Francis’s Conservatism (Uh, Sort Of)

Francis’s Conservatism (Uh, Sort Of) September 21, 2013

I finally had the chance to read that really fascinating interview with the Pope. And the first thing that really struck me was a passage I’d been expecting to basically skim: Francis’s description of what it means to be a Jesuit. I ended up thinking that, at least from one perspective, this and the discussions of art were the most important elements of the interview.

I mean, first of all I do love that he cops to loving the Jesuits’ discipline despite/because “I am a really, really undisciplined person.” This is how it always goes.

“But it is difficult to speak of the Society,” continues Pope Francis. “When you express too much, you run the risk of being misunderstood. The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical: this distortion of Jesuit life gave birth to the Epitome Instituti.”

And this, I think, taken together with other elements of the interview–see especially the section headed, “Thinking With the Church”–forms the basis for an epistemology and therefore a pastoral practice which is deeply conservative. Conservative epistemology tends to emphasize the embedded self rather than the individual, rational chooser. The community, a group of people united and even defined by their common objects of love, practices and traditions, creates our language and therefore our subjectivity. We learn what words mean by living within the community where they make sense: within the narrative. Even the judging self only exists within the boundaries set by the given self, the embedded self. Discussion can be a part of that community’s practice, as Francis says, but it is not the only or even the primary path to understanding, and it always takes place within a matrix of community.

The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

Thinking with the Church, then, requires living and walking with the Church.

In this model, trust is built up over time. I recently heard a homily in which the priest noted that when we’ve been away from prayer for a while–when we haven’t been keeping close to God–it is much, much harder to picture Him as a loving and tender father. Even when we try to picture Him we think of a stern judge. And yet if we spend more time with Him in prayer, we begin to see His tenderness and gentleness. I think this has usually been borne out by my own prayer life.

And I think there’s a parallel here to our slowly-growing ability to discern the path God wants us to take. This ability of discernment is a gift, and God can give it however He wants to–or withhold it–but the normal way it develops is through long-term life within a Christian community. As we live (in love and struggle, as the leftists used to say!) with the people of God, we are often surprised to find that the things we cared about most might not really be that important, and the questions we thought we needed answers to might be better lived through than answered at all.

Catholic parishes are often fractured, and it can be hard to figure out what it means to live in Christian community. I don’t actually think of my usual parish when I think of that term; I guess I think of all my experiences of worship, spiritual guidance, the sacraments, and companionship or commiseration with other Christians. I’m not 100% convinced that I “should” view my parish as the primary place where I learn what it is to be a Christian, though of course it should be a place. But the more important point is that none of the words–not even the consoling words like “mercy,” let alone the “hard sayings” of morality or theology–will make sense to me if I do not have some sense of what they look like in practice.

Where there is trust and a sense of closeness to God and to others, then it becomes obvious that God is not that interested in resolving all our doubts and uncertainties. Jesus Himself submitted in trust despite the most painful uncertainty about what path lay ahead of Him, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Francis’s insouciance about uncertainty, his emphasis on the potential for surprise and genius, makes sense if you see it as flowing from his deep rootedness in Christian practice and community. This long experience of obedience helps him trust his own discernment and that of others who have been similarly formed.

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing…. We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

The emphasis on art fits in here, I think, because art also forms our ability to understand, trust, and discern. I mean, I think the Pope wants us to listen to Bach because it’s sublime, not solely in order to understand the meaning of mercy and similar words. But very few things in Catholic life are solely for one purpose. And art shapes our beliefs and expectations, our sense of what is important in the world, our identity. Like traditions, art can give to an institution or abstract noun the flesh and bones it needs in order to be something we can love and serve. There’s an epistemological function for art, along with its more obvious functions. We learn what the Church’s words mean by encountering and being transformed by the art She has nurtured.

All of this brings me to the kinda weird reactions many people have had to this pope and this interview. Twitter tells me that lots of people are suddenly saying, “Maybe I can go to church again now,” or, “This weekend I’ll go to Mass, because of what the pope said.” I don’t really understand this reaction for a lot of reasons–I continue to think we should all care a lot less about the pope!–but I think it actually is responding to Francis in a way that’s deeper than it may appear. Going to church is actually an important step in embedding oneself within the body of Christ! Experiencing the Mass, beginning to think of yourself as someone who is going to church again, taking the risks of opening your heart to Christ as He is found in the Church–and that can be an intensely painful risk (I was randomly waiting around in Union Square a couple weeks ago and happened to overhear a girl talking about how she gets panic attacks when she goes to church for family weddings or funerals, because the church in which she grew up was so unsheltering)–all of these are part of how we begin to “think with the Church.” It takes a lot of time and patience and vulnerability and fussin’ and fightin’. But this is how we begin to trust that the words have meaning and are true: the words of mercy, the words of challenge. (These are often the same words. I think we underestimate how ferociously unmerciful even contemporary self-esteem-generation types can be to ourselves.) To make the epistemological point in a more urgently pastoral way, “a person who doesn’t already believe that God loves him or her is in spiritual danger and is not in a position to understand any teaching on ethics in a helpful manner.”

There are obvious ways this reaction to the Pope’s words can go wrong. It would be very easy, of course, to come back to Mass because you thought it would be something it isn’t, or to spend some unfruitful time thinking the Church would change in ways it won’t; or to think of yourself as part of “Francis’s church,” not Benedict’s church, etc.

But thinking with the Church begins (even for converts) in living with the Church, and deepens through living with the Church over time. Going back to Mass because of Francis is putting yourself in a trench. It will lead you places. You can get back out at any point, but the trench itself will begin to shape your choices and your identity. We learn God’s will, or accept it, by doing the time.

I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.

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