Questions II: La Bella Figura

(This is Neil)

I’ve just read a very interesting short article [PDF] by Adam Deville in the Canadian Journal of Orthodox Christianity. (I should admit that just a short while ago, I was completely unaware of the existence of this journal.) I’ll summarize it briefly and then ask a few questions.

Dr. DeVille uses recent books by Beppe Severgnini and John Allen to define la bella figura, literally “beautiful figure.” Allen says that an emphasis on la bella figura is “undeniably influential in Vatican psychology.” This need to “keep up appearances,” Allen goes on to say, means:

1. The Vatican is reluctant to replace incompetent people or criticize their work.

2. The Vatican prefers to deal with scandal outside the spotlight.

3. If there’s a choice between doing something quickly and doing it beautifully, it will be done beautifully.

DeVille suggests that the concern for la bella figura has been used to “cover up mistakes, justify inaction, or rationalize a refusal to change bad policies.” His example has to do with Rome’s “quiet” decision in 2006 to abandon the title “Patriarch of the West.”  After a negative Orthodox reaction based on the fears that this meant a renewed claim to universal church jurisdiction for the papacy, Rome could only respond in an “unsatisfactory and thoroughly  unconvincing” manner because it just could not admit that the decision was “inadequately considered before being sprung on everyone unaware.” That was unthinkable.

There are other obvious examples. As Allen reports, during the November 2002 meeting of the US Bishops in Washington, DC, then-Bishop Sean O’Malley said:

“Church leaders dealt with sexual abuse by clergy in a modus operandi that was suggested by a theology of sin and grace, redemption, permanence of the priesthood, but also a great concern about scandal, the bella figura, and the financial patrimony of the Church.”

DeVille goes on to suggest that there might be theological problems with la bella figura. An emphasis on “beautiful figure” might be incompatible with an emphasis on the church as kenotic, or self-emptying. DeVille writes:

“Such a [kenotic] approach aims to purify the Church by emptying her of all inclination to sinful division and self-aggrandizement, and to encourage Christians to draw closer to one another and to that unity for which we all hope by means of a confession of weakness and admission of faults.”

You can’t be self-emptying and always preserve the figura.

Second, the attempt to avoid any possibility of scandal can itself become scandalous. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, wrote:

“While some Catholics are perhaps scandalized by admissions of fault, others are scandalized by the refusal to admit such faults. They reproach their fellow Catholics for what they see as their tendency to justify everything that has been done by their coreligionists, especially by persons purporting to act in the name of the Church.”

Third, DeVille says that exponents of la bella figura often fail to understand the nature of beauty – namely, that “confession, contrition, kenosis, and even death often contain and convey a beauty that the world can neither give nor understand.”

The Jesuit Mark Bosco has said, “[I]t is precisely in brokenness that the Cross is the witness of a kenotic, self-emptying transparency, drawing the beholder up into a hidden Beauty, the self-sacrificing communication of the Absolute.”

Three questions, then:

1. Is there any serious theological justification for an emphasis on la bella figura being “undeniably influential in Vatican psychology”? (“It’s been done for a long time” is hardly a serious theological justification.)

2. Is an emphasis on la bella figura doing harm to the Church?

3. Is it realistic to think that the ecclesiastical emphasis on la bella figura can be changed?

(Thanks in advance for your responses – I’m really very interested to know what you think.)

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Questions II: La Bella Figura

  1. Liam says:

    It’s really the fear of the brutta figura. It’s fear-based, not love-based.

    Though the culture is one where this fear (often sincerely, though not necessarily accurately; and sometimes cynically) is rationalized under the mantle of charity towards those whose brutta figura would otherwise be revealed. That’s where the difficulty rests – it doesn’t take too many .

    It’s one of the deepest problems in church governance. Prelates are surrounded by people who have been acculturated (or will be acculturated soon enough) to support the culture.

    Rationalizations are very powerful things, and not easily and quickly sorted out into True/Not True; typically, they are partial truths, and one must wrestle with figuring out *how* true they are.

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