Wednesday 30 March 2016

Realities and ideas: Francis vs Benedict?

Just before Easter, the aether carried a conversation (here and repeated uncritically here) which suggested that Pope Francis' principle that "realities are greater than ideas" put him at odds with Pope Emeritus Benedict, particularly as the latter had expressed himself in a recently published interview.

Pope Francis' articulation of the principle is found in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium nn.231-233 (but see my comment below about the English of the first sentence of n.232):
Realities are more important than ideas
231. There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.
232. Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies. We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people.
233. Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and Gnosticism.
Even a cursory reading of this passage, written in the context of an exhortation whose subject is the new evangelisation, indicates Pope Francis' concern that ideas and realities should be aligned with each other, and not that ideas should he superceded by realities:
.....Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason.....
And the most fundamental reality is that of the Incarnation of the Word:
.... The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization....
[The first two chapters of Luigi Giussani's foundational text, The Religious Sense (and remember that Pope Francis, as Cardinal Bergoglio presented the Spanish translation of this book at its launch in Argentina, and acknowledges his debt to the movement Communion and Liberation) are instructive background reading to this passage in Evangelii Gaudium. They are entitled "The First Premise: Realism" and "The Second Premise: Reasonableness".]

The English of the first sentence of Evangelii Gaudium n.232 as published on the Vatican website does not appear to be the same as the French and Italian (nor, so far as I can tell, of the Spanish and Portuguese), which would be more carefully translated into English as "The idea -  the conceptual elaborations - is a function of the grasping/perception, of the understanding and of the conduct/operation of the reality":
232. Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis.
232. L’idée – les élaborations conceptuelles – est fonction de la perception, de la compréhension et de la conduite de la réalité.
232. L’idea – le elaborazioni concettuali – è in funzione del cogliere, comprendere e dirigere la realtà.
The non-English languages seem to better express the alignment of ideas to reality that is the intent of this section of Evangelii Gaudium. Likewise in this paragraph, what appears in English as referring to "what calls us to action" appears in the French and Italian as "what engages us" ... the sense being not dissimilar, though perhaps appearing more idiomatically correct.

In the light of the above, I was struck by the first of the answers in Pope Benedict's recently published interview. This seemed to express exactly the balance of "reality" and "idea" that Pope Francis has presented in Evangelii Gaudium and which Luigi Giussani offers in the first two chapters of The Religious Sense. It also strikingly includes a similar assertion of the necessity of the encounter with the community of the Church as part of the reality of faith as does n.233 of Evangelii Gaudium: is a profoundly personal contact with God, which touches me in my innermost being and places me in front of the living God in absolute immediacy in such a way that I can speak with Him, love Him and enter into communion with Him. But at the same time this reality which is so fundamentally personal also has inseparably to do with the community. It is an essential part of faith that I be introduced into the “we” of the sons and daughters of God, into the pilgrim community of brothers and sisters. The encounter with God means also, at the same time, that I myself become open, torn from my closed solitude and received into the living community of the Church. ....
.... Faith is not a product of reflection nor is it even an attempt to penetrate the depths of my own being. Both of these things may be present, but they remain insufficient without the “listening” through which God, from without, from a story He himself created, challenges me. In order for me to believe, I need witnesses who have met God and make Him accessible to me. In my article on baptism I spoke of the double transcendence of the community, in this way causing to emerge once again an important element: the faith community does not create itself. It is not an assembly of men who have some ideas in common and who decide to work for the spread of such ideas. Then everything would be based on its own decision and, in the final analysis, on the majority vote principle, which is, in the end it would be based on human opinion. ....

Thursday 24 March 2016

Dignified shame and a dignity that knows how to be ashamed: Pope Francis' Chrism Mass homily 2016

The homily given by Pope Francis at his celebration of the Chrism Mass can be read here. I do suggest reading the whole, as it is a rather beautiful read. One should perhaps read it in the context of a Jubilee Year of Mercy in which the Sacrament of Penance - or to use a title that has come again into prominence during this Year of Mercy, Confession - is to be seen as a very particular moment in which Catholics can receive God's Mercy.

I was very struck by the following passage, and by its leitmotif of a "dignified shame and a shamed dignity", a phrase I am finding very thought provoking though I am not sure I have fully grasped its meaning. I have added the italics below compared to the text on the Vatican website:
God does not only forgive incalculable debts, as he does to that servant who begs for mercy but is then miserly to his own debtor; he also enables us to move directly from the most shameful disgrace to the highest dignity without any intermediary stages.  The Lord allows the forgiven woman to wash his feet with her tears.  As soon as Simon confesses his sin and begs Jesus to send him away, the Lord raises him to be a fisher of men.  We, however, tend to separate these two attitudes: when we are ashamed of our sins, we hide ourselves and walk around with our heads down, like Adam and Eve; and when we are raised up to some dignity, we try to cover up our sins and take pleasure in being seen, almost showing off.
Our response to God’s superabundant forgiveness should be always to preserve that healthy tension between a dignified shame and a shamed dignity.  It is the attitude of one who seeks a humble and lowly place, but who can also allow the Lord to raise him up for the good of the mission, without complacency.  The model that the Gospel consecrates, and which can help us when we confess our sins, is Peter, who allowed himself to be questioned about his love for the Lord, but who also renewed his acceptance of the ministry of shepherding the flock which the Lord had entrusted to him.  
We live in a time when societies in developed countries, in the interests of overcoming "stigma" attached to behaviours at one time generally accepted as morally wrong, in effect lose a rightful sense of shame about those behaviours, a rightful shame that would discourage the wrong behaviour without persecuting its protagonists. In the context of the mother and baby homes in Ireland, for example, I wonder about the ecclesial and social attitudes which meant that young girls who fell pregnant were rejected by their families - was this a rightful shame or was it an unjust stigmatisation? There is a widespread acceptance of different sexual lifestyles today - does this not show a loss of a certain rightful shame that has accompanied the removal of an unjust stigmatisation that existed in the past? Pope Francis' phrase appears to me to capture something of the rightful sense of shame, whilst disallowing that of an unjust stigmatisation.

This appears more transparently in the Italian version of the phrase, where the word for shame might also be used to express embarrassment:
...quella sana tensione tra una dignitosa vergogna e una dignità che sa vergognarsi .... [... that healthy tension between a dignified shame/embarrassment and a dignity that knows how to be ashamed/embarrassed....]
In passing: I can already see the Catholic blogosphere erupting at Pope Francis' (obvious personal attack on its authors - not) expressed in these words addressed more immediately to priests:
We feel ourselves also trapped, not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click.  
I for one, a blogger who is not a priest, can understand exactly what Pope Francis is getting at as far as my own life is concerned. I suspect that his words speak, not only to me, but to others who write for the aether..... as should the words of a Pastor.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Love Pope Francis and love the Church: Four theses

First Thesis: those who spread the narrative of "contradicting the infallibly defined teaching of the Church", or of "confusing and erroneous teaching", on the part of Pope Francis have need to be very considerably more truthful in their presentation and interpretation of Pope Francis' words.

Second Thesis, part (a): Pope Francis' words offered during the in-flight press conference, the morning homily or at an audience are addressed to a specific situation at a specific time: the question of a journalist which may reflect a context from an apostolic journey, the congregation in the St Martha guest house in the context of the Liturgy of that day, the particular situation and experience of those present at the audience. They are not universal teaching, and not intended as such; they should neither be treated as such by commentators nor vilified by those who would wish that they met the standards of universal teaching. One might wish to say, in this restricted sense, that they are not "magisterial teaching" - but see part (b) below - and we should not make more of them than they are by trying to extend them to wider contexts and neither should we denigrate them when we have undertaken that extension ourselves.

Second Thesis, part (b): Though Pope Francis' words are not universal teaching, they do nevertheless represent the manner in which Pope Francis exercises his office as the Successor of Peter. That manner is, as I think Pope Francis indicated in the preference for the title "Bishop of Rome" expressed in the early days of his pontificate, the manner of pastor; and he exercises the office in that manner using the modern means of social communication. [As an aside, one could suggest that Pope John Paul II exercised the office in the manner of a philosopher and Pope Benedict in the manner of a theologian. Try reading their encyclicals from this perspective.]

Third Thesis: Abbot Vonier suggests, in the foreword to The Spirit and the Bride (a book I was led to when it was referenced, I think indirectly, by Pope Francis in a footnote to his Encyclical Gaudium Evangelium), that Catholics should not distinguish between an "ideal Church" and a "real Church" - there is only one Church. It offends this oneness of the Church when Pope Francis' non-magisterial teaching is the subject of insistent critique from a community of bloggers who to a greater or lesser extent see themselves as a kind of "alternative magisterium" to his exercise of his office. This anti-Francis attitude is, quite simply, not Catholic.

Fourth Thesis: Among the aetherial personalities of the "alternative magisterium" there are those who "initiate" and those who "follow", those who start a critique and then those who share it, often somewhat uncritically. In different ways, I think both need to examine their consciences, but perhaps particularly the latter. They need to recognise that what the famous bloggers say is not always either intelligent or true, however learned it might appear, and that they need to think twice before re-posting or linking.

I believe that all of the above can be exemplified from the reaction to Pope Francis' most recent in-flight press conference - see here for some of my articulation of this. This link and this also develop more fully some of the thoughts above. The most recent in-flight press conference, read without a filter, struck me as being exceptionally intelligent and astute.

I would make my own the comment of another blogger at the end of his post:
The Holy Father always makes me want to be a better man.