Mimetic Rivalry, Reform, and Unity in the Church

I read a commentary on church reform by Hans Küng last week, that lingered in my mind as an example of “doing it wrong,” at least from the perspective of mimetic ecclesiology. In this commentary, the substantive issues of church reform are overshadowed by the rivalry which Fr. Küng sets up and rhetorically amplifies between good Pope Francis, head of the church, and bad Archbishop Müller, head of the CDF.

With some hesitation, I quote here the relevant snippets for purposes of illustration: but read them with caution, armored in the faith, hope, and love that are the fruits of the Holy Spirit, to avoid being caught up in the factionalism that the text is crafted to cultivate.

First, here are snippets used to describe each person:

Pope Francis speaks out clearly in favor of church reform “at all levels” .. advocates structural reforms… comes out in favor of… equally clearly in favor of…

Müller demonstrated his ultra-conservative stance … a clerical hard-liner … controversial and unpopular…

There’s even a rhetorical gesture
that drapes Müller in the robes of an anti-Pope:

And worried observers are already asking whether Pope Emeritus Ratzinger is in fact operating as a kind of “shadow Pope” behind the scenes through Müller and Georg Gänswein, [Benedict's] secretary and Prefect of the Papal Household[1]

The following is an uninterrupted excerpt:

The pope wants to move forward — the CDF prefect puts on the brakes.

The pope has actual people in mind — the prefect above all has traditional Catholic doctrine in mind.

The pope wants to practice mercy — the prefect appeals to God’s holiness and justice.

The pope wants the coming bishops’ synod on family matters in October 2014 to find practical solutions based on feedback from the laity — the prefect draws on traditionalist dogmatic arguments in order to be able to maintain the unmerciful status quo.

The pope wants the bishops’ synod to make new attempts at reform — the prefect, a former neoscholastic professor of dogmatics, thinks his statements can nip any such attempts in the bud.

Is the pope still in control of his Guardian of the Faith?

The next section does get into the issues, but the rivalistic narrative continues with framing like this:

Müller obviously ignores …
The pope rightly says…

And two of Fr. Küng’s three closing bullet points are directly and explicitly ordered towards rivalry and factionalism:

– That the pope will see through the Guardian of the Faith’s — that is Müller’s — questionable theological and pastoral stance;

– That he will put the CDF in its place and make his theologically based pastoral line obligatory;

That’s just incredibly disturbing. I have a great deal of respect for Fr. Küng’s theological contributions, and a good deal of sympathy for his difficult interactions with the CDF over the years. But this is sinful: it points the accusing finger at Abp. Müller, exhorts Pope Francis to do likewise, and tempts every one of us to pick up a rock and stone the evildoer.

Which named individual will be defined as the evildoer in each person’s heart will depend, of course, on that person’s previously formed desires and identity as a member of either the “liberal/Francis/Vatican II” group or the “traditional/Benedict/JPII” group. These divisions already exist and they are a plague and a scandal upon the church catholic — which, lest we forget, means universal. This commentary pours gasoline upon the flame of factionalism. It is a much greater sin against church unity than any doctrinal argument could possibly be.

…and look at me, I just got caught up in the very same dynamic, except I’m pointing my finger at Fr. Küng. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I was focusing so hard on not getting caught up in the rivalry set up by the text, that I ended up accusing the author in righteous indignation (always a helpful warning sign). This stuff is so powerful.

:deep breath:

Right. So, that’s an example — two examples, now — of “doing it wrong.” When Christians disagree, as we inevitably do and always have done, it is not the substance of the disagreement that is the danger: it is the ever-present temptation to accuse, to factionalize, to define ourselves as pure and holy over against the impure, sinful other who must be expelled. The danger is to the unity of the church, whose vocation it is to be “one body, one spirit in Christ;” and the danger is to each one of us, whose baptismal vocation it is to receive our identities as new creations in Christ through the Holy Spirit, not to construct them over against somebody else, somebody lesser, somebody wrong.[2]

The church’s constant teaching that we are to see ourselves as sinners is a prophylactic against that temptation… and, gradually, becomes an invitation to go stand with the victims who are being defined by others as “somebody else, somebody lesser, somebody wrong.”

The dangers of mimetic rivalry also came to mind as I read Phil Long’s analysis of 1 Timothy 2:8-10 over at Reading Acts a couple of days ago, which brings out the parallel between verse 8 and verse 9. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard verse 8 preached, because the lectionary passage runs from 8-13, and is thus dominated by the verses whose plain reading on the status of women are so problematic for the church today: so either the priest ignores the epistle entirely, or he devotes the entire sermon to that issue.

And it’s a shame, because both expensive dress, and argumentative prayer, are very live temptations to rivalry in the church today. It’s easy to imagine — well, I expect for many readers it’s not even necessary to imagine — a community being distracted and divided by unspoken competition over dress or other visible marks of economic status; and whenever public prayer includes an opportunity for individuals to offer their own intentions in their own words, there’s the temptation to pursue the issues that strain church unity under the guise of prayer, whether these issues center around personal animosity or culture wars.

In these days when intra-ecclesial divisions of all sorts are so prevalent, we could use some preaching on the sins of envy and factionalism, which are both particular manifestations of mimetic rivalry, and how damaging they are to the unity of the church, which is one of the things that constitutes church as church.

It’s hard, not to succumb to these temptations. It’s especially hard when you’re anxious, or when you feel threatened. This is why I find Robin Collins’ mimetic interpretation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit to be so helpful:

Faith, defined as trusting in God’s sufficiency and purpose, mitigates the existential anxiety that impels us to attempt to control others and acquire surplus possessions. Hope, defined as holding to the eventual good outcome of justice and the reign of God, anchors our present situation to an eschatological framework and places our current circumstances, however distressing, in the context of the ongoing story of salvation history. Love, defined as desiring the full flourishing and independent agency of the other, results in a non-coercive, non-rivalrous desire that has the potential for creativity and growth, rather than violence, when amplified by mimesis.

Faith, hope, and love are the intentional affective practices by which the Holy Spirit works through Christians to bring about the reign of God: and clearly, because it directly influences our mimetic patterns, the greatest of these is love.[3]


[1]I found this paragraph so irresponsible and inflammatory that I omitted it in the original drafts of this post, but finally decided that it illustrated the mimetic twinning too well to be left out.

[2]Mt 7:1-5

[3]Text quoted from my paper on mimetic pneumatology, drawing on Collins’ paper ““Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation,” in Violence Renounced, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000), 143-4.

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3 Responses to Mimetic Rivalry, Reform, and Unity in the Church

  1. Beautiful and well reasoned blog. The deep divisions within the Catholic Church (not to mention broader Christianity and all of humanity) trouble me greatly. I certainly have been guilty of fostering this divisions both in thought and deed.

    You have provided us with a good reminder of the Unity of all humanity and that as Christians we have an obligation to assist in bringing about the Kingdom. This includes a focus on service rather than trying to place ourselves above by attacking the “other” whoever they may be.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Thanks for your comment, William. I too have been guilty of succumbing to these temptations. And I agree that it isn’t just the church: at least in the US, factionalism seems to have increased to the point of political paralysis. So much more reason for us Christians to try to be the change the world needs, and for the church to help us to do so.

  2. Pingback: Children, Priests, and Scandal in Church | Gaudete Theology

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