Whatever do you mean?
“People seem to have no need of us, everything we do seems pointless. Yet we learn from the Word of the Lord that this seed alone transforms the earth ever anew and opens it to true life. … [T]he Pope is not an oracle, he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know. I therefore share with you these questions, these queries. I also suffer.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of Aosta (25 July 2005)
“Nichts ist so schwer, als sich nicht betrügen.” (Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.)
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, S. 34
The above image crossed my path via a successful, orthodox Catholic site on Facebook. The members are not cranks, nor are they outliers. They are simply going with the flow. In doing so, however, they are reinforcing the dangers of a true papal cult of personality which has become entrenched since March last year.
The second through fifth points in the opening image are wholesome, sensible reminders. It is the last two, and especially the first, which not only provide heaps of grist for Protestant mills, but also perfectly capture what I mean by soft ultramontanism. Officially, of course, “it’s all about Jesus,” but when mainstream Catholics get as fanboyish as the image above conveys, one wonders if the majority of contemporary Catholics really do care as much about Jesus as about looking relevant and
tweeting having a Great Leader of Its Own on The World Stage of Competing Values.
The Francis phenomenon does not depart from the fundamental rule of the media game, but, on the contrary, uses it to become almost innate. The mechanism was defined with great efficacy in the eighties by Mario Alighiero Manacorda in an enjoyable little book with the most enjoyable title The Language of Television. Or the Deranged Anadiplosis. Anadiplosis is a figure of speech in which, as occurs in this line, the sentence begins with the principal term contained in the preceding sentence. According to Manacorda, this rhetorical artifice has become the essence of media language. “These modes are purely formal, redundant, unnecessary and incomprehensible as to the substance,” he said, “inducing the listener to follow the formal part, which is the figure of speech, and to forget the substantial part.”
With time, mass communication has ended by definitively substituting the formal for the substantial aspect, the appearance for the truth. And it has done so, in particular, thanks to the rhetorical devices of synecdoche and metonymy by which a part is represented as the whole. The ever more dizzying velocity of information imposes neglect of the whole and leads to a focus on some particular, chosen with expertise to give a reading of the complex phenomenon. Ever more frequently, newspapers, TV, websites, sum up great events in a detail.
From this point of view, it seems that Pope Francis was made for the mass media and that the mass media were made for Pope Francis. It suffices to cite the lone example of the man dressed in white who climbs the stairs to the airplane door carrying a torn black leather bag: the perfect use of synecdoche and metonymy together. The figure of the Pope is absorbed by that black bag, which annuls the sacred image handed down through the centuries by replacing it with a completely new and worldly one: the Pope, the new Pope, exists entirely in that particular, which exalts poverty, humility, dedication, work, contemporaneity, the quotidian, the closest proximity to what is more worldly that one can imagine.
The ultimate effect of this process leads to the location in the background of the impersonal concept of the papacy and the simultaneous rise to prominence of the person who embodies it. The effect is all the more disturbing if one observes that the recipients of the message receive exactly the opposite meaning: they hail the great humility of the man and think that these things bring luster to the papacy.
From the effect of synecdoche and metonymy, the next step consists in identifying the person of the Pope with the Pope: a part for the whole, and Simon has overthrown Peter. This phenomenon is such that Bergoglio, while expressing himself formally as a private doctor, in fact transforms any of his words and gestures into an act of the Magisterium. If one then considers that most Catholics are convinced that whatever the Pope says is only and always infallible, the game is over. However one might protest that a letter to Scalfari or an interview with whomever are even less than the opinion of a private doctor, in the age of the mass media the effect they will produce will be immeasurably greater than any solemn pronouncement. On the contrary, the more the gesture or speech will be formally small and insignificant, the more it will have effect and be considered unassailable and above criticism.
Not by accident the symbolism that sustains this phenomenon is comprised of lowly quotidian things. The black bag carried by hand on the airplane is an example. But also when one speaks of the pectoral cross, the ring, the altar, the sacred vessels and vestments, one speaks of the material of which they are made and no longer of what they represent: the formless matter takes precedence over the form. De facto, Jesus is no longer found on the Cross the Pope wears on his neck because the people are induced to contemplate the iron with which the object was produced. Yet again the part devours the whole, which here is written with a lower-case “w.”
The medium is the message (or “massage”), which, as McLuhan often liked to quip, means that the media age is the mass age–the mess age. It’s utterly lost on me, but, apparently, to many in the Church, it’s Good News that the Church has finally got on board with mass-media-messiness. If, as I’ve been told ad nauseam, God gives us the pope we deserve, then continue to regard me as in the process of adjusting to a massively messy media-massaged pontiff.
ADDENDUM: A two-day conference on The Francis. Lovely. Is this S.O.P.?