Last night the Vatican lent Saint Peter’s Square to an extraordinary exercise in political entertainment. The basilica was transformed into a kind of Jumbotron displaying monstrously outsize images of wildlife, “humanity,” and “climate change,” in the words of Connect4Climate, an initiative of the World Bank Group, under whose umbrella a consortium of foundations, companies, and organizations, including Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., organized and funded the light show.
The event coincided with three others: the United Nations climate-change conference in Paris, the kickoff of the Catholic Church’s jubilee of mercy (December 8, 2015–November 20, 2016), and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. That last item, the feast day in honor of the dogma that Mary at her conception was exempted from original sin, was thoroughly upstaged.
You could not overestimate the importance of the Immaculate Conception in the traditional Catholic understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus, whose human nature is uncorrupted, like Adam’s before the Fall. A few miles from the Vatican, a statue of Mary in her aspect as the Immaculate Conception stands atop a towering column, near the Spanish Steps. Last night the column’s base was adorned with flowers and surrounded by a small crowd that included the devout, if crossing oneself is any indication.
Two years ago on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis traveled to the neighborhood, Piazza di Spagna, which is near Rome’s highest-end shopping district, to pray and preach against neglect of the poor. On that occasion too, his politics overshadowed his spirituality. In general, he does a bad job of integrating Christianity’s horizontal message, “love thy neighbor,” with its vertical message, “love God.”
His intentions may be noble, but what he usually ends up communicating is that the horizontal message is primary. His assumption, which was fashionable among Jesuit educators in the 1970s, is apparently based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: You can’t expect someone to listen to your theology and philosophy if he’s cold, hungry, and sick. So the first duty of a teacher and of a preacher is to be, in effect, a social worker and political activist.
The poor we will have always with us, however. The implication of Jesuit social activism is that we must constantly postpone our attention to their spiritual needs. In many quarters, including the Vatican under this pontificate, the institutional Church has lapsed — or crashed, with a thud — into its besetting sin of valuing temporal over spiritual power. The political popes of the Renaissance would understand Francis well.
Contemporary Catholicism is mainly divided not between the political Left and the political Right but between the horizontally oriented and the vertically oriented. The latter are often pushed to the margins of Catholic circles. Last night, while up at corporate headquarters the princes of the Church were garishly attempting to ingratiate themselves to global political elites, the Institute of Christ the King, an order of traditional Catholic priests, led a stately Marian procession through the streets of Rome.