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!
Listening 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.
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.”
“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.
Dialogue 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.
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.”
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