Pope Francis has been widely praised for his simple ways and modest demeanor. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he traveled by public transport. He is now living in a Vatican guest house instead of the lavish Papal Apartments. He also wears ordinary leather shoes, not the traditional velvet slippers. (As far as I know, these were introduced by Pius IX after the troops of the new Italian state occupied Rome and abolished the sovereign Papal States: the papal slippers served to signify that the Pope was, as he put it, “a prisoner in the Vatican” – a role not appealing to Francis.)
The role that does seem to appeal to Francis is washing the feet of all sorts of people, including juvenile delinquents. (Are they required to, as it were, pre-wash the feet before the pontifical pedicure?) If Catholics believed in reincarnation (according to survey data, many do), Benedict XVI must be a reincarnation of Immanuel Kant (perhaps posthumously converted to Catholicism). Francis must clearly be a reincarnation of Francis of Assisi, ‘Il Poverello’ (the Little Poor One). Please do not consider the observations in this paragraph to be derogatory. On the contrary, I find the new Poverello quite simpatico.
However, the new papal modesty does not signal a particularly modest understanding of the powers of the Pope as Vicar of Christ. Golda Meir is supposed to have said to one of her ministers, “Don’t be so humble, you are not that important.” Francis might respond, “I can be so humble, because I am that important!” As the following story indicates:
On July 20, 2013, The Washington Post online reported that, on the eve of traveling to Rio de Janeiro to attend the World Youth Day, Francis issued a decree granting indulgences to all Catholics attending this event, but also to others who will follow it on Twitter (@Pontifex), Facebook, or Youtube, on condition that the latter “earnestly participate over the Internet”. For a long time indulgences were understood as granting time off a sentence to a period in purgatory. Paolo Padrini, a Catholic expert on digital matters (known as the “iPriest”), emphasized that there is no implication of some sort of magic sent via the Internet. Catholic doctrine has always insisted that an individual benefiting from an indulgence must actively participate in the sacraments and be genuinely penitent. Thus Francis did not intend a doctrinal innovation, but only opened up “a sort of technological sacred space”, within which the putative beneficiary can practice the same piety that he would have to practice if receiving the indulgence in real space. Caitlin Dewey, the Washington Post author of the story, recalled the description of purgatory by St. Augustine, as “a pain more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life”. Given that, Dewey observes that an indulgence is “a pretty good deal”.
One may think of purgatory as a kind of Catholic Guantanamo, holding inmates not good enough (at least not yet) to be admitted to heaven, nor bad enough to be sent to hell. And, whatever lower echelons may staff the place, the Pope is in charge of the keys. However implausible this setup may seem to non-Catholics, it is useful to note that the underlying impulse here is humane—indeed humane in a rather American mode—giving people a second chance to obtain full celestial citizenship.
Any graduate of a Protestant Sunday school will recall that an extreme misuse of indulgences (one that the Catholic Church today would certainly not permit) played a part in the origins of the Reformation, when a Dominican by the name of Johann Tetzel crisscrossed Germany and sold indulgences, using the catchy sales pitch—“as soon as the coin hits the offering plate, the soul jumps out of purgatory” (the ditty rhymes in German). Luther, an Augustinian monk on the faculty of the new Wittenberg University, was outraged and denounced the practice, eventually questioning the authority of the Pope to issue such pardons to begin with. (The American writer Paul Goodman once described the Reformation as a conspiracy of junior faculty at a provincial university.) Of course Francis I did not sell indulgences, though everything surrounding his trip might be construed as a big effort to sell Catholicism, which used to dominate the religious scene in Brazil but now has undergone a sharp decline in numbers, mainly due to the rising influence of Evangelical Protestantism, most of it Pentecostal or charismatic.
The Pope’s “power of the keys” is intrinsic to the Catholic understanding of his office. It is based on words supposedly spoken by Jesus to the Apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18): “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” There is a play on words here—both the name “Peter” in Greek and the Aramaic equivalent “Kephas” denote a rock (respectively in the Greek text of the New Testament, and in the Aramaic which Jesus and his disciples must have spoken). The passage goes on, with Jesus saying to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosened in heaven” (and, presumably in the antechamber of heaven later envisaged as purgatory). I will try not to annoy Catholic readers of my blog by commenting on the thunderous improbability that Jesus ever spoke these words, intended to establish a “church”, and put the later bishop of Rome in charge. Be this as it may, this is not the point I want to make here.
Rather, I want to note that the Pope is here giving a rather curious status, a distinctively postmodernist one, to the virtual reality transmitted by the Internet. This is quite an enlargement of the notion of aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”—that is, bringing up the Church to the contemporary world, which John XXIII intended to be on the agenda of the Second Vatican Council). This surely brings the Church into line with what has been happening in the world since computers have attained an incredibly dominant place in society and culture, and in the lives of individuals.
More and more people live in the virtual reality of the Internet as much as, in some cases more than in the empirical reality of ordinary life. Both children and adults immerse themselves in video games, and emotionally identify with the characters they play in such a game. The experiences in virtual space are, for many individuals, as or even more real than experiences in ordinary physical and social space. The virtual identities can interact in this imaginary space, commit acts of violence on each other, even have sex. This blurring of the difference between the two realities is already implied by an invitation repeated again and again by organizations or companies—“visit us, at our website such-and such—often there is no physical address or even phone number that one could ‘visit’ in a more old-fashioned mode. I have often found this irritating when the invitation is issued, say, by a university or conference center. One would rather like to know just where this wonderful place is located.
It is not surprising that religion is catching up with this new way of what phenomenologists call “being in the world”. Some of this happened with television, quite some time before the Internet. Protestant televangelists were pioneers in adapting religion to this new form of communication. Billy Graham and others like him kept insisting that watching a revival on television was not a full substitute for experiencing it in person. But there are many people, who either could not get themselves physically to a church, or hadn’t found one that they liked enough to want to go there in the first place. For many of them the service they watched, perhaps watch habitually, is the only church they have—an earlier version of the virtual communities now mediated by the Internet. Can one be”born again” by watching television or by “visiting” a revival service on one’s computer (as they say, “in the comfort of your home”)? How about baptism by immersion? A couple of years ago I saw a television program showing a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism. Pious Jews place pieces of paper with prayers written on them into cracks in the Wall. The picture of the Wall could be seen on the Internet, and viewers were invited to simulate placing their prayers in the virtual cracks. The telephone also came to provide religious services. Both Catholics and Protestants in Germany have pioneered in pastoral care via the telephone (Telefonseelsorge). One can have telephone religion, as well as telephone sex. I don’t know whether one can go to confession by telephone. And how about sacraments in general—attendance at Mass? The possibilities are mind-boggling.
I doubt if Pope Francis intended this, but with the decree on indulgences by “visiting” the events in Rio, he has implicitly agreed with Nathan Jurgenson, a media theorist who has repudiated what he calls “digital dualism”, instead proposing that “the virtual world is not some kind of ontologically distinct realm”. The two worlds interact and indeed mesh into an overarching reality. Is that really so? I doubt it. Rather, I think that this view of reality comes uncomfortably close to the clinical description of schizophrenia: being unable to distinguish between objective reality and one’s own fantasies. Benedict has been eloquent in arguing that the Roman Catholic Church, contrary to prevailing prejudices, should defend reason against its detractors (such as so-called postmodernists). There is indeed an ontological difference between reality and virtual reality. That is fine with me. If I had to choose, I would rather take Thomas Aquinas and his more recent disciples over Jacques Derrida or Jean-François Lyotard. Yes, reality is filtered through many “narratives”. But reason can be used to decide which “narratives” are more valid than others. In the same vein, I would respectfully suggest that there should be some limits to the scope of aggiornamento.
Does anyone want to visit me in “Dungeons and Dragons”? Or maybe not.