mud puddle

During his recent trip to America, Pope Francis sought to answer a fundamental problem posed by C.S. Lewis in his 1942 sermon “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis was responding to the perception of Christianity as a negative religion, concerned primarily with the virtue of Unselfishness, rather than with Love. In the New Testament, however, Christ points to self-denial not as an end in itself, but as an appeal to greater desire. Lewis writes,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Such a problem poses a question for Christians, then: How to persuade that child to give up his mud puddle to make the long journey to the sparkling blue sea?

Francis’ answer to this question, like the nature of Christianity itself, is clothed in paradox. His appeal to our hearts is a continuation of the words of his two predecessors. From John Paul II: Do not be afraid! From Benedict XVII: Do not be afraid of Christ! From Pope Francis: Dialogue fearlessly!

Pope Francis talks to cancerListening to his speech to Congress, however, many Christians were disappointed. Where was the support to those of us who have been fighting against abortion and same-sex marriage for all of these years? Where was the encouragement to those of us persecuted for our faith in the work place and the public square? Where was the admonishment to a Congress that had just blocked a ban on post-twenty week abortions? And most importantly…how is “dialogue” a solution in these times?

Hadley Arkes is definitely on to something when he writes that Pope Francis may have been practicing what Leo Strauss called “the art of writing between the lines,” or the manner of writing when one is under some sort of censorship. “Strauss had observed,” he writes, “that when a skilled writer falls into a mistake or contradiction that would embarrass a schoolboy, that may be a sign that the contradiction is quite deliberate. The writer may be drawing in the close reader, to read even more closely yet.”

As an example of such a contradiction, Mr. Arkes tells of a friend who was “jolted when Francis raised the issue of the ‘sanctity of life’—and moved quickly, for his example to capital punishment…as it turned out, that omission was so glaring, so obvious, that it stirred the surprise and wonderment even of people who are prochoice.”

Standing in the crowd outside the Capitol that day, my own heart dropped into my stomach when Pope Francis spoke these words instead of denouncing abortion. I cheered confusedly, as did the rest of the crowd.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Another noteworthy signal from the crowd: this silence at the pope’s mention of Thomas Merton—the famous American monk who compared himself to Jonah, as a prophet living in the “belly of a paradox.”

And the final clue: an article by R.R. Reno at First Things expressing his annoyance at Francis’ constant use of the word “dialogue,” a term used by technocrats as a “softening word, one that signals that they’re not coming to dominate us, but instead to ‘listen’ and play the role of ‘honest brokers.’”

So while Mr. Arkes went back to give Laudato Si a second look, I went back to two places that would give context to Francis’ repeated use of “dialogue:” his speech from the previous day to the American bishops and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

Standing before the shepherds of the American faithful at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Francis first set his voice in continuity with the words of his predecessors—especially significant if we think back to John Paul II’s most famous exhortation to courage:

This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis.

In addition to affirming his predecessor’s challenge to preach the Gospel from the rooftops, Francis presented a new challenge: to dialogue fearlessly.

“I know that you face many challenges,” he told the bishops. “and that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.”

loveRather than simply enduring the wounds that we receive in our stand for Truth, Francis asks us to evangelize in Love—for Love resides in the sacrifice of our fears and our pride.

“Dialogue is our method,” Francis continued, “not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).”

Francis specifically rejects the notion of dialogue as the sort of technocratic “Trojan Horse” rhetoric that Mr. Reno so rightly condemns. Instead he calls for dialogue as a method of offering Christ’s love to those who may not have bourne the burden and the scorching heat of the day, but to whom the God of Love wishes to give the same reward.

The path of dialogue that Francis presents is one on which the last shall be first, for “the richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.” In other words, the boldness and freedom with which we share the Gospel must be accompanied by the greatest humility—a posture that requires us to be far more concerned with transforming ourselves than with persuading another. Yet achieving true humility is a difficult process that requires complete sacrifice or “going out of” self.

For this reason Pope Francis continues:

Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.

Had Francis taken his speech to Congress along the route we had all anticipated, explicitly denouncing abortion rather than the death penalty, we would have declared him the winner of the day—a real conservative and prolife champion—then returned home satisfied… but it is likely that no hearts would have been touched and no consciences nudged.

seaDialogue is not about scolding the ignorant child playing with his mud pies, nor is it about dragging him away kicking and screaming, nor is it about listing all the reasons why a mud puddle is a bad place to play. Rather, Francis calls us to describe the sea shore, trusting that God has already placed the longing for true beauty in that child’s heart. Moreover we must radiate the joy of one who has just returned from a holiday at the sea, otherwise our description will be unbelievable.

The conversion of hearts and minds, Francis teaches, begins with our own transformation—a process which gains new depth and significance when placed within the context of Thomas Merton’s contemplative spirituality, which Francis does during his speech to Congress. As Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation, contemplative prayer—which seeks to enter into communion with God through knowledge of Him as He knows Himself—means losing ourselves fully in God through complete submission of our will to His.

Merton reminds us, however, that we cannot maintain the conventional conception of God’s will as an oppressive force bearing down on us, for this thought “leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love.” Instead, we enter into a dialogue of deep wills, a dialogue of love and choice. Such communion with God bears fruit not only in our own souls but is poured out into our relationships with others.

This task will not always feel pleasant, for as Merton describes, Christ’s Mystical Body on earth of which we are members is torn apart by “the interior division that tyrannizes the souls of all men.” Therefore, “as long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones.”

Merton warns us that Satan works to upset us in this task by teaching us his own moral theology:

Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions…in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right.

By no means does Merton believe we are not called to speak truth unequivocally to all people—this is part of the pain of healing Christ’s broken body! As we see in Pope Francis’ speech at the Capitol, however, speaking the truth in love often looks very different than how we with our own divided souls think it should look. This is not moral relativism. Rather, it is a warning that even good intentions to speak truth and to love others can end in either divisiveness or the consuming form of “tolerance” that is so evident in American discourse. As Merton observed,

To live in communion, in genuine dialogue with others is absolutely necessary if man is to remain human. But to live in the midst of others, sharing nothing with them but the common noise and the general distraction, isolates a man in the worst way, separates him from reality in a way that is almost painless.”

If we feel the pain of Francis’ humility, the suffering that is required to fix the broken bones of Christ’s Mystical Body, this is a good thing—it means we are not slipping into anesthetized isolation from each other.

It was painful for me to hear Francis move so quickly from abortion to the death penalty. Yet in one way, this pain came from a hit to my pride—having to give up my “told-you-so” moment, even though my pro-life position is the true one. When the eleventh hour arrives, we must be willing to give up the common conservative rhetoric that preaches unselfishness, good as that may be in its own right, for the sake of offering Love to those still wandering in the marketplace.

Pope Francis told the bishops that we should not be concerned with making winners and losers of political debate. If truth is what we as Christians claim it to be, something “written in the heart of every man,” then we must trust the allure of goodness and love. We must continue to speak out fearlessly in defense of the unborn and every vulnerable member of society, but our goal should be to appeal to hearts rather than to accuse them.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

I think that Merton would have been delighted with Pope Francis’ time here in America. Merton himself, as the Catholic monk intrigued by Zen Buddhism, lived a life full of contradictions—not unlike our nightclub bouncer-turned-Pope and not unlike the carpenter’s Son found teaching in the Temple.

These contradictions are what draw people in, but even more so the humility and love of the men who lived them. The great paradox of our time spent in this world comes when we must make the decision to give up our fear and open wide the doors of our heart to Christ and his offer of Love. We must be willing to give up those things that we think will make us happy in order to find true freedom. Sometimes this means that we must give up those harsh or strong words in order to love. While this may seem like too timid of a response to our country’s situation, it is really the most radical reply we can give. In the words of John Paul II,

It is a taxing mission, today more than ever, to teach men the truth about themselves, about their end, their destiny, and to show faithful souls the unspeakable riches of the love of Christ. Do not be afraid of the radicalness of His demands, because Jesus, who loves us first, is prepared to give Himself to you, as well as asking of you. If He asks much of you, it is because He knows you can give much.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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13 replies to this post
  1. Christ spoke clearly on this. “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
    Pope Francis; indeed all Christians, have a moral duty to condemn abortion.

  2. It is incredible to what lengths Catholics are willing to go to cover for Francis. Even granting the premise of the article, which I find incredibly unlikely, one immediately wonders how a man supposedly speaking for Christ and the Apostles sounds so unlike them.

  3. I can understand reaching out to others where they are at the moment. If there is no one who is receptive, there is no point in casting pearls. I certainly hope Francis reached a few in congress. However, abortion is such an incredible and definite evil, that if one is wrong on that subject one is hopelessly deceived and is likely wrong on every other issue. Such a person will likely not understand any message of truth.

  4. This is a very insightful analysis. But isn’t the “Francis problem” for orthodox Catholics found in his unorthodox action more than his words? He is far from a model of humility, plugged into the 24-7 media cycle and with his legions of media consultants; in appearance he is so egotistical that he cannot refrain from repeated cases of off-the-cuff remarks which are consistently “misinterpreted” – a sign of monomania in that he appears incapable of realizing this is not his strong suit. He conflates material care for “the poor” with care for the spirit. He neglects the “poor in spirit” to hobnob with the rich and famous, except for carefully crafted publicity events which glorify the person of Francis at the cost of proclaiming the Gospel. Far from dining with sinners, he avoids all appearance of going out to a world of sinners and instead jets in to drip saccharine words of secular moral relativism while keeping a careful distance from any appearance of moral leadership. Were the Holy Father tocevidence a public life of orthodoxy and then extend a welcoming gesture to those outside of or distant from the Church, I think your analysis would be more grounded in reality. But as it is he gives no indication other than that he means the repeated like unorthodox statements exactly as they appear. He appears to be either a bad Pope or bad at being Pope. I do appreciate the effort to find some orthodox explanation for his behavior, but perhaps we ought instead to consider that a good man may still be a bad Pope; perhaps the Holy Spirit is guiding us in some way not to rely too much on the leadership of capable, orthodox men in the Seat of Peter.
    There is nothing wrong with saying the present Pope is bad at his job. We need not invent circuitous explanations for his failings. Rather, perhaps we ought to ask why we expect the Pope to be the focal point of orthodox evangelism. Not everyone can be a Saint Pope John Paul 2. But rather than turn a blind eye to Francis’ failures perhaps we need to pick up the slack ourselves. (I sincerely doubt that His Holiness is deliberately behaving as he does in order to teach us this lesson: he is very clearly not that smart. But we can learn the lesson all the same.)

  5. Well written article. I hope he is clever in attracting souls as you imagine. Pope Francis had an opportunity to let the world know abortion is an abomination and cries to heaven for vengeance. Someone in America may have reponded to that message.

  6. Anna, a beautifully written article, that shows much wisdom from a young woman. I have tried for years to connect to my brother, who rejects all thoughts of God. This makes my angst much easier to bear and finally to toss the weight easily to our Lord. Thank you! What freedom!

  7. Anna, I pray that your take on the situation is correct, and fervently believe it could be so. I’ve been bouncing back and forth, lacking, perhaps, the background and wit to fully decide (see, e.g., the contrast between Rusty Reno’s and David Bentley Hart’s bookend pieced in the latest First Things, January 2016).

    Your logic is consistent with my own experience in recovery from alcoholism. Most 12-Step meetings strongly discourage direct proselytization for a particular faith, even, egads, Catholicism. And many attending these meetings more than fit the description of a child chomping contentedly on mud pies. Or worse. It’s analogous to the pope’s “field hospital.” Were I to march in with fire, brimstone and a crucifix, I’d be ignored at best, or I’d drive seriously suffering souls away at worst.

    Yet, I’ve watched people come into recovery, regain some sense of their dignity, begin to look to God, and in some cases turn (or return) to the Catholic Church. One dear friend had not set foot in a church, except for friends’ weddings or funerals, since his teen years. Now, in his early 60’s he’s a regular Mass attendee, often daily — a journey that took many years. Early in his recovery he was dating an Evangelical Protestant who carried her faith like a cudgel. He asked why I didn’t do the same with Catholicism. I replied, “I’m not sure you’re ready, yet. But you know I’m here to talk, and I pray fervently that you find your way back to Christ.” Several years later he accompanied me on a weekend retreat at a local Catholic Center. During our closing Mass he broke down in tears, not knowing exactly why.

    Now, I had had no plan, and did not at all know what I was doing. I give Pope Francis far higher marks for holiness and spiritual competence. What I do know is that my primary focus was his best interest. The Virgin Mary and Holy Spirit somehow managed to work this wonder through a very flawed person (me).

    So, I do hope you’re right. And regardless, find your essay to be a marvelous reflection on meeting people, real individual people, where they are, not where I demand that they be.

  8. My dear, thank you! Your analysis does ring true! We have a pope who is very courageous, unafraid of physical death and ready to take risks (like letting all sides speak at the Synods on the Family so that no one can claim later they had no chance to be heard) knowing that only by doing so will hearts be won to the joyous Warrior Christ! May his efforts at reforming the Curia be successful! May our prayers for an end to abortion succeed through conversion of hearts instead of merely the imposition of Law!

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