In addition to his transparent cordiality, Pope Francis is clearly intellectually sharp. So it may sound strange to hear me muse that I wonder if he is familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s landmark The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? A paradigm is Kuhn’s elegant conceptual tool that aids in identifying the over-arching “lenses or frameworks” with which we organize large bodies of knowledge. The wider framework yields methods and principles that we use to apply knowledge to very practical situations. Knowledge, after all should yield practical results.
Paradigms, methods, and applications: the unit when my students and I discuss these is one of my favorites every quarter. The discussion is wide ranging; we scavenge around the university’s colleges and schools to identify the new methods and applications that are emerging. And they surely are because universities are an intense location of the paradigm shift that we are living in and through.
In Pope Francis’ recent interview all three are at play; sadly, they are not aligned accurately and so fail. Think of all those times when the only screwdriver you can find is a flat head when you need a Phillips-head. Let’s start with application. There is a shortage of priests who are authorized to lead the Catholic community in the sacraments. This is particularly acute in rural Latin America. The method at play is one that is collapsing: those who are authorized must be male and not be sexually active. The paradigm at play here, that is, the scaffold upon which these requirements hang, is the understanding of the human person as an individual substance of a rational nature. This yields further tools for describing human beings: creatures with a body and a soul; beings with an animal nature and a graced (more than natural, divine) nature. These tools presuppose the collapsing paradigm that identifies our humanity in our non-bodily, our intellectual features. That way of framing our humanity is crumbling because it cannot incorporate the features of our human existence that our greater knowledge has disclosed. Anyone who has ever been clinically depressed knows that the relationship between the chemicals in our quite physical brains and the way our minds process experience and makes decisions is quite complicated. Establishing a sharp, clear line between the chemical, that is the physical, and the non-physical, the so-called soul no longer stands. Our memories might make use of chemicals but they are more than that. They involve what we blithely call our “mind.”
We live inside the tension between those features of our lives that we can fully explain and those we cannot. Between facts and mystery.
Both are quite real, actual, and identifiable. My sons’ male-pattern baldness came through my DNA; their relationship with me might have begun in our bodily relationship but it does not end there.
My mother’s bone structure has been replicated in my daughter’s face; that too comes from my genome. No one’s DNA generated her assessment of San Francisco’s weather as “not rainy enough,” that her brothers and I find baffling.
Here is where I find Pope Francis just as baffling. He reaches back into the previous paradigm to solve a problem that is manifestly a feature of the modern, global situation. Vox’s Lindsay Maizland reports that Pope Francis is considering a “work around” from the previous paradigm to make more priests available in Latin America. Like the screwdriver that won’t connect with the screw-head, the notion of viri probati (the tested, or proven man) is nonsense. It is also insulting to the far more numerous women who have been living deeply faithful Christian lives and who have been ready to lead the community in prayer and ritual long since. Whether they express their drive for human intimacy through married family life or as members of religious communities, neither their body parts nor their preference for sexual intimacy determine their fitness for proclaiming and serving the Christian life.
The shortage of priests is a staffing problem. It is acute because Catholicism is freighted with ritual; Catholicism makes robust use of “stuff,” that is the created world. It cannot endure if its sacraments are not available and not simply available but lavishly expressed through excellent practitioners. We have seen that people who are caught by Jesus’ Gospel will eventually abandon the Catholic Church for another Christian community who is willing and ready to serve their needs.
The staffing problem is an application, an implementation. It cannot be addressed using a bankrupt paradigm that traps us in methods that made sense in a pre-modern, feudal, essentially European context. We can no longer transplant such Catholicism throughout the world; we need to create new methods that serve a re-imagined paradigm.
We have the tools for such. The Judeo-Christian tradition is famous for its elegant description of the locus of our humanity: we are imago Dei; made in the image and likeness of God. That is how the human and the divine intersect. It is not a dualism as it was expressed in the previous paradigm but more of a tension, a wrangling. We are embodied spirits. We are clusters of very measurable characteristics. Some are empirical such as genus and species. Others are not quantifiable but are absolutely real and actual. Our capacity to
analyze and interpret the data that we are so good at amassing; our capacity to craft and sustain relationships, to create beauty. The measurable and the mysterious, like the newborn with her Apgar score as well as her welcoming smile, we are an intense matrix of the finite and the infinite. Pope Francis knows this; he often displays that he does so. And so it goes. In Kuhn’s masterwork he notes that during paradigm shifts there is often a tendency to retrench, to run home to the frameworks that were so durable. That is where Catholicism seems to be even with such a creative leader as Pope Francis.