An Institution Is Not a Text: Pope Francis, Affect, and Power











by Donovan Schaefer

“…it is possible that the very productive critical habits embodied in what Paul Ricoeur memorably called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’—widespread critical habits indeed, perhaps by now nearly synonymous with criticism itself—may have had an unintentionally stultifying side effect: they may have made it less rather than more possible to unpack the local, contingent relations between any given piece of knowledge and its narrative/epistemological entailments for the seeker, knower, or teller.” – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, p. 124

Many American progressives love Pope Francis, recently designated Time Magazine’s Person of the Year: his unrelenting critique of global capitalism, his repudiation of a hardline approach to homosexuality and birth control, his interventions at the Vatican bank, and his signaled intention to tackle the problem of the church’s child abuse scandals head-on have already made him a champion of the left.

But some American progressives have also started to speak out against Francis, accusing him of providing a likable face that gives cover to an intrinsically retrograde institution.  These progressives argue that the Pope’s “words” don’t change anything because they have not been matched by deeds and have left the core tenets of Catholicism unscathed.  Catholic conservatives, too, who want to hold on to the notion that Francis is in their corner, use the same argument, insisting that the institution hasn’t changed, only the “packaging.”

This posited discrepancy between deed and word–the priorities of the Catholic church as an institution and the language of Pope Francis, in this instance–has a long history in progressivism.  But this genre of analysis fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between bodies, power, and language.  It rests on a kind of discursive essentialism, in which institutions are constituted by a set of textual protocols that remain unchanged until they are rewritten by a top-down fiat.  An analogous mistake is made in anti-Muslim discourse, which assumes that “Islam” as an institution is a sort of computer program executed by the digital code of the Qur’an, overlooking the multiplicity of ways that living bodies read and emphasize the text of the Qur’an in conversation with other traditions, other histories, other priorities and desires.  Ultimately, this error is a version of the western Protestant emphasis on the priority of texts, the assumption that a document charters an institution and legislates bodies in toto.  Starting from a top-down, cognitivist model of embodiment, society, and behavior, this approach misses the way that institutions are produced.  What is wrong with treating an institution like a text?

First, it misunderstands how a set of intellectual protocols–words on a page–are translated into embodied actions.  The Catholic catechism is over 800 pages long.  The number of Catholics who have read it is probably even lower than the number of American Catholic women who have remained rigorously faithful to the church’s injunction against birth control–less than 2%.  Catholic “authority” is not transmitted via mechanical reflection on a total set of rules, but through communities of practice that dictate preferential interpretation, emphasis, and importance.  Bodies move through prescribed practices in dense, uneven clusters, not with total clarity and perfect transcription like a computer’s CPU.  There is, I think, a vestigial dualism in approaches that see texts as determinative of institutions–a way of seeing information as immaterial and thus everywhere.  Information is finite and can only ever settle unevenly over bodies.  Bodies do things with texts; texts do not dictate to bodies.

This is what Francis is doing: without changing the text of the “rulebooks” at the heart of Catholicism, he is changing the armature of emphasis, the system by which certain topics are elevated to importance in different communities of practice.  What happens when the first thing that Catholics think of as definitive for the practice of Catholicism is not “regulating sex” but “ending global hunger”?  This seems to be Francis’s goal in disdaining the church’s “obsession” with sexuality.  Francis doesn’t need to change the rules; all he needs to do is reconfigure the conversational landscape within which enforcement of the rules is drawn, elevating some in importance and submerging others.

But there is a second, more crucial error in the assumption that Francis is only offering a new “packaging” for Catholicism: it assumes that power is exactly equatable with information–that a text is the primary locus of motivation–and that to fail to change the text itself is to leave the system of power untouched.  Power is not about texts, but about how we feel about texts: the affective tonalities surrounding discourses and institutions condition the way power intersects with bodies.  Francis isn’t just changing the emphases within the conversation about what it means to be Catholic.  He is changing the way that Catholicism feels.

Francis’s mission is to reconstitute the framework of values and priorities that individual bodies within the church take into their political and social lives by reshaping the set of Catholic affects. When Francis states in his interview with a group of international Jesuit journalists that “[w]e must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” or washes the feet of Muslim women prisoners in Italy, he is not simply tinkering with doctrine: he is reshaping the way doctrine feels, ringing a particular outcome–a bureaucratic church that sees itself as a fortress of impeccable dogma rather than a network of compassion, for example–with shame and horror.  The simple line Francis offers when asked about gay priests–“Who am I to judge?”–changes the tonality of the global conversation on homosexuality and religion.

(This is also why Francis moves among congregants gathered to see him ahead of his security detail and without an armored vehicle.  He wants them to see his face, hear the timbre of his voice, trace the affects of his body.  He wants them to start to feel the church as a flesh-and-blood organism that thrives on embodied connection, not a rulebook presided over by an aloof and static bureaucrat.)

Doctrine is secondary to the production of a set of relationships that connect doctrine to bodies.  At the end of the day, official church documents matter not nearly as much as the timbre of the affects that a church leader circulates in their public proclamations–especially in a hyper-connected global media ecology.  Francis is using affect to create a new affective field guiding bodies through their interpretation of “doctrine.”  The “nest of mediocrity” line was designed to stay with bodies, to hover beside Catholics and shape their responses as they go about their daily practices of faith.

There’s an implicit Cartesianism, then–a presupposition that mind and body are intrinsically separate–in the dismissal of Francis’s words as “packaging.”  It assumes that discourse and regimes of power are easy to separate, that power is only authored by a set of laws, that power moves in a unidirectional flow from static institutions to bodies.  More importantly, it overlooks the way that systems of power are motivated by affects, and the ways that changing the configuration of those affects changes the trajectory of how those systems enfold bodies.

There are limits to this approach.  Francis will not be able to, for instance, end the eminently unjust proscription against the ordination of women priests: that sits too close to the bone of current doctrine.  But if those doctrinal canons are to change, a new generation of priests, lay clergy, and congregants must be brought into the church driven by a new set of values.  Francis won’t see that change in his lifetime, but the Catholic church has always played a long game.

Progressive politics is built on a skepticism towards established power relations, and much of the progressive concern over Francis derives from a healthy wariness toward the Catholic church after more than three decades of conservative retrenchment.  But there comes a point when what Eve Sedgwick called “paranoid reading” becomes an obstruction to dialog, a way of peering under every stone and demanding total purity at the expense of engagement.  Sometimes this even becomes an obsession with existing battle lines, a heated desire for an enemy to remain an enemy, someone or some faceless thing we can moralize against or sneer at with impunity.  Preferring to see the Catholic church as a static, mechanical entity rather than a dynamic organism inadvertently replicates a conservative ideology of ahistorical, transcendent institutions.

Francis is a leader–a single body who, through words and gestures, can reshape a global institution.  For many Catholics, the feeling of dignity surrounding their church has been reinvigorated.  They feel it not as a closing of ranks, but as an opening up, as an imperative to find new ways to minister.  What Francis accomplishes in the duration of his papacy remains to be seen, but progressives–even and especially atheist progressives like myself–would do well to watch for ways that we can support this reshaping and create our own convergence with the Catholic church around shared values, if not beliefs.

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