At Rome's Mercy: How to Make the Hierarchy More Accountable

By Farneth, Molly | Commonweal, September 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

At Rome's Mercy: How to Make the Hierarchy More Accountable


Farneth, Molly, Commonweal


Anyone who has followed the headlines over the past year and a half knows how often Pope Francis has made news--exciting broad sympathies while raising hopes for new emphases and directions for the church and for the shaping of faith. Issued last fall, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") deploys Francis's typically straightforward language in addressing topics that range from "The new evangelization for the transmission of the faith" to "Some challenges of today's world." It is here, especially in the exhortation's call to establish just economic and political structures, that the pope has crafted what Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli calls "the manifesto of Francis"--a manifesto, Faggioli writes, whose "message on poverty sets Francis on a collision course with neoliberal Catholic thought, especially in the United States."

The pope's remarks on the economy in Evangelii Gaudium are part of the long tradition of Catholic social thought--including papal pronouncements on the church's solidarity with the poor. Francis's talk of "domination," however, and his view of it as an impediment to virtuous fellowship in society, goes much further, and represents a broad concern with unjust relations of many forms, not merely economic ones. To make sense of Francis's criticism of domination, we need to ask: What, exactly, is domination? Where do we find it, and what can be done to remedy it? These questions are especially pertinent in light of the forthcoming Synod on the Family to be held at the Vatican next month. Many of the initial steps taken by Francis as pope suggest that he understands that the problem of domination exists both inside the church and in the larger society.

More than a millennium-and-a-half ago, Augustine, drawing on classical Roman thought even as he criticized it, insisted that the libido dominandi--the lust for domination and the desire to bend the world's inhabitants to one's own will--is a feature of humanity's fallen nature, and depicted it as the Roman Empire's crucial vice. In society, as Augustine understood, the lust for domination must be restrained; freedom from domination depends on institutions that constrain the power that individuals and groups exercise over others.

To be dominated is to be at the mercy of arbitrary power. The paradigm case is the master-slave relationship. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh "made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor" (Ex 1:14). He ordered the midwives to kill the Israelites' sons; his taskmasters beat the slaves, subjecting them to cruel and arbitrary treatment so that they groaned and cried out to God (Ex 2:23). Scripture presents slavery in Egypt as a great evil and the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, their freedom from bondage, as a great good.

The evil of slavery lies not only in the cruel treatment to which the slave is subjected, but also in the persistent insecurity of living at the mercy of another. The master can coerce and manipulate the slave at will. There are no checks on his power; he can act according to whim. In a passage of intense interest to liberation theologians, Hegel, in his 1807 treatise on The Phenomenology of Spirit, characterized this relationship as one of drastic asymmetry in the distribution of authority and accountability. The master claims authority over the slave, but no accountability for his treatment of him. The slave, meanwhile, is accountable to the master, but has no independent authority, either in his own eyes or in the master's. This asymmetry characterizes domination, and does so whether or not it results in cruelty and abuse. The evil lies in the very structure of the relationship.

When Francis uses the word "domination" to describe those suffering under current economic conditions, he draws on this long tradition of thought about the evil of domi-nation--a tradition in which the church's social teachings concerning the need for solidarity play a prominent part. …

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