Spiritual Worldliness: A Key Forgotten Bergoglioism

Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio delivered a speech on 7 March 2013 that would change his life and the life of the Church. That day, this relatively unknown ecclesial commodity—at least to the outside world—spoke for just under four minutes to the cardinals about to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. In remarks that papal biographer Austen Ivereigh once likened to the Gettysburg Address, Bergoglio set out his vision of the Church.[1] His audience found this vision so inspiring that they elected him Pope Francis six days later.

At the speech’s climax, Bergoglio urged the church to be missionary, to go out of itself to the margins. The alternative, he feared, was an “evil” self-referentiality encapsulated by a seeming theological neologism: “spiritual worldliness.”[2] For those who knew Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, they would have encountered the phrase regularly. It has since served as a refrain throughout his pontificate. In his speeches, writings, and homilies, Francis has employed the phrase over fifty times. By comparison, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the famous “dictatorship of relativism” less than twenty.[3]

While that Benedictine term drew the ire and applause of many, Francis’s mantra—despite its prominence—has garnered meager attention. Cindy Wooden and Joshua McElwee’s very helpful “lexicon” for deciphering Francis, for example, does not include a distinct entry on spiritual worldliness, despite the term’s prominence.[4] In studies of Francis in general, spiritual worldliness receives scant attention. The omission is unfortunate. Grasping this maxim’s meaning holds a key for understanding and assessing Francis’s complex ecclesiological legacy.

As he confesses in that pre-conclave speech, Francis borrows the phrase from the French Jesuit theological lodestar of the twentieth century: Henri de Lubac. Sarah Shortall’s Soldiers of God in a Secular World documents how the political tumult of that century drove much of de Lubac’s theological ministry.[5] His theology of nature and grace, for instance, showed that no sphere of life escaped the transformation demanded by grace. So too did this synthesis allow him to reject all tendencies to naturalize the supernatural and immanentize the eschatological. Thus, did de Lubac resist attempts to absorb ecclesial life into partisan politics, from Catholic flirtations with National Socialism before the War to entanglements with Marxism after the War.[6]

De Lubac’s 1953 ecclesiological masterpiece The Splendor of the Church reflects that commitment. The book does not whitewash ecclesial disfigurement, and de Lubac’s boldness grows in its concluding pages. There, he predicts that if “spiritual worldliness were to invade the Church,” the result would be “something infinitely more disastrous than any worldliness of the purely moral order.”[7] It is, for him, the worst evil that can befall the church: worse than simple corruption, general incompetence, and even scandal. Despite its gravity, though, de Lubac never defines the term.

De Lubac takes the idea from a more obscure voice: Anscar Vonier, a German-born Benedictine abbot of Buckfast Abbey. In 1935, Vonier penned The Spirit and the Bride, a work that presented a pneumatological ecclesiology able to redress the overly juridical ecclesiologies that reigned in theological manuals of the day. It is within this context that Vonier defines spiritual worldliness as “the practical relinquishing of other-worldliness,” basing ecclesial standards “not on what is the glory of the Lord, but on what is the profit of man.” This “entirely anthropocentric outlook” pushes the Church to judge its activity on naturalistic, exclusively human criteria, rather than on God.[8] To use language from Charles Taylor, it imprisons the Church within “the immanent frame” that characterizes our secular age.[9] Put in the Ignatian parlance of Francis, it means living not ad majorem Dei gloriam but ad majorem sui gloriam. Lurking beneath the outward veneer of religiosity and cloaked in spiritual language, this worldliness is silent but deadly. The identification of it was and is prophetic; our current pope makes that clear.

Francis described spiritual worldliness most fully in his 2013 programmatic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. He identifies it with a desire for social clout, an obsessive need to manage things, a “concern to be seen” (EG §95). It can surface as a neo-Gnosticism more concerned with subjective self-help than disinterested service, stifling the Cross as a result. It can surface as a neo-Pelagianism more concerned with producible expressions of faith than actual evangelization, stifling the Spirit as a result. Again, these tendencies masquerade as ministerial work, “hid[ing] behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church” (EG §93). Residue of a Christendom model of the church, they belie the missionary option of which Pope Francis dreams.

Spiritual worldliness especially haunts U.S. Catholicism and its pragmatic tendencies. During his 2015 visit to the States, in an address to clergy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Francis observed how spiritual worldliness manifests itself when “standards of efficiency, good management, and outward success which govern the business world” judge pastoral work. While such ideals are not bad per se, too often do they choke pastoral parrhesia. Church management programs are no substitute for ecclesiology. What Karl Rahner once labeled the “tyranny of statistics” can eclipse the theo-centrism that should guide ecclesial decision-making.[10] In an assessment-obsessed and results-driven culture, this warning hits close to home.

Indeed, Pope Francis’s diagnosis of spiritual worldliness yields a probing and perhaps even damning self-examen for those who labor in the Church. When he does caution against this danger, typically he directs it toward priests and religious; ecclesial careerism, pretensions of superiority, and narcissism are especially egregious examples he names. Yet spiritual worldliness creeps into all facets of Church life. Bottom lines can dictate parish outreach, marketing demands can dilute the identity of Catholic schools, and self-serving ambition can warp both ecclesial and theological ministry—even if, in each instance, religious “success” seemingly justifies the means. Nowhere has spiritual worldliness done more harm than in the heinous coverups of sexual abuse that aimed to preserve the institution over the truth, reputation over victims.

Selfish convention, rather than the glory of God, sets the standards in all these cases. The self-referentiality of spiritual worldliness—as Bergoglio declared in that decisive pre-conclave speech, “a Church living within herself, of herself, for herself”—suffocates.[11] Because its religious pretense eases conscience, it numbs the capacity for conversion. It deforms the Church; it bends it, to use an Augustinian descriptor of sin, incurvatus in se. Or, to use another Augustinian idiom, a libido dominandi cramps the capacity for receptivity toward grace. God becomes an object to control rather than an invitation to, as Avery Dulles once memorably put, “expropriate” oneself into a communion of grace.[12] It reduces the Church to just another voluntary association that needs to cater to personal preferences. It produces an exhausted ecclesial fatuousness that borders on a functional apostasy. A spiritually worldly church, Pope Francis told the community of Pio Romanian College two years ago, is a Church that attempts “to grow without roots,” withering as a result. The pope returns to three roots in particular that can safeguard the Church against spiritual worldliness and so ground authentic growth.

The first root, unsurprisingly, is Christ. A deep Christo-centrism does in fact characterize the thought, words, and ministry of Francis. This allegiance recurs in his denunciations of spiritual worldliness. “The Incarnation,” Francis proposes, reveals “the power of God against the Pelagian ‘power,’ and the weakness of God against the Gnostic ‘power.’”[13] At no point is this logic clearer than on the Cross. As he wrote to the priests of Rome last year, “the crucified Jesus” is “the daily antidote to worldliness.” In Christ, the Lion appears as the Slaughtered Lamb (Rev 5:5-6), defeat becomes victory. The Cross, as Saint Paul preached with such gusto, makes “foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20). If spiritual worldliness reduces the Gospel to merely natural standards, then the Cross inverts those standards. It privileges love over violence and forgiveness over revenge, vulnerability over prestige and surrender over control. If to become cruciform is to become “like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things” (1 Cor 4:13), then a Church that follows the crucified Christ is anything but spiritually worldly.

The second root branches from the first: worship. On the Cross, praying the Psalms, Christ praises his Father through the Spirit in a way that destines his risen humanity into the eternal praise that is God’s triune life. In his apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis once again denounces the dangers of spiritual worldliness, concluding that “the Liturgy is, by its very nature, the most effective antidote against these poisons” (DD §18).[14] The letter, written as a theological coda to Traditionis Custodes, reminds readers that the liturgy is not a tool for demarcating tribes and constructing religious identities. Rather than bolstering one’s personal preferences, authentic worship points beyond itself. For his part, de Lubac hails Mary, “the perfect worshipper” who lives “Soli Deo gloria,” as the alternative to spiritual worldliness (cf. Lk 1:46-55).[15] If a possessive self-referentiality marks spiritual worldliness, then worship demands a eucharistic self-diffusiveness that opens toward a loving encounter with the Other: Laudato si’!

And so the third root branches from the second: the poverty of service. In an address to the Central America bishops during the 2019 World Youth Day, Pope Francis hailed Saint Óscar Romero as a counter-witness to spiritual worldliness. The embrace of poverty, which Francis terms “kenotic,” fosters a “noble detachment” from established markers of success. This poverty, moreover, “translates into clear, practical, and visible signs,” warding off a spiritualization of the first two roots. In his own solution to spiritual worldliness, Vonier identifies the Sermon on the Mount as charting those clear, practical, and visible signs. Those who are poor, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the peacemaker, says Vonier, are all “types of another world”; the Beatitudes disclose commitments that “would be diametrically opposed to the instincts of a Church that is completely anthropocentric.”[16] The call to exercise mercy, arguably the catchphrase for Francis, confronts the indifference that drives our cutthroat economy and technocratic culture.[17] In presenting standards that confound typical modes of human thought and action, the Sermon on the Mount commissions a Christ-centered, worshipful, and servant community that throws anthropocentric, worldly standards to the wind.

Perhaps nowhere do Francis’s words about spiritual worldliness matter more than in the ongoing Synod on Synodality. Across the ideological spectrum, there is a persistent temptation to interpret the synod through a spiritually worldly lens. Viewed through those lenses, the synod can appear as an ecclesiastical parlor game. Commentators vie for which side is “winning,” which teachings are to be downplayed or more strongly reasserted, what phrase means what, who deserves what power. “Team theology,” unfortunately, dictates most synodal commentary.[18] Angst plagues all sides, betraying an ecclesiological Pelagianism that assumes the church needs either reconstructed or protected. The resultant flattening of the Church to a mere power-structure—all abetted by theological language—typifies spiritual worldliness, as ecclesial questions succumb to the canons of partisan and identity politics. Forgotten, except for perhaps some performative nods, is how synodality can conform believers to Christ, might glorify God, and promote a poor Church of service. Self-referentiality reigns instead.

Francis himself has focused on this temptation in the most recent assembly of the Synod (October 2023). At its beginning, he gave all participants a selection of his writings entitled Santi, non mondani: La grazia di Dio ci salva dalla corruzione interiore (Holy, Not Worldly: God’s Grace Saves Us from Interior Corruption). Amid those proceedings, he offered a rare, scathing intervention that lambasted the evils of worldliness. Clericalism, often in the form of an ecclesiasticism, represents one symptom. The deformation of the church to a “supermarket of salvation” represents another.

Francis sounded similar themes in his final homily at the assembly’s conclusion. He repeated his warnings against the “idolatry” of a worldliness that, “disguised” as spirituality, “puts ourselves at the center.” This time, however, he proposed a solution, one that is well-rooted in his other remarks on spiritual worldliness. He enjoined the Church first to recover “the amazement of adoration, the wonder of worship,” a joyful recognition that “the way [God] acts is always unpredictable, it transcends our thinking.” Second, he called the Church to orient itself toward the poverty of service, “washing the feet of wounded humanity” and “going out lovingly to encounter the poor.” Summing up his message, he articulated the true aim of the synod: “to adore God and to love our brothers and sisters with his love, that is the great and perennial reform.” Those twin calls find their unity in Christ, the perfect worshipper and the perfect servant—the only firm foundation of ecclesial reform.

The very title of Santi, non mondani captures Pope Francis’s solution to worldliness. As he writes in the preface of the work, the “battle” against worldliness “has a name: it is called holiness.” Recall, after all, that Francis is the only pope to have penned a magisterial document on the universal call to holiness. Battles over synodality should be battles over holiness if the synod is to represent something other than a spiritually worldly exercise. In his commentary on the most recent iteration of the synod, Archbishop Anthony Fisher stated this eloquently: “one useful criterion for judging every Synod proposal is: Is it likely, by God’s grace, to generate more apostles and pastors, evangelists and missionaries, religious and teachers, martyrs and mystics, holy men and women, such as our Church and world so sorely need?” Such fruit can only grow through a strong root system of holiness, which figures like Pope Francis, de Lubac, and Vonier have unearthed. If Pope Francis’s diagnosis of spiritual worldliness inspired the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis’s prognosis of holiness must color the twilight of his pontificate.

[1] Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 357.

[2] As cited in Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 151-52.

[3] These are the results of a count through the search engine on the Vatican website.

[4] There is only one very brief reference to spiritual worldliness in this work; see Joshua J. McElwee and Cindy Wooden, ed., A Pope Francis Lexicon (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 197.

[5] Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021), 100-25, 158-59.

[6] De Lubac’s critique of Auguste Comte’s “use” of Catholicism and, relatedly, the Action Française movement is representative of this fear: “The faith that used to be a living adherence to the Mystery of Christ then came to be no more than attachment to a social program, itself twisted and diverted from its purpose. Without any apparent crisis, under a surface that sometimes seemed the reverse of apostasy, that faith has slowly been drained of its substance” (in Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Riley and Anne Englund Nash [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995], 266).

[7] Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, trans. Michael Mason, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 378.

[8] Anscar Vonier, The Spirit and the Bride (Assumption, IL: Assumption Press, 2013), 118.

[9] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 539-93.

[10] Karl Rahner, The Church After the Council, trans. D.C. Herron and R. Albrecht (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), 48.

[11] As cited in Vallely, Pope Francis, 152.

[12] Avery Dulles, “The Ecclesial Dimension of Faith,” Communio 22, no. 3 (1995): 418-32, at 420.

[13] This is from an audio recording with Pope Francis made by Massimo Borghesi, as quoted in J. Matthey Ashley, Renewing Theology: Ignatian Spirituality and Karl Rahner, Ignacio Ellacuría, and Pope Francis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), 264.

[14] As he once preached as Archbishop of Buenos Aires twenty years prior, “May the Eucharist be celebrated with love defend us from all spiritual worldliness” (in Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ”2002 Homily for Corpus Christi,” in In Your Eyes I See My Words: Homilies and Speeches from Buenos Aires, vol. 1, trans. Patrick J. Ryan [New York: Fordham University Press, 2019], 155).

[15] De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 376-77.

[16] Vonier, The Spirit and the Bride, 119-20.

[17] See Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz, Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 133-208.

[18] I take this phrase from Larry Chapp, “The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Ratzinger and the Crisis of Our Time,” Catholic World Report (February 4, 2021), https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/02/04/the-constantinian-heathenism-of-the-church-joseph-ratzinger-and-the-crisis-of-our-time/.

Featured Image: William Blake, Dante in Hell 10 conversing with Farinata degli Uberti, 1824; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Lucas Briola

Lucas Briola is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, PA). His most recent book, The Eucharistic Vision of Laudato Si' Praise, Conversion, and Integral Ecology, was published in 2023 by The Catholic University of America Press.

Read more by Lucas Briola