“Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
—Benedict XVI, quoted by Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, 7
The Year of faith has just ended with the proclamation “Christ is the center of the history of humanity and also the center of the history of every individual.” And today Pope Francis has released his first Apostolic Exhortation in which he encourages us to create the conditions in which all men may find Christ in an “event,” a personal encounter capable of bringing a “new horizon and a decisive direction.” Both Benedict and Francis have invested much in this event of the encounter with Christ, and have proposed it as the way that supersedes all ethical choices and lofty ideas. This is the new evangelization.
With this post I would like to examine a specific problem regarding the reception of Pope Francis’ teaching. Unfortunately, some have already pigeonholed Pope Francis as a liberal and are poised to parse his every word in that light. I would suggest his teaching ought to be approached not simply through an assessment of “lofty ideas,” but as an encounter—a personal opportunity in the here and now to accept a transformative grace. It is too soon for me to write anything in depth about the Apostolic Exhortation, but not too soon to suggest a manner of reception that will prove to be fruitful. And for that we need to avoid a serious pitfall.
Liberal on the Label
Over the brief course of the Franciscan pontificate various projections and assessments have been made about where Pope Francis has taken and will take the Church. Such prognostications usually have been couched in terms of comparison and contrast with the pontificate of Pope Benedict, resulting in a debate about whether or not Pope Francis is a “liberal.” No one is suggesting that Pope Francis is more “conservative” than Pope Benedict, but many believe that the new pontificate, especially since the papal interviews, represents a significant, if not radical left-leaning departure from the previous. The debate is important and presents an opportunity for us to move beyond the narrow terms of the present culture war.
Carl Olsen has rightly pointed out how and why the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are not particularly helpful in understanding the Church’s authentic teaching, particularly when the media, in typical fashion, isolate and blow out of proportion statements of Pope Francis which would be better reflected on more soberly. Even so, many self-identified pro-life/orthodox conservatives are feeling like outsiders at the moment, as though the Holy Father does not support them or consider their causes all that important. His statements about not judging gay priests, of the Church not being “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, about unemployment and loneliness being the worst problems in the world, and other statements all establish a certain plausibility to the suspicion that the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter is a “left-winger.”
Even when one takes into consideration that the statements that have most raised eyebrows have been non-magisterial (like the interviews), that some of them most likely have not been reported accurately (the Scalfari interview), and that Pope Francis’ other behavior puts his words into context (he actually does preach against abortion), it remains difficult to reconcile his magisterial style with what is expected from a true Catholic culture warrior. For this reason the progressives within the Church are still on a honeymoon with the new Pope and the traditionalists are in an apocalyptic mood. One fairly mainstream traditionalist who writes for Catholic News Agency, for example, has gone as far as to accuse Pope Francis of being a modernist.
More recent statements from the Holy Father concerning his alignment with Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” indicate that reality is more complex, than the left/right duality suggests. Ross Douthat asks if perhaps rather than fomenting a civil war between progressives and traditionalists, Pope Francis is attempting to formulate a synthesis that moves past the cross-talking of the right and left. I personally think this is exactly what the Holy Father is attempting to do. It seems Douthat does as well, but is not convinced that it will be successful.
I believe most of those involved in the debate or who are concerned about the situation will agree that all the commonly used “labels” (left/right, liberal/conservative, progressive/traditionalist) are problematic if not fatally flawed. There are at least three fundamental problems with the terminology. 1) It is so narrow that it does not reflect reality. That actual situation is much more complex and the variation along the spectrum does not lend itself to a dualistic simplification. Furthermore, the polarity is a caricature typically used by ideologues. 2) The terminology is political and revolutionary and necessarily views the faith as subject to historical forces of evolution and strife. 3) The use of the terminology implies that there are substantially different ways of being a good Catholic and that the Church is fundamentally a project to be structurally controlled by competing forces.
Having said this, however, I believe these problems with the terminology are also reasons why it is both useful, and why its usefulness is limited and must be clarified. It is true, as it has been told to me a number of times by traditionalists, that the left/right paradigm was introduced through the “demonic” French Revolution, and therefore is a fundamentally flawed distinction when applied to the faith.
Even so in a limited way the paradigm is still useful because those who reject it sometimes appeal to another paradigm in which it is still implied, namely the polarity of Revolution/Counter-Revolution. There is no question that modernity is largely the result of revolutionary forces and the modern revolt from the Church and her teaching has been and is a left-wing movement with politically liberal sensibilities. Nobody is really going to deny this. The real debate is about the Church’s reaction to that Revolution, and whether over the last fifty years since Vatican II there has been a legitimate development of doctrine or a capitulation to the Revolution. Has the Church’s magisterial accommodations to modernity, say in matters of religious liberty, been a capitulation to the left? Or, on the other hand, has it been an instance of innovation in continuity as Pope Benedict has claimed? If the first (prescinding from obvious and pervasive abuses) then liberalism has been countered with the true faith applied appropriately in the present circumstances, and talk of a Counter-Revolution is largely right-wing politicizing. If the second, then the conciliar and postconciliar magisterium is politically left-wing and the Counter-Revolution is nothing other than the true faith. Either way, in some sense we are dealing with a politicization of the faith at the hands of ideologues.
In his piece on the subject of the use of such labels, Carl Olsen, quotes Maciej Zieba concerning John Paul II’s threefold analysis of ideology:
(1) it contains a conception of truth and goodness; (2) its followers believe that they are free to impose their conception upon others; (3) it expresses the whole of reality in a simple and rigid scheme. The Pope maintains that Christian truth does not fulfill the second and third conditions, and so Catholicism is not an ideology.
For the same reason that points 2 and 3 assure us that the Catholic Faith is not an ideology they also correctly identify the problem with the culture warriors who are convinced that they know what is best for the Church. And as long as their personal opinions are treated as determinative, as long as concerns about where the Church is headed take on the character of political protest, and as long such protest takes on the form of a propaganda campaign we cannot do entirely without the terminology because without it we will not be able to have an intelligent discussion about reality.
A Case Study
Since the papal interviews, perhaps the most significant view into the matter has been Pope Francis’ statements on Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity. First, in a personal letter to Archbishop Agostino Marchetto on the occasion of the presentation of a new book by the prelate, the Holy Father praised him as the “best interpreter of the Second Vatican Council.” Archbishop Marchetto is well known for his defense of Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity against the progressive/liberal School of Bologna’s attempt to hijack Pope Benedict’s teaching. It is clear that Pope Francis is aligning himself with Pope Benedict on the matter.
Then, Pope Francis was even more explicit in his endorsement of the hermeneutic of continuity in a statement made about the Council of Trent:
Harking closely to the same Spirit, Holy Church in this age renews and meditates on the most abundant doctrine of the Council of Trent. In fact, the “hermeneutic of renewal” which Our Predecessor Benedict XVI explained in 2005 before the Roman Curia, refers in no way less to the Council of Trent than to the Vatican Council. To be sure, this mode of interpretation places under a brighter light a beautiful characteristic of the Church which is taught by the Lord Himself: “She is a ‘subject’ which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas greetings – 22 December 2005).
Both statements appear to be attempts to correct what the Holy Father has admitted in his letter to Archbishop Marchetto to be an “error or imprecise comment” on his part. Sandro Magister claims that the correction offered by Archbishop Marchetto, which the Holy Father does not specify, was in fact directed at a statement Pope Francis made about the Second Vatican Council in his interview with Father Antonio Spadaro back in October:
“Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture,” says the pope. “Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation. Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible. Then there are particular issues, like the liturgy according to the Vetus Ordo. I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.”
Magister claims that the error or imprecision to which the Holy Father refers is the claim “Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture.” This comes very close to, or at least lends itself to the interpretation of the Council held by the School of Bologna. It is precisely the progressive that believes the Gospel is conditioned by historical circumstances and that the present is the only adequate lens through which to discern what God intends for the Church today.
And Magister suggests that most of what Pope Francis has done until very recently confirms this interpretation. For example, he says that the Holy Father’s November 18 critique of “adolescent progressivism” was an attempt to correct his previous criticism of Christians “who turn the faith into a ‘moralistic ideology,’ entirely made up of ‘prescriptions without goodness.’” But what Magister fails to notice is that this is the second time Pope Francis has spoken about “adolescent progressivism.” The first time, he was speaking to religious superiors about pitfalls to be avoided in religious life. The first pitfall, he said, was an attempt to turn the clock back because we are afraid of “the freedom that comes from the law “enacted in the Holy Spirit.” The second is “adolescent progressivism.” So in reality, Pope Francis has been cognizant of both extremes and has been addressing both for some time.
Even though the Holy Father admits to “error or imprecision” in his statement on Vatican II, Magister overplays the hand in suggesting that the “progressive pope” is now rethinking his perspective. I have included above the questionable quote in the larger context because I believe that context is key to understanding what the Holy Father did and did not mean, or what he was trying to say in his self-admittedly imprecise way. There is a dynamism to the preaching of the Gospel because pastoral circumstances do change and demand new ways of presenting the Gospel consistent with “renewal in continuity.” (This is what the new Apostolic Exhortation is all about.) And this is also coherent with what Pope Benedict has referred to as a “reconciliation with the past” in matters of liturgy. The problem is when ideology enters into the picture—a rigid scheme to be imposed on others with or without the consent of the Church.
And I have a further reason for believing that this is the correct way to understand the imprecise statement. Pope Francis’ praise of Archbishop Marchetto has been widely noted as the Holy Father coming down finally and clearly on the side of Pope Benedict against the doctrinal progressives. But what has so far not been mentioned is that in 2010 amid the brouhaha that erupted in Italy concerning the traditionalist challenge to the hermeneutic of continuity, of which Sandro Magister was one of the principle recorders, the same Archbishop Marchetto directed his guns not only at the School of Bologna, but principally at the traditionalist challengers to the hermeneutic of continuity, namely, Monsignor Brunero Gherardini and Professor Roberto de Mattei.
Thus, whatever one may make of the style or lack of theological precision in which the Holy Father proclaims the Gospel, especially when he is speaking extemporaneously his consistent criticism of ideology has had both the left and right in mind. He is doctrinally neither left nor right. I guess we should say he is Catholic, but his eyes are directed out to the frontiers and he is taking the new evangelization seriously.
I believe Ross Douthat is correct when he says that there is a growing yearning for a synthesis. The common “binaries,” are “caricatures” for sure, but still provide “the templates – narrow, predictable, self-limiting — for many intra-Catholic arguments and divisions these last fifty-odd years.” Douthat says that the way forward must not “compromise Catholic doctrine or Catholic moral teaching or transform the Church into a secular N.G.O. with fancy vestments,” but it must also succeed
in making it clear that the Catholic message is much bigger than the culture war, that theological correctness is not the only test of Christian faith, and that the church is not just an adjunct (or, worse, a needy client, seeking protection) of American right-wing politics.
While Douthat is not sure if Pope Francis is going to succeed in producing such a synthesis, it seems clear to me that the Holy Father is intent on doing so. Pope Francis is not only speaking, he is also listening and revising. He has said more than once that he would rather have a Church that makes mistakes than one that “sickens because it stays shut in.” Both his view toward the frontier and his clear endorsement of the hermeneutic of continuity are geared toward synthesis. And the Apostolic Exhortation released today is sure to ignite a debate among the culture warriors, especially on economic matters. But it seems that the Church would be better served by setting aside the binaries when reading it. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium:
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. . . . [R]ealities 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 (231).
It would seem, therefore, that the desired synthesis will have to be a synthesis of the perennial truths of the faith applied as a renewal in continuity, taking into account the best ideas of the followers of Christ as they relate to the facts on the ground. In practice this will mean that evangelists will have to take a full account of the all the conditions necessary to make possible the event of the encounter with Christ. The Church is “attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who helps us together to read the signs of the times” (EG 14).
Those Pesky Labels
As we create the conditions necessary for the encounter with Christ through the new evangelization, we should hopefully also be creating the conditions in which we can move beyond the left/right binaries. The challenge we face is that in order to drop the terms, we must also drop what they represent, and that has just not happened. Not yet. We will have to learn to fight for the faith more as witnesses than as warriors, because spiritual combat is the martial art of the martyr. The sword of the Son of Man He carries in his mouth, not His hand, and the warfare of His followers is their witness.
The culture war is attractive and youthful because it proposes to do something about real problems when otherwise good men have a habit of being complacent. There is a truth to what Churchill said about those who want to make peace at all costs: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Many of us feel like we are in survival mode, and with good reasons, not least of which is the encroachment of government on religious liberty. But that seemingly “liberal” statement of Pope Francis in one of his interviews, repeated in the Apostolic Exhortation I really true: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction” (EG 14). Our mission is not about “self-preservation” or “ecclesial introversion” but about mission (27), and that will always be a function of the event that is transformative because it attracts. The hegemonic schemes of the left and right will not be transformative beyond the enthusiasms associated with ideology.
To move beyond the binaries our preaching of the perennial faith will necessarily have to be deeply ecclesial and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit whose trajectory favors neither the left nor the right. The Church keeps our vision oriented toward the truth and the Holy Spirit enlivens within us the Word which we encounter as a life changing event:
Keeping our missionary fervor alive calls for firm trust in the Holy Spirit, for it is he who “helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26). But this generous trust has to be nourished, and so we need to invoke the Spirit constantly. He can heal whatever causes us to flag in the missionary endeavor. It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented: it is like being plunged into the deep and not knowing what we will find. I myself have frequently experienced this. Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place. This is what it means to be mysteriously fruitful (EG 280)!
Both the new evangelization and our transcending the binaries of left/right will depend on such a providential with the Holy Spirit who helps us read the signs of the times. Let us hope that a new synthesis will indeed develop out of the modern magisterium through Pope Francis, the Catholic, who belongs neither to the left nor to the right, but to Christ and His Spirit.