The varied responses that Pope Francis has evoked are illustrative of various dynamics described by mimetic theory.
Some people have responded to him both positively and seriously: they not only applaud his words and actions, but sincerely attempt to emulate him, as their particular circumstances call for and as their individual abilities permit. This is a response of discipleship: many of those whose identity includes a commitment to follow Christ recognize that Francis in his desires, presence, words, and actions authentically points to Christ. They take him as a mimetic model, allowing his desires to deepen the construction of their identities as Christians. The discernment and empathic imagination that is required to adapt and live out (incarnate) Francis’ example are characteristic of a level of spiritual maturity that is required for authentic discipleship.
Some people admire him without also attempting to emulate him; this group includes Catholics, non-Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists, who respond to his embodiment of values that they hold (or, in terms of mimetic theory, his alluring gestures towards those values). In some cases, these are specifically Christian values; in other cases, they are personal interactions that are perceived as admirable; and in some, it is the congruence of his actions with Christian values, which can be admired even by atheists on the grounds that they are admirably (even refreshingly) non-hypocritical. One might describe this group of people as fans, rather than disciples. They perceive and respond to his appeal as a mimetic model without being fully engaged by his desires. They might follow him in the sense that the crowds followed John the Baptist and Jesus, as spectators looking for marvels rather than as disciples: it’s a fairly superficial level of engagement. In some cases, their praise of Francis is implicitly constructed over against some person, movement, or value that they consider wrong. But because it is only implicit, their praise of Francis does not unify them into a faction over against anyone else.
In both of these cases, it is clear that Francis is exercising what may be called charismatic authority. In the first case, it is charismatic in the theological sense of the charisms or gifts of the Spirit; in the second case, it is charismatic in the colloquial sense of personal appeal. In both cases, the exercise of charismatic authority operates on the desires of the authority figure’s disciples or fans.
The third category of response to Pope Francis are those who appropriate his words and actions as a banner to carry at the head of their pre-existing movement which has been explicitly defined over against some other person or movement. To carry the metaphor further, the banner is hoisted on a large heavy staff that can nominally be used to beat the members of opposing factions into submission, but actually functions to accuse and expel them. This is neither discipleship nor fandom, but factionalism: the same factionalism that plagued Corinth. What is notable about this dynamic is that it has little to do with Francis’ own person or desires: the faction seizes upon the notable personality and exploits him in support of their cause. (Of course, it is not only Francis whose words and actions are appropriated in this fashion; this is an equal-opportunity dynamic. The temptation to factionalism is no respecter of politics, sympathies, or liturgical preferences.)
Note that, as we see in the gospels, the fandom response may either develop into discipleship, deteriorate into factionalism, or simply blow away when the next celebrity of the moment captures the attention of the public. One task of evangelization is the attempt to nurture fans into disciples; Francis’ emphasis on the “culture of encounter” is one way to create the context in which this nurturing can occur.
James Alison describes the early stages of taking on group identity as “learning the tribal song,” which is easier and happens more quickly than the re-shaping of desire and identity that accomplishes actual integration into the tribe. Learning the tribal song can be stage one of discipleship: the tribal song typically includes expressions of the group’s values and identity that are intended to be formational. (In an ecclesial context, the tribal song includes literal song: the songs and chants that are part of worship.) Alternatively, one can get caught up in the tribal fervor of a shiny new convert and succumb to factionalism, in which case the tribal identity becomes an idol that blocks access to God rather than an instrument that mediates access to God. Both discernment on the part of the fan, and careful mentoring (in traditional terms, spiritual direction) by more experienced/mature members, are necessary for a fan to mature into a disciple.
Factionalism is a playing out of the mimetic dynamic of unity over against the expelled other: the scapegoat mechanism. It’s about the construction of a pure group identity, based apparently on the issue at hand, but actually over against the designated scapegoats. What drives this dynamic is never the content of the presenting issue. The content of dissent is never as much of a threat to church unity as its form; and once the purity dynamic takes hold, the peace of Christ — the pax Christi, fruit of the Spirit, that unites us in love and charity — is lost; and it is only within that peace that matters of doctrine and practice can be effectively addressed. Or, more precisely, it is only within the peace of Christ that Christians can reason together about matters of doctrine and practice, because it is only within that peace, only insofar as that peace has hold of us, that we can function as Christians at all.
Thus, factionalism needs to be rejected as damaging to the unity of the church and the identity of Christians. Those who engage in factionalism must not, however, be met with condemnation — which is just another scapegoat mechanism, a different flavor of factionalism — but with compassion, understanding that the dynamic of factionalism is an anthropological characteristic to which we all succumb at times; that it is only with God’s grace that we can resist this temptation; and that only a stance of acceptance and forgiveness that mediates God’s grace can restore the unity sundered by factionalism. Here, too, the culture of encounter endorsed by Francis can come into play.
A tip of the hat to Mark Sandlin, whose article on the fandom of God and the church helped to catalyze this piece.