When I learned quite recently that Pope Francis is such a fan of the work of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo that he called him one day to congratulate him on his latest book, I was led to give more attention to Vattimo’s prescription for ecclesial health, that what the church needs is more kenosis! In face of the church’s continuing struggle with the scandal of sexual abuse, everyone rightly proclaims the importance of becoming more humble. Given the history, we would be foolish not be humble. Humility, however, is not enough.
Humility is a virtue, but kenosis is a practice. The two, of course, belong together, though while kenosis cannot happen without humility, humility doesn’t always lead to kenosis. The intensely “umble” Uriah Heep had no sense that this attitude required change. In fact, of course, in Dickens’ novels and in the Catholic Church, any humility that is just cringing is pretty much the opposite of true humility.
Kenosis, or self-emptying, is what happens when our need to be humbled is patterned after the divine life. In the Incarnation, Paul says in Philippians, it is God who empties the self of God in becoming human in Jesus Christ. In a strange way, we know that Christ is God in history because he was, for all his compassionate and healing actions, in human terms, a figure of weakness and failure. Discipleship of Christ begins in humility, which should not be hard for human beings with open eyes, but it has to continue in the actions that humility requires, the self-emptying that stands as a sign of contradiction to the world around us. Even if it is destined to end in failure.
There is a lesson in divine kenosis for a church struggling with resolution to the ongoing crises of sex abuse and abuse of power. God’s parallel to human humility is divine compassion, and kenosis is the action that cashes in that level of concern. A truly humble church patterned after the life of Christ will empty out all self-concern in the pursuit of purification. Clericalism got us into this mess by wrapping up our self-concern in the mantle of “protecting the good name of the church,” and we will only get out of this mess, if we ever do, by abandoning all attempts to be anything other than totally open. Evidently, our leaders have not all yet reached this point. Kenosis, it seems sometimes, is reserved to God, whereas divine kenosis is really a teaching tool on the way to achieve true humanity.
The kenosis demanded of the clergy is pretty obvious; discipleship of Christ requires service before prestige or, more accurately, only the prestige that follows from a life of service that is not seeking that kind of recognition. But what is not quite so obvious is that there is no kenosis if there is no action. Interior acts of humility, however sincere, do not cut it. What will the clergy in general and bishops in particular do? One thing they could do would be to act on the conviction that there is a difference between church management and sacramental leadership, and that management is not a clerical charism. Step aside and let qualified laity do what qualified laity are qualified to do.
The kenosis demanded of the lay community is less obvious but equally important. The virtue of humility has been preached to the laity for many centuries and very successfully internalized. This contributed considerably to the ease with which bishops could hide predatory priests from the law. But the humility the church preaches to the laity is deeply a-kenotic because it calls for no action at all. It not only does not involve actions that grow out of humility, it positively discourages them. Lay humility as assumed by the laity cannot accept that understanding of the virtue. The humility of the Hebrew prophets did not prevent them challenging their leaders, even if this put their lives in danger. Self-emptying for the laity today is not about giving up prestige, but rather giving up the comfort that accompanies passivity. Every time we do not speak when we should or do not act when action is called for, we are failing in our discipleship of the Christ who personifies the self-emptying of God.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.