In this episode, Malcolm and Peter start discussing the second chapter of Let Us Dream, by Pope Francis. This is the fifth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, the third here, and the fourth here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
Individual Discernment and the Community
In the first chapter, Pope Francis talked about the importance of seeing clearly so that we are aware of the reality of the world around us. In the second chapter, he talks about the importance of discernment. We need reflection, silent prayer, and study to discern; but we also need a community.
How are individual discernment and the private conscience of the individual related to the communal teaching of the Church? It might seem like these things are opposed. In reality, however, the guidance of the community is there to keep individual discernment from going off the rails. It provides accountability and helps us to see beyond ourselves. We also need authority to keep private interpretations from producing division. This is why the Church has the final say on any private revelation.
Growth as a human person always includes a history, a tradition that we’ve inherited, and feedback from others. Even Jesus himself built on the Jewish tradition that he inherited as a man. As Catholics, we have the community of the saints and the rich tradition of Catholic thought and practice. None of us can claim to have formed our own ideas of religion and morality for ourselves; we’ve all been shaped by others.
Learning in community is much more than just coming to understand concepts. Concepts are presented to us by fellow members of our community, but they are not learned primarily through intellectual thought. We learn by doing, being part of a community that has certain kinds of practice, through the witness of others. As St. Paul said, imitate me, as I imitate Christ.
The tradition grows like a tree in the living tradition of the community. If concepts become isolated from their lived surroundings, they can become idolized. When that happens, we are left with these dead concepts and no way to grow. Unless concepts are enfleshed, they are of no use.
Values and Unity
Pope Francis says that all values are non-negotiable. Division occurs when values that should be together end up separated. A good example of this is the Protestant/Catholic split, in which one side represents the importance of the personal and the other side represents the importance of the institutional. That’s why we can learn from those on both sides of these historic splits; we can learn from what they do well, and learn to correct what we might do poorly.
Currently, the Church is undergoing a split between progressives and reactionaries. Those in both of these camps tend to appeal to their own personal judgment and discernment and use this personal discernment against the Church. Progressives appealed to conscience against Humanae Vitae, and reactionaries are currently appealing to their own understanding of Church teaching to reject Pope Francis. Such moves further division and destroy the chance for authentic dialogue. To keep this from happening, we need to give our own vision to the Church; that way, our vision can enrich the Church, instead of tearing it apart. That is why Pope Francis is calling for a synodal process of listening to one another during these difficult times.
As Pope Francis says, all values are non-negotiable. Dialogue is not about deciding which values to drop; rather, dialogue is about coming to a deeper appreciation of the values that we share.
If we cling to our own personal understanding of a particular value without taking the views of others into account, our understanding will be stunted.
We can learn about our own values from other people, who may practice them better than we do.
St. Augustine said that we can never exhaust the meaning of scripture because scripture is the word of God, and thus infinite. This being so, the truth is always beyond us. Too often, we think of truth as something we possess, all tacked down and finalized. Those holding such a view fear dialogue. It is seen as necessarily involving a surrender of some aspect of the truth. Instead, if we realize that we can always learn more, we will see dialogue as a quest for more truth.
A Refuge from the Tyranny of the Urgent
As well as dialogue, however, contemplation is needed for authentic discernment. Pope Francis says that we need a “refuge from the tyranny of the urgent”. The tyranny of the urgent can lead us to see all events merely through the lens of our own projects, our own interests. We need to be attentive to current realities, but we also need a healthy degree of separation, the ability to step back. Paradoxically, this will give us a better perspective on the events themselves.
This stepping back and achieving interior silence is not opposed to dialogue; in fact, it too can be a communal project. In the practice of Lectio Divina, we pull away from the tyranny of the urgent as a group, so that we can listen to the Word of God.
The Beatitudes as Values for our Time
Pope Francis presents the Beatitudes as the key set of values for our time. They are central to the Christian Faith and are expanded on by Catholic Social Teaching. It is important to realize just how radical the beatitudes are. They cut against the grain of all human striving. They are extremely different from any set of merely human values.
There’s a temptation to see the beatitudes as “very nice ideals”, but to look elsewhere for guides to practical action. Pope Francis, however, is telling us that they should guide our actions in the current moment.
Our model is a crucified Savior, who was a “failure” in a worldly sense, and yet redeemed the world. In a similar way, the saints actually did more in the long run for the world than the practical people. Where are the worldly-wise now? What lasting values did they really achieve? We aim for a different kind of success. Even if we seem to fail, God is pouring graces on the world through us!
To make Catholic Social Teaching and the Beatitudes come to life, we need to start practicing them. We need to be a community of and for the poor. We need to always put the weakest members first. What would such a community look like? If we took the principles seriously, they would radically reorder our lives.
It is easy to say that we should put the poor first. In practice, however, it is often a different matter. It is hard enough to sacrifice money for the poor—even harder to sacrifice our convenience and the way we order our lives. Too often, we’re merely giving from our excess, both financially and otherwise. We offer services for the poor, but we don’t offer to bring the poor into our lives. And of course, there are many different kinds of poor. The lonely, the sick, the disabled, and the marginalized are all “poor” in their own ways. Malcolm and Peter shared some stories of how this isn’t being done, and how bureaucracy and convenience are leading to a rejection of Christ in the poor.
By contrast, the Catholic Worker communities we’ve interviewed bring the poor into their hearts and homes. And many Catholics would be ready to do something similar if they were presented with the opportunity. Peter told a story of how he was attacked by a vicious dog while he was on a walking pilgrimage, and how some Catholic parishioners took him in and took care of him until he was well enough to continue traveling.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use