The Pope and parrhesia

March 8, 2022 in Dermot Roantree

DERMOT ROANTREE [Adapted from Studies, Spring 2022, Editorial] :: One word which Pope Francis has made very much his own in the course of his pontificate is the Greek rhetorical term parrhesia. Etymologically it is a noun that means something like ‘complete speech’ – saying everything, leaving nothing unsaid – but by extension it tends to mean speaking frankly and bravely. As such it is a kind of anti-rhetorical rhetorical term. It’s about not hiding behind figures or devices, or speaking with guile. It’s about having the confidence and the courage to tell the truth as one honestly sees it. In 2014 the pope even told a gathering of bishops that this forthrightness was a ‘basic condition’ of their meeting. ‘Let no one say: “I cannot say this, they will think this or that of me…”,’ he told them; ‘It is necessary to say with parrhesia all that one feels’. And of course, as he intimated then, to make space for plain speaking is also to accept the duty ‘to listen with humility’. Otherwise, the freedom to speak is a sham.

We are not used to popes telling Catholics to speak out freely. A much more familiar model is the pope who intervenes decisively and normatively in theological discussions and silences those who are judged to have crossed a line. Vatican II may have effected a revolution in ecclesiology, but significant aspects of what Yves Congar called ‘hierarchology’ remained in practice. Popes continued to act as chief theologian, the investigations of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) into the orthodoxy of theologians often fell short of contemporary standards of justice, the teaching authority of episcopal conferences was curtailed, and whatever overtures were made to collegiality and the sensus fidei, there remained a dread of inviting open discussion and free speech.

Yet here we have Pope Francis repeating time and again that Catholics must speak and act with parrhesia, and for the most part his actions and gestures have been consistent with this. His determination to set the church on a synodal path is perhaps the clearest indication, but there are many others. He has sent messages of gratitude to Gustavo Gutierrez for his service, though Gutierrez had been implicated in the repeated condemnations of liberation theology by the CDF; and likewise more recently he thanked Sr Jeannine Gramick for her fifty years of ministry to the LGBTQ community, even though she was censured by the CDF in 1999. In other matters too he has shown a fundamental preference for giving people freedom to speak rather than restraining them. Witness his appointment of women to senior Vatican posts; his invitation to a transgender man and his fiancée to visit him in Rome; his public shows of respect for other Christian churches, Muslims, Jews, and atheists; and even his recent remarks critical of ‘cancel culture’ for its tendency to silence disparate voices. His record is not perfect – whose is? – but in all of this we see the pope both as a type of parrhesiastes himself and as promoting a parrhesiastic culture in the church. This is a new way of being pope.

Pope Francis’s use of parrhesia, it might be noted, is in effect an act of ressourcement, the retrieval of an old value that was later obscured. Where the term parrhesia and its cognates are employed in the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, the meaning is overwhelmingly positive. Michel Foucault, in some of the last lectures he gave before his death (in Berkeley in 1983 and Paris in 1984), traces the genealogy of the term in classical antiquity and the Judeo-Christian tradition. He notes that in the Old Testament parrhesia is associated with wisdom, righteousness, confidence and courage. In some texts it appears as an endowment of God, who speaks the truth, and as a gift of God to God’s people. In the New Testament, the same characterisation holds good. In the Gospels parrhesia is ascribed to Christ’s own self-proclamation: first he speaks in figures of speech, but when the hour comes he begins to speak ‘openly to the world’ (John 18:20) and says ‘nothing secretly’. Then, after Christ’s ascension, the apostles cower in the upper room until the Holy Spirit comes upon them and gives them the courage to speak ‘the word of God with boldness’ [Acts 4:31]. In the apostles and in Paul parrhesia is associated with a prophetic compulsion to speak out; and particularly in Paul it is also a fruit of the hope they have received, such that they can speak confidently in prayer before God.

The pope develops these scriptural hints. He calls parrhesia ‘a grace of God’, a gift of the Spirit, and the fruit of a ‘faithful and intense relationship with God’. He adds that it ‘purifies the Church and keeps it going’. He also associates it with ‘standing up to arrogance’ and ‘preventing abuses of power’. This is what he calls ‘the parrhesia of denunciation’: ‘It is proclaiming human dignity when it is trampled upon, it is making the stifled cry of the poor heard, it is giving a voice to those who have none’.

Why is it a surprise, maybe for some people even a scandal, that a pope should talk this way? The truth is that even very early in its history Christianity displayed a certain ambivalence about parrhesia. Foucault’s complex and fascinating account of the early church identifies what he calls an ‘anti-parrhesiastic pole’, the deep suspicion which the fourth century ascetics had of parrhesia, which they saw as a dangerous mysticism that failed to show fearful reverence before God. In Foucault’s provocative judgement it was around this pole that all the pastoral institutions of Christianity developed. But maybe more interesting for present purposes is his observation about what happened to parrhesia in its original milieu. In classical Greece, he notes, as you move from Athenian democracy to the world of the Hellenistic monarchies, parrhesia ceases to be an ethical attitude of the good citizen, exercised in the public square, the agora; instead, it becomes centered on the relationship between the king and his court advisors. The advisors may speak openly to the king (taking a risk, no doubt), and the king may listen if he pleases; but the people whom he rules have become ‘the silent majority’: ‘The place where parrhesia appears in the context of monarchic rule is the king’s court, and no longer the agora’.

There are points of comparison here with the church in the early modern era. A monarchical church emerged after the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, and it had no room for a parrhesiastic culture. Open speech, freedom, equality – this was the language of the enemy, first of Protestantism, then of post-Enlightenment rationalism, liberalism, socialism, and modernism. It had become critical for the church during the theological polemics and political upheavals of the century after Trent to oppose Luther’s egalitarian reading of St Peter’s ‘priesthood of all believers’ and his distinction between the hidden and the false church, and the more it did so the more it came to accentuate its own visible, juridical, hierarchical, and authoritarian aspects. (‘We have learnt our catechism too much against Luther’, Henri de Lubac lamented.)

In effect, what came to dominate was what Avery Dulles called the ‘institutional model’ of the church. The church was imagined firstly as comparable to a politically-constituted community, where the structures of governance and the stratification of members were legitimated by reference to authority – in the church’s case, to the authority of Christ. And as ecclesiastical authority and power emanate from Christ, increasingly they appeared in the church to be drawn down from Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope. Then, the more the church felt beleaguered by the world that lay outside – especially during the ‘long 19th century’ after the French Revolution – the more emphasis it placed on that authority. In a word, the church’s vision of itself was deeply conditioned by its experience over centuries of upheaval and embattlement, and gradually, as the sense of embattlement became a constant, it came to see the marks of that conditioning as intrinsic to its nature. The upshot was the understanding of the church notoriously described by Pope Pius X in the encyclical Vehementer nos in 1907. The church, he said, is

essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

It was under the 19th century popes, Pius X’s immediate predecessors, that the process was brought to completion. You had then what Richard Gaillardetz has called ‘Roman Catholicism as a “counter-society”’, sustained by ‘a vast institutional apparatus with the papacy at its head’. It was a silencing culture. The ordinary authority of bishops was diminished, little room was left for episcopal collegiality, and even theologians could only work, to use a phrase of Newman’s, ‘under the lash, as the Persian slaves’. As for the lay faithful, their job, as Pius put it, was ‘to be led’. This is the church for which Giuseppe Alberigo coined the term Tridentinism – not created by Trent itself but by those who received it.

Thanks mainly to the work of the 20th century ressourcement theologians, Vatican II recovered the deeper and more scriptural images of church that had fallen out of sight. Of particular importance, of course, were people of God and communion. In both of these there is an implied sense of acknowledging the participation of the ordinary faithful in the munus triplex, the threefold offices of Christ, those of priest, prophet and king. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that the faithful have a right to speak – to give personal witness and to teach – and that those who hold office in the church have an obligation to listen.