Pope Francis Against the Self-Referential Church

Pope Francis seems already to have introduced a new term into Catholic discourse: self-referential Church.  At least, if he did not originate it, he has certainly popularized it.  I, at any rate, had not heard it before I heard it from him.

According to the Pope (and to then-Cardinal Begoglio), the self-referential Church is not a good thing.  The Church must not be closed in on itself, preoccupied solely with its own inner life. If it is to be healthy, it must be reaching out beyond itself.  In one of his early homilies he offered a new twist on the idea of Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  Of course, the Pope said, he is seeking entrance, entrance into men’s hearts.  But, the Pope added, he sometimes also thinks that Jesus is knocking on the door of the Church, wanting out–meaning not, of course, that Jesus wants to get away from the Church, but that he wants the Church to bring him to those who are outside.


In making this argument, Pope Francis is pretty well in continuity with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as with the Second Vatican Council.  The Council was a formative experience for both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.  The spirit of that Council (the real spirit of it, not the bogus one sold by those who want the Church to change fundamental teachings on faith and morals) was one of reaching out to the modern world.  The Council fathers thought the Church needed to be in dialogue with the modern world and not simply seeking to protect itself from the disorders in the modern world.  And this dialogue was obviously very important to both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Both of them emphasized it repeatedly.  It seems that Pope Francis is on the same page on this question.

Some Catholics might tend to be irritated or irked by this internal call (coming from the highest levels) to “dialogue” with the modern world, the world outside the Church.  Why, they might ask, is such dialogue necessary?  What is to be gained by it?  The Church, after all, claims to have the Truth–if not about all things, then about the most important things (God, salvation, morality), and these are the things with which the Church is most properly concerned.  So what is there to talk about?  Socrates engaged in dialogue with others, but he was just a man seeking truth with other men.  The Church was founded by the Truth and has been entrusted with the Truth.  Preach the Gospel, set a good example of living it, and let the world take it or leave it.

There are a couple of problems with this view, and a couple of reasons why the Church should, as John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis urge, overcome self-referentiality and take part in a dialogue with the world.  First, while the Church does possess the Truth about the highest things, it is not as if there is nothing to be gained at all from talking to those who are not in the Church.  We believe as Catholics that human nature was wounded but not utterly degraded by the Fall.  From this it follows that instances of the good, true, and beautiful can be found even in non-Christian cultures.  As J.R.R. Tolkien put it (and he was no softy in terms of commitment to Catholic orthodoxy) “the mind of man is not compound of lies.”  This was the very reason that Tolkien loved and thought his soul and mind were enriched by the study of the old, northern, pagan myths.  For that matter, the Church fathers studied Greek philosophy and found it useful in understanding the way things are and in understanding the faith itself.  This approach, moreover, has a root in the Bible.  There no less an authority than St. Paul admonishes us to meditate on whatever is noble, lovely, and excellent.

Second, precisely because the Church has the Truth about God, it is called to evangelize the world.  This means speaking to those outside the Church and offering them the faith.  But simply as a matter of rhetorical prudence (to say nothing of good manners) it is a sound practice to listen to people as well as talking to them.  Otherwise, there are not likely to listen to you.


Categories:Pope Francis

  • Brittany Peters

    “The Church was founded by the Truth and has been entrusted with the Truth. Preach the Gospel, set a good example of living it, and let the world take it or leave it.” This part of the article really spoke to me because it seems that many Catholics (I myself am sometimes guilty of this) preach to good deeds, but do not actually do it. We tell others not to lie, but sometimes we lie ourselves. After watching Shane Claiborne’s speech, I would have to agree with both Pope Francis and Shane. We need to preach the good news AND do good deeds. Overall, I like this article.

  • Lauren Michels

    Shane Claiborne would agree with Pope Francis’s stance against a self-referential church. Claiborne strongly believes we should not only preach the good news and talk about how to be good people, but also go out into the world and do good actions. It is great to hear that to both Pope Francis and Shane Claiborne, actions are stronger than words.

  • http://www.mercatornet.com Tim Lee

    A key definition of ‘catholic’ is “universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.” In the light of this understanding, we are catholic as well as Catholic. Our revealed truth is indeed universal, but so is our openness to God’s revelation in all its myriad facets.

  • http://www.acatholic.org Laura Kazlas

    The good Lord did say to “Go into the whole world
    and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” That’s actually the gospel reading for mass this Saturday. Jesus explicitly told us to go out into the world and talk to people about him. Yes, we are supposed to preach the gospel with our lives first, but not to ignore discussing Jesus with others. Our country is almost a mission territory right now and there has never been a greater need for evangelization, if it is done in a positive way. There is an expression that “evil prevails when good people do nothing”. We can’t sit back in the privacy of our own homes and faith communities and watch the rest of the world fall apart without trying to do something about it.

  • Logan

    I pray I am not misunderstanding the Holy Father to be discounting the utmost priority of the interior life (of a person and of the Church) in order to bear good fruit in the active life.
    I hope St. Pius X is praying in Heaven for his successor to read his old bedside companion, The Soul of the Apostolate by Chautard.


    • Tyler

      I couldn’t agree more with this comment.

  • Kevin

    Irritated by engaging with the world? How can one read Gaudium et Spes and NOT see that task as constitutive of the Church’s very nature?



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