives the very rich, try this:

      Why should a multi-billionaire come close to tears over his placement in the Forbes rich list – if not for the fact that typically we never get over this problem of feeling inferior? It’s called status anxiety, and it’s driving Vladimir Putin just now also. Ukraine is mimetically desired by both the west and Russia, as is Kashmir by India and Pakistan. That’s what every power struggle is ultimately all about. The mega-rich compare the lengths of their ocean-going yachts for exactly the same reason.

      Alan Greenspan diagnosed the root of the Enron disaster as ‘infectious greed’. Note the idea of contagion, i.e. imitation. Far too often it is other people who determine our desires – and ‘Madison Avenue’ knows this only too well.

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I’ve been reading Mr. Monbiot ever since the U.S. entered into war with Iraq. I agree with much that he writes with exception to his stance on nuclear energy.

    I failed to mention that the Northwoods document was only declassified in 2001 – a few months prior to September 11. It is mentioned that the JCS were embarrassed to have these documents released publicly… embarrassed?..really?

    I’m not convinced of what exactly drives multi-billionaires. I don’t think their actions, reactions or emotions can be mapped unless you were to possibly compare them to serial killers or people who suffer from extreme psychosis. The simulation they create of a real life is dangerous, especially knowing that there is a huge contingent of millionaires sitting back waiting for their opportunity to rise to the occasion (albeit on the backs of the working class).

    This simulated reality possibly sees poverty as a natural condition; a necessity so to speak. Poverty has gotten better the last 20 years but that is mainly due to globalization which seeks to find the lowest wages and creates the worst environmental conditions (India/Bangladesh come to mind).

    The reality is we’ve all been given the gift of common sense to ensure that this doesn’t happen. You can’t let spoiled children get too far out of control. Next thing you know, they’ll take over the daycare – absolute power corrupts absolutely, non?

    A gem from Monbiot again :

    • soconaill

      Billionaires are psychotic? Give me a for instance. Warren Buffet? Bill Gates? Don’t see it, and don’t know why you need to demonise them when the urge to compete is a sufficient explanation of all ascendancy. Marry giftedness with desire and anything is possible. Your comments on Gates’s latest interview with would be interesting. Of signs of psychosis I see none.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Billionaires behaviour is psychotic. What keeps their outward appearance sane is that they stay far away from the realities of existence.

    In Bill Gates’ words : “It’s getting harder and harder for those of us in the rich world to ignore poverty and suffering, even if it’s happening half a planet away.

    I read a portion of the article in wired and had to stop – of the 9 things he listed in prioritizing world problems, the single most important, which would equalize much of the “excess wealth” in the world, is the environment. Stop excess consumption or production and there goes excess wealth and profiteering.

    Imagine Bill Gates building a 120 million dollar estate in one of the poorest cities in Ecuador, where let’s say poverty was greater than 60%. Would you think he was off his rocker? I would. Why should that sentiment change because he decided to build it in Medina, WA? Sure he’s not going to have to walk over the sick and dying to get to work, but I’m sure he still knows they exist.

    Now I know he’s not responsible for the poor people of Ecuador and by having money one simply does not inherit those responsibilities, but when 80 people have as much as the bottom 50%, I can’t see you owing anything but your success to them. Is there a correlation? Obviously the two relate – where they have sacrificed, he has simply profited. The economy is like Newton’s third law – for every profit, there is an equal and opposite deficit.

    So I’ll marry giftedness with desire add in the possibility of unregulated wealth distribution to a group of the delusional who can’t see further than the ends of their streets, and presto – you have the world as you know it.

    If these people were not completely insane, then they would have already realized that unregulated wealth distribution (under any economic system) is at the heart of poverty.

    Their urge to compete with the hungry, sick and dying definitely explains their ascendancy as well as a few other things.

    • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

      Oh, sorry I forgot to add that of the 9 things he listed, it was actually the environment he failed to mention (Microsoft deals with dirty electronics although they are on the licensing end mainly – but rely squarely on production). His quote : “I don’t have a magic formula for prioritizing the world’s problems. You could make a good case for poverty, disease, hunger, war, poor education, bad governance, political instability, weak trade, or mistreatment of women.”

      And another excellent point : “I am a devout fan of capitalism. It is the best system ever devised for making self-interest serve the wider interest. This system is responsible for many of the great advances that have improved the lives of billions — from airplanes to air-conditioning to computers.”

      Bill and his 80 rich friends are happy about capitalism and hyper-industry and off-shore production and government wage subsidies and most definitely tax havens. In 2013, Microsoft accumulated 76bn (yes billion)outside the US (#2 company behind G.E.).

      Bill wants to give back does he? The money he gives to US education as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation will be a fraction of what he gives if he were to stop avoiding the IRS.

      Now I know if they didn’t do it, they would lose their competitive edge which would mean disaster for Microsoft. It’s one of those rules where you see that government is definitely not bigger than the businesses they are supposed to control.

      His quote : “The world is better than it has ever been.”

      If this doesn’t secure my case for delusion, I don’t know what will.

      In all fairness, I don’t mean to demonize anyone so I’ll downgrade my label of psychosis to simple delusion although they may be one in the same.

      I like capitalism as a local economic system. It becomes dark and deceptive when it is run globally, like most things. Within communities, it’s more socially grounded and cooperative. On the world stage, it leads to economic disparity.

  9. soconaill

    We are so close as to make disagreement trivial, Lloyd Allan. Of course you are right overall re Bill Gates: not to see that his millionaire’s mansion will necessarily become the mimetic benchmark for all the Bill wannabes in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is indeed to be unseeing of the root source of all economic injustice. Is the hi-tech everyone-connected world he envisions environmentally sustainable? What kind of connected home makes the smallest carbon footprint? These are questions he needs to address – with obvious implications for his own lifestyle.

    All of us are works in progress – and at least Bill does favour progressive taxation, without getting into uncomfortable detail as to just how progressive that needs to be. Your reference to the dodging of corporate tax liabilities is entirely apposite.

    For ‘delusional’ I prefer the dry word ‘discognitive’: that’s the human condition. “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.” Above all we humans are ‘not awake’ to the provenance of the desires that underlie our most dysfunctional behaviour.

    The internet is jam packed with rhetorical overstatement that diminishes the argument being made. I strongly believe also that to target individuals or groups with special malevolence is to miss the mark. We are dealing at the summit always more with discognition than malevolence.

    For example, the not-seeing that possession of nuclear arsenals (and drones too for that matter) will always sabotage non-proliferation – because of the mimetic forces that exclusive possession always brings into being.

    The globe is poised between the threats posed by discognition and the possibility of breakthrough into the kind of awareness that Jesus always showed. That’s the human drama.

    The tragedy for Christianity is that Christendom confused the church’s moral insight, making mimetic desire another unseen. But the end of Christendom is a deliverance – Girard’s insights are evidence of that.

  10. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I really think the last two Popes have tried to distance themselves from the status quo and it will be interesting to see how far that distance grows with Pope Francis.

    The world needs technology in areas other than the military but that seems to be where the dollars are still going.

    Over the next 30 years, when the final interest payments will be spent on the Iraq war, it is projected that it will have cost 6 trillion.

    Now this is supposedly from a military showdown that’s not supposed to make money but cost money. Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s project, has been one of the biggest benefactors of the Iraq war (contractor).

    Check out this website – it appears to be under construction but details a list of documents that may implicate Canada in foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Our government has been petitioned to complete its own review of the details of that day.

    I agree with you in thinking that malevolence should be avoided at all cost but how else do you describe the dubious actions of a select few that impact actual life and death scenarios for so many.

  11. soconaill

    I get that anger at the failures of powerful individuals, Lloyd Allan. That’s felt over here by many towards Tony Blair – and the full truth of his role in that era of the Iraq war has still to emerge.

    In Ireland we are still angry over the career of Charles J Haughey who, in the closing decades of the last century, imitated the lifestyle of an 18th century ascendancy landlord – funded by direct ‘digouts’ from the Irish plutocracy. A state inquiry found that he had ‘demeaned democracy’ – and other similar scandals followed, to the deep moral distress of those who had swallowed Haughey’s surface idealism.

    I find it quite uncanny, however, that Jesus never targeted any individual as an especially malevolent force – not even Herod or Pilate. He never showed that kind of personal animus to anyone, and always addressed our need to stay in prayer and in love.

    Notice how targeting individuals always helps the industrial-military complex – Saddam, Bin Laden and now, increasingly, Putin. That dualising of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ seems to have been the only mindset that ‘American Sniper’ could get his head around – and we are fed the same simplicity by Hollywood, which always spends more time casting and scripting super-villains than heroes.

    But ‘Bluto always comes back’ – as one of my history pupils once astutely observed. The trite Popeye plot will run forever in Hollywood, and maybe even the Pentagon. Just when will boredom and derision set in?

    I’ll watch that Canadian site – I find it a bit inscrutable just now.

  12. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I think if you were on the receiving end of Jesus’s critique, malevolence couldn’t be used to describe his peaceful tirade. It moved mountains in a time where words meant nothing to the middle class and everything to the autocratic.

    Peaceful judgement with no compromise was the way of His word. He truly saw it for what it was. By denouncing the kings (by claiming to be son of the one true king which was made our true Christian identity), he perhaps saw what was in store for us in the future under a shadowy, autocratic rule.

    This empire truly hasn’t ended. Our heroes have sadly been replaced by symbols and tyranny among the elite has become more socially acceptable than ever.


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