Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis, Dialogue and Affirmative Orthodoxy


On a busy day in the parish, the only real Pope news I managed to catch was the address he gave to the U.S. Bishops at Midday Prayer at the St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. I stopped and read the whole thing, and it seriously moved me. There is so much in this homily, and I highlighted three points earlier. The emphasis on dialogue in the address struck me, and these are some more fleshed out thoughts on the subject.
Dialogue is our method, 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).
And then,
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.  I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.  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.  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. (Emphases added.) 
Dialogue is a word that is regarded with suspicion by many younger American clergy, and other Catholics (who get labelled "conservative."). This is borne out of our experience of an approach to dialogue that seems to compromise truth, that becomes a method towards relativism, and an underlying assumption that truth claims are divisive, and that truth itself is inaccessible.  Speaking in 2004, in the twilight of John Paul II's papacy, at the now disappeared "Common Ground" initiative (started by Cardinal Bernardin during a time when "polarization" in the Church was causing anxiety in some circles), John Allen's analysis of this suspicion towards "dialogue" among younger Catholics is fairly accurate:
[W]e must foster a spirituality of dialogue that does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity. There is no future for dialogue if convinced Catholics sense the price of admission is setting aside their convictions. ... Today, I would assert that the strongest single impulse in the Christian community pivots on identity - the desire for a robust assertion of what it means to be a Christian. You can't explain the phenomenal success of "The Passion of the Christ" without understanding this impulse. It is perhaps most strongly felt by younger generations whose members did not acquire a strong sense of identity either in the home or in school, even Catholic schools. Hence the spirituality of dialogue needed is one that combines a vigorous assertion of identity, opening up our distinctive language and rituals and worldview to those who hunger for them, without ending up in a "Taliban Catholicism" that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.
The following year, Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, and the emphasis on shoring up Catholic identity got a huge boost in the U.S. Church. I think it is unfair to suggest, as many (within the Church!) do, that this project only ended up with a so-called "Taliban Catholicism" that "knows only how to excoriate and condemn." In 2005, as a generally clueless lay campus minister, I stumbled upon the Evangelical Catholic initiative out of Madison, WI, and attended their annual conference (In fact, I was there when St. John Paul II died), and was struck by the joy, enthusiasm, and zeal of young, committed, orthodox Catholics, on fire, eager to reach out, but hardly focused only on excoriating and condemnation. This wasn't "Taliban Catholicism," but what John Allen, again, called Pope Benedict's Affirmative Orthodoxy, "a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key."

There are some, I think, who would see in this call by Pope Francis, a call to a shift in tone and style. I think it would be a mistake to understand this as a shift to precisely as that kind of dialogue that requires the sacrificing of convictions as the price of admission. It seems more appropriate that this is also "affirmative orthodoxy" in a Franciscan key. Francis has never suggested an abandonment of solid commitments. Consider this from his address to the Brazilian Bishops over World Youth Day in 2013: "What is needed is a solid human, cultural, effective, spiritual and doctrinal formation." In the same paragraph he urges the Bishops to invest personally in quality formation for their future priests, and not to be satisfied with simply delegating this task.

Of course, Pope Francis, quite famously in that early interview with Fr. Spadaro SJ,  a harbinger of his free-wheeling style, said this,
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

Predictably, everyone had a spittle-flecked nutty over this. But listen to these words now:
And when you have so little time you can't say everything you want to say about “no.” Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.
That was Pope Benedict, in response to a question as to why he didn't speak at all about homosexual marriage, abortion or contraception at ... the World Meeting of Families in Valencia in 2006!

Pope Francis clearly said today that he is speaking in continuity with his predecessors. His call to humble parrhesia, to be a Church that speaks from a position of poverty, is one that is eminently in line with his immediate predecessor.
One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ. And in the measure in which the Church is not for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wishes to have power, but simply is herself the voice of Another, she becomes truly transparent to the great figure of Jesus Christ and the great truths that he has brought to humanity. (Emphasis added.) 

And
but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us.  
and
Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. (Emphasis added.)
The first is Pope Benedict, on his Apostolic Voyage to England in 2010. The following two are from today's address by Pope Francis.

No, they're not the same person. There's a lot that is different, yes. But, this call to dialogue is not the same as a call to endless conversations about nothing, or a relativistic abandonment of truth claims. It is, as the Pope says, the method for boldly proclaiming the Gospel in an effective way, in a way that it will be heard better. It is not enough to be content with simply proclaiming an uncomfortable truth. It has to be, first of all, lived. It has to be proclaimed in humility, not in condescension and arrogance. It has to be within the context of a relationship of trust and love, and always, appealing to the freedom of the recipient. While the Lord certainly had harsh words (pace Pope Francis!), though they were mainly directed to the religious leaders of his time (but not always. Go read Luke 16:16, for instance), his way of approaching people was to always awaken their freedom. And yes, there had to be, eventually, a decisive response. But simply, so to speak, dropping a grenade of an inconvenient truth, and then walking away, is not how He operated.

In 2005, I encountered FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, for the first time at that Evangelical Catholic conference in Madison. Since then, they have grown tremendously. Few movements in the Church in the United States embody the affirmative orthodoxy that was so close to the heart of Pope Benedict, and that also animates Pope Francis, as FOCUS. They are solidly orthodox, committed to a clear Catholic identity, passionate about Jesus Christ and His Gospel, yet willing to go out, willing to risk an accident in the street, to encounter people as persons first, to emphasize relationship over ideological positions. And the fruit that has been born is tremendous. Earlier this year, Curtis Martin gave a rousing talk to the U.S. Bishops on evangelization. I think Pope Francis would have thoroughly approved. 

1 comment:

Jess Fahy said...

Thank you Father, this is wonderful and thought-provoking.