Benedict-hearts in the Age of Francis

Benedict-hearts in the Age of Francis September 25, 2015

There’s nothing worse than theology. Its affirmations frighten me — I avoid it like the plague. But I want to articulate why I am so amped, stoked, tickled and pumped about Pope Francis. This thrusts me into theological modes, Bible-based speculations and doctrine-flavored thoughts. Many apologies to the Very Hip Agnostics who frequent these pixels, as to Those Who Actually Do Theology.

I think Francis is detested and loved for the same reason. Detested, because his openness to the world seems to simultaneously open the Church to sin, watering down Catholic identity into vague platitudes, passively accepting a corrupt culture while making leeway for vice; loved, because this same openness seems to make mercy, redemption, and communion possible to so many who saw the Church as something closed.

In his High Priestly prayer, Christ prays for a specific group of followers he distinguishes from “the world.” He goes so far as to say “I do not pray for the world.” (John 17). These words, taken on their own, could form the foundation of several brands of Calvinism and most of our thoughtless Americana Christianity — Jesus has a club he destines to be with him for eternity. The rest, “the world,” well — to Hell with them.

This attitude would be enough to damn Francis’ “worldliness.” But Jesus does not pray for the static salvation of his favorite people, nor does he cry out to the Lord of Heaven and Earth for isolated dollops of love onto a limited number of predestined foreheads. He prays for the unity of his chosen ones “so that the world may believe.” The world, distinguished from Jesus’ “friends,” is not distinguished from the Church by a distinction of the bad and the good, the damned and the elect. Rather, the distinction Christ makes is between those who believe and a world Christ desires to believe. We, the Church, are saved and unified in Christ, not to be pretty and sparkly and static, but for the salvation of the world.

Salvation, then, like everything Christ does, is not a finish-line, but a new beginning, the ordination of a particular man into a being-for-others, the breaking-open and turning-out of the soul to the world. If God has called me to the Christian life, it is not because he is flexing his arbitrary power to save “whomsoever he will” (all glory to him for leaving me speechless, pissy and without explanation as to why he chooses me and not my neighbor.) He chooses me for my neighbor. To be saved is to be for. The answer to the question why I am Catholic and not another is already written into the meaning of the word Catholic — universal. The universal donor can give to all blood types, the universal antidote counteracts all poisons, and the universal human being, that is, the Catholic human being, must be “all things to all people” — a being-for every other being, a being in a relationship of love to everything not-Catholic.

What the what? The Catholic, fundamentally committed to loving the non-Catholic? As Our Dear Society collapses into a corporate-sponsored heap of Buzzfeed articles and child porn, it’s tempting for the committed Christian to declare a violent, Desert-father-esque distinction between the Church and the world — to wash his hands, hide the kids, and walk backwards from the dubious delights of modernity with middle fingers raised. We fear a radical catholicity and a universal availability which demands that we enter into a relation of love with the world because we don’t want to be tainted by its idiotic seductions. And surely this idea that the Church is a solvent which can ingest any music, culture, activity or custom, this “open Church” — surely this is the cause of the crisis whereby the Church loses her identity and becomes indistinguishable from the world. Enough then, of this “loving the world” talk!

But this view, which understandably characterizes the horror many Catholics feel in our poverty-despising, baby-killing age — it’s more than grumpiness. It’s bad metaphysics. Love, broadly and warmly described as being-for-another, is not a mingling of one with the other. It is not a total or even a partial identifying of one with the other, so that a loving husband strives to lose his sense of self by collapsing it into his wife’s, or a friendship succeeds by virtue of a gradual annulment of difference between two friends into a gelatinous blob. The oneness established by love is only possible on the condition of a real distinction between the two participants of a loving relationship. If I am the same thing as my friend, collapsed into him, identified-with, then my love for him is no great love — only a love of self. These subtleties, among others, are somewhat lost on tumblr-philosophies:

To love the world is not to mingle, identify-with or take on the life of the world, but to desire the good of the entire world as a constitutive motion of my very being. The Catholic loves the non-Catholic, desiring its good as necessary condition of being Catholic, and this love requires the distinction of the Catholic and the world. The division of Church and world is a division that exists for the sake of unity. Christ divides only to draw all things unto himself. There is a division between the Church and world only because a division is the necessary condition for the Church to love the world, to desire and work for its salvation according to the method Christ has established, namely, to establish a Church, his body, through which the world is saved.

Francis confuses us because he seems to live this out, simultaneously distinct from and for the world, offering forgiveness for abortions without declaring abortion okay, distinguishing the Church teaching from the world’s doctrines of human sexuality while remaining fundamentally for the persons obeying these same doctrines. His catholicity offends. But I like it. Because it seems to me that salvation without the catholicity of the saved is an offense to human reason and an insult to the goodness of God. For if the salvation of a single soul does not, by the same act, render that soul as a being-for-others, then to seek and attain salvation is a kind of ultimate selfishness — “a man walking through the battlefield with a rose in his hand,” as de Lubac puts it. God’s gift of salvation, by this view, would always be at the exclusion of others, my acceptance always an assent to their exclusion. But Christ’s method is the method of Love — we are saved for others. And to preach salvation is not so much to expand the Saved Club. Rather, to preach salvation is to plead with the world to join us in the work of the Cross, to be saved for others, to be with us in a common labor of love which Christ has chosen as his method of wrenching a fallen world back to a Father of Lights. Catholicism is a task, not a state, and it is through this idea that we can best understand Francis’ repeated demands to “get messy” and to bring the Church to the outskirts of human existence.

As Pope Benedict says: “Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only then is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise. Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.” This gives new light and even self-evidence to that difficult teaching, that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. In a sense, duh: No one is saved apart from becoming Catholic — becoming universal, for-all, desiring the salvation, not merely of self, but of neighbor, world, cosmos. Any claim to salvation outside of becoming Catholic (that is, any claim towards a salvation which stops at me and only extends to other people by another, extrinsic, unrelated act of God) is a false claim, a pretension to attaining Heaven as a individual, isolated stamp on the forehead, rubbing against everything the Bible teaches when it roots our personal salvation in our being-for and our damnation in remaining for-ourselves: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3)

We are Catholics in the age of the Two Popes. And what Popes! Francis lives out in the body and in terrifying, off-the-cuff declarations what Benedict suffered and struggled and succeeded to articulate in one of the most bitter, anti-Catholic periods of intellectual history. And what Benedict articulated is precisely this — the Catholic is best described by the word for. Francis, a son of the Church, is trying to show us what “for” looks like. Could we ask for more? Now is the Glorious and Triumphant Age of the Catholic Church, the moment for us, through the double-encouragement of our living Shepherds, to become what we are by virtue of our Baptism, in accordance with Christ’s prayer that “the whole world may believe” — to be-for-others, for the salvation of all, poor, stripped of self, detested, happy.

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