The French literary critic and anthropologist Rene Girard, commenting on the denial of Peter, made a stunningly prophetic statement before his death in 2015:
When you are in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd. The Gospels, one of the things they do, from an anthropological viewpoint, is to show you that the crowd’s spirit is all-powerful, [and]that only Jesus can conquer it. It’s all-powerful, after Jesus. That it’s a real power on earth, that it can conquer even Peter—which is pretty disturbing if you regard it as a prophecy, too, of what will happen at the last time, which it may well be. You know, because right now, that’s what we are seeing.
Joining the crowd. Surrendering to the spirit of the age by refusing to identify with Christ—refusing to identify with the actual victim. And by Peter, no less.
Girard’s “prophecy” is revealing in the shade of the recent tactical movements of Pope Francis with respect to the Catechism and the death penalty—just the latest in a long series of such actions.
To stand in solidarity with the vulnerable is to become vulnerable. But to feign concern for the vulnerable in keeping with the zeitgeist for the sake of gaining spiritual, political, or economic power is victimism.
And sadly, too often, that is exactly what Pope Francis has done.
Truly standing with the vulnerable costs. That is the essence of what it means to be vulnerable—to suffer, to pay a cost at the hands of the unjust and the violent. Thus, to stand with the vulnerable is to suffer a cost ourselves, whether in time, money, or even our blood.
Victimism operates by the inverse equation. Rather than standing with, victimism stands on the vulnerable, out of ostensible concern for them, for the sake of one’s own power. What merely appears to cost is used for the sake of gain.
How has Pope Francis done this? By tinkering with words. The Church has been loud and clear on its call for the abolition of the death penalty in light of modern circumstances. The Church has already, de facto, been advocating for a moratorium on the death penalty in many places. Pope Francis’s change changes very little.
And yet it garners the headlines of the world. It received the applause and the praise of many of the urbane and elite. The spirit of the age says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
And that’s why this a shameless distraction.
What is going on right at this moment? The American Church has been rocked with yet another sexual abuse scandal. Seminarians are coming forward to complain that their campuses have become as dangerous as a Harvey Weinstein production.
The German Church is in a de facto state of schism with its recent opening of the Eucharistic table to Protestants.
Genocide is being perpetrated against Nigerian Christians.
Christians continue to be slaughtered and persecuted in the Middle East.
Abortion continues apace, claiming millions of lives every single year.
Has Pope Francis ferociously fought the spirit of the age on these issues? Has he made a headline-grabbing statement on any of these things—enough to dominate an entire news cycle, like his decision on the death penalty is doing?
Right this moment, I am in Washington, DC for a meeting of fellow lay Catholics to help hundreds of Christian families in a certain African country get to safety in another country. We are helping the real victims in our world. In the meantime, the pope is distracting the world with fresh meat for the spirit of the age. He tinkers with words for applause, while moral decay has infested many parts of the Church, and millions are either dying, or under threat.
I’m reminded of a gut-wrenching question I was asked by a Chaldean Catholic priest while I was in Iraq working on a documentary. Saint Peter’s Basilica was awash with images of endangers species being projected onto its walls, and the priest asked me, “Why is the pope projecting pictures of wild animals onto St. Peter’s Basilica when our children are being murdered by ISIS?”
It’s a good question. Particularly on days like today.
An Irish lay Catholic leader I know personally begged the pope for a tweet addressing the recent abortion referendum in Ireland. The pope said nothing about it, and the forces of death won. A month later, a similar vote was taken in Pope Francis’s own home country, Argentina. Again he said nothing, and Argentina’s lower house of Congress passed a bill that could legalize abortion, pending a Senate vote later this year.
In each of these cases, standing up for the real victims in this world involves costs. Whether it be the scorn of the self-proclaimed elites in the various metropoles of the West, or geopolitical consequences for standing up for persecuted Christians against Islamic oppression, standing beside real victims costs.
Rene Girard was right to warn us: The spirit of the crowd is “almost all-powerful”, and it can conquer even Peter—or his successor.
All the while, the crucified Christ, whose likeness we see in the most vulnerable members of the human family, remains betrayed and abandoned.