In this episode, Malcolm and Peter Land continue discussing the first chapter (and some themes from the second chapter) of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the third part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here and the second episode is here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
According to Pope Francis, we face a pervasive “virus” of indifference. He says:
We see it in the story of the poor man Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. The rich man was his neighbor; he knew perfectly well who Lazarus was—even his name. But he was indifferent, he didn’t care. To the rich man, Lazarus’s misfortune was his own affair . . . He knew Lazarus’s life but didn’t let it affect him. . . . Hence people judge situations without empathy, without any ability to walk for a time in the other’s shoes.
Here in Italy you often hear people say che me ne frega when you have a problem. It means “So what? What’s it got to do with me?” In Argentina we say: y a mi que? They’re little words that reveal a mindset. Some Italians claim you need a healthy dose of menefreghismo—”so-whatism”—to get through life, because if you start worrying about what you see, how are you ever going go relax? This attitude ends up armor-plating the soul: that is, indifference bulletproofs it, so that certain things just bounce off. One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgements. We cannot get use to indifference.
The attitude of the Lord is completely different, at the opposite pole. God is never indifferent. The essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved but responding with action.
We are all tempted to avoid seeing or hearing about things that make us uncomfortable. Often times, we don’t want to hear about the poor, because then we might realize we are required to care for them. This is an ancient problem in the Church. The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, discusses the rich who hold back from joining the Church for fear of being asked to help the poor! We have to resist this temptation, have to widen our gaze and be affected by the struggles of others.
This willingness to see has to come before we make changes. Otherwise, we’ll end up seeing other just as problems, and impose our own solutions on them. To avoid this, we need to break out of our own perspectives.
Indifference not only blocks out the people around us; it also blocks out the movement of the Holy spirit. The Spirit of God is always attentive, always responds to us in a relational way. We need to imitate this openness so that we can see the new things God is trying to do. Indifference cuts off this possibility.
Showing Mercy to Others
We are supposed to be showing God’s mercy to others. By reflecting on our own failures, we will realize how indebted we are to God’s mercy. Everything we have is a grace from God; we aren’t inherently better than others. If we’re virtuous, this may simply be the result of a better background and other unearned gifts. This perspective makes it easier to show mercy to others.
It can be difficult to be attentive, particularly in the modern world. As I pointed out in a recent essay, the evil in us tends to resist “re-collection”.
One practice that can help to build attention is to go for a walk without an agenda, merely to experience the surrounding reality. By turning off the constant stream of mental “commentary” and experiencing things for themselves, we’ll develop the skills we need to pay attention to God and to our neighbors.
This matches the advice given by a Desert Father to a young monk who was having spiritual difficulties and wanted to know if he should pray special prayers or perform other spiritual exercises. Instead, the young monk was told to just sit quietly in his cell, eat when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, and sleep when he was tired. This was supposed to help him get back into touch with reality, with life stripped down to the basics. We’re dependent beings, and we need to realize this.
The media can help us to be in touch with reality . . . or it can keep us away from reality. Media platforms can become performative, catering to the prejudices of listeners, profiting off division and distortion. Such platforms can make it impossible for us to have the perception of reality that Pope Francis calls for.
When dealing with media, it is important to avoid platforms which take a polarizing stance. A media outlet which takes as given that there is only one answer to every question and that all opponents are evil or stupid is unlikely to be a good guide.
Searching for source documents is also important. Even if reporters and journalists aren’t intentionally spinning a narrative, quotes and summaries can only get one so far. If a document or book or speech is under discussion, reading it for oneself can be very clarifying.
Even more importantly, we have to deeply experience reality. In this way, we can become “media” for others. If we become truly quiet and attentive, and so get in touch with the reality of things, we can then become an ambassador of truth for others. We can act like the Apostles, who had a deep experience and knowledge of Jesus Christ and then went forth to proclaim his Gospel to the world.
Discernment is a key theme throughout Let Us Dream. We’ll be discussing it in more depth in upcoming episodes.
One of the prerequisites for discernment is the awareness that one does not have all the answers. We have to begin by asking questions, both about the situation and about what God wants us to do in the situation.
We can’t be quick to jump to an answer or reject a particular way of thought. Polarization is superficially attractive, but the Catholic way is often the “both/and”. We see this “both/and” solution being applied to many of the most famous disagreements in Christian history; Jesus is both God and Man, we need both Faith and Works, we revere both the Bible and Tradition, we value both celibacy and marriage. We have to hold divergent perspectives together in charity.
Peter Land discussed experiencing this in his own life. At college, he found that the students were more or less divided into “conservative” and “liberal” groups, and each group attended different events and listened to different speakers. He found that by attending a wider range of events and speaking with a wider range of people, he could come to a deeper understanding.
Starting with Small Things
We have to start with little things, little habits that we need to break or change. Peter gave a good example. He discussed learning to clean up after himself when he was living at college; that change of attitude helped to produce a change in the overall culture of his college dorm, making it more responsible and charitable.
Discernment should be started there, in the small things. Focusing on the big things can be counterproductive; big things grow from small things.
Trust in God
Trust in God is vital to true discernment. We’re inadequate to the task, and yet called to it. That’s why Pope Francis calls us to realize that we don’t have all the answers. We have to trust in the Lord to open doors that we don’t even know are there.
We have to be willing to be led into the void, onto the water, into a foreign land like Abraham was. We’re called in this time to create new ways for the future, by being open to God’s grace.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
As I discussed in my last blog post, Catholic progressives and reactionaries are mirror images of one another. Neither faction has the humility to remain loyal to the message of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church. Instead, each faction claims power over the Gospel message.
The Local Bishop
How can we be sure that we really are staying loyal to the Church? Today the Church is full of factions, each claiming to speak for the Magisterium. What does loyalty look like in this situation?
In such difficult times, we can learn from the saints of the past, who also wrestled with these questions. Early in the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters to Christian churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. A persistent theme in these letters is the importance of unity, which, according to Ignatius, is to be guaranteed by staying close to the bishop of the local church.
For instance, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes:
“For we can have no life apart from Jesus Christ; and as he represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops, even those who are stationed in the remotest parts of the world, represent the mind of Jesus Christ. That is why it is proper for your conduct and your practices to correspond closely with the mind of the bishop.”
And further on, he writes:
“Anyone who absents himself from the congregation convicts himself at once of arrogance and becomes self-excommunicate. And since it is written that God opposes the proud, let us take care to show no disloyalty to the bishop, so as to be loyal servants of God.”
Similarly, in his letter to the Magnesians, he writes:
“Allow nothing whatever to exist among you that could give rise to any divisions. Maintain absolute unity with your bishop and leaders as an example to others and a lesson in the avoidance of corruption. In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourself must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.
Of course, the local bishop is a sure guide only insofar as he is teaching in union with all the other bishops, and particularly with the Pope, the bishop of Rome. In the late second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies, in which he said that it was a matter of necessity that every local church should agree with the Roman church due to its greater authority.
This does not mean we have to agree with every single thing the Pope does. Obviously, Popes can make mistakes in practical matters, in who they appoint, and so on. It does mean, however, that we have to remain respectful in our attitude toward the Pope; and that we have to “give religious submission of mind and will” to his official teachings. Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This … Continue reading
St. Catherine of Siena is a great example of the correct attitude toward the papacy. She saw that the decision of the popes to live in Avignon was doing grave damage to the Church, and she worked tirelessly to convince the Pope to return to Rome. At the same time, she remained unswervingly loyal to the Pope, and never attempted to alienate her fellow Catholics from him.
A similar stance can be seen in the life of St. Thomas More. St. Thomas lived under some scandalous popes, and he was not afraid to oppose corruption in the Church. Yet he ultimately gave his life in defense of papal supremacy.
From Theory to Practice
To imitate the fidelity shown by the saints, we need to be mindful of our speech, careful in our media consumption, discerning in our choice of guides, faithful in our prayers, intentional in finding inspiration, and concrete in our charitable action.
We should avoid speaking in a negative way about other Christians, but particularly about the Holy Father.
Personally, I like Pope Francis. I am inspired by his teaching, and I hold that most of the controversy about what he says and does has been stirred up by the media for political reasons. If you’ve got questions about things Pope Francis has done or said, I’d be happy to pass along resources that I’ve found to be helpful in understanding him. In particular, I think it is important to realize that his teaching is in continuity with the teaching of previous popes.
But even if I disagreed with him, I would still think a Catholic should not speak negatively about the Holy Father. What good can we do by speaking ill of him? What harm does it do if others think well of him? By speaking negatively about the Holy Father, critics are setting themselves in judgment over him and run the risk of doing serious damage to the Church if their necessarily limited assessment of the situation turns out to be incorrect.
Speaking in general about the dangers of rash judgment, St. Thomas Aquinas says “He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.” Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.
Certain kinds of Catholic media make it very difficult to stay attached to the Church and loyal to the Pope. Any news outlets that exist primarily to retail gossip, scandal, and outrage should be avoided. In general, it might be better to read less about current events in the Church. (If you do follow Church news, it might be better to read the blandest, least opinionated news site you can find.) Instead, read solid works of Christian spirituality, the lives of the saints, the Bible (and Bible commentary), The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church Fathers . . . there are so many worthwhile things to read! In contrast, the latest controversy will probably be entirely forgotten in a few year’s time, with nobody being any better off for it. The definitive take on any event or person is written after all the players are dead; reading current events is always less informative than reading history.
I’d also propose three questions that can guide discernment of whether Catholic writers or speakers are speaking with the mind of the Church.
- Do they stay loyal to the Pope? As discussed above, this doesn’t mean they have to agree with every single thing he does and says. But if they are trying to turn public opinion against him, or talk about “resisting” him, they have crossed the line. This sort of talk only produces schismatic attitudes and infighting, which makes sharing the Gospel with others more difficult. Who would want to join a Church when those inside hate their leaders?
- Do they stay loyal to Church teaching? Would they accept everything laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Many Catholics who claim to stay loyal to the Pope refuse to accept Church teaching on various issues. But if they are not loyal to the teaching, then they are not really loyal to the Church.
- Do they stay clear of partisan politics? This test is primarily relevant to the USA. Since both of our major political parties are out of line with Church teaching on certain points (I outlined this in my “cult politics” article), a writer or speaker who is too tightly associated with either of these parties is less likely to be able to preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Pray with the Church
The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church; by praying it, we join countless other Catholics around the world in prayer. The Office of Readings provides daily selections from the Bible and from our rich Christian heritage, a sort of daily theme suggested for our reflection. Of course, most of us don’t have enough time to pray the whole Liturgy of the Hours every day, but it is fairly easy to pray one or two of the “hours”; despite the name, each is only about ten minutes long.
Personally, I was really moved when I watched Pope Francis’ special Urbi et Orbi blessing during the pandemic and again when I watched the Holy Week Services live-streamed from the Vatican. Watching these events really helped me to feel connected with the Holy Father and the Church around the world.
Try to seek out and read inspiring stories about Christians living out the Gospel, instead of depressing stories about scandals and infighting. From missionaries spreading the Word of God to charitable organizations caring for the homeless, Christian heroes are out there. They just don’t make as much noise! For example, I recently came across the fascinating story of John Bradburne, the most prolific poet in the English language. He was a third-order Franciscan who spent the last ten years of his life caring for lepers in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). When war broke out, he refused to leave the lepers and was shot by guerrilla fighters.
Love your Neighbor
Beyond all these more theoretical and spiritual practices, it is important to really live out the mission of the Church in daily life. We’ll ultimately be judged by what we do, not by what we think about the latest controversies. By serving the poor and evangelizing with our lives, we are making contact with Christ who is present in the least of his brothers and sisters. Pope Francis calls us to renew our commitment to loving service of the poor, and that’s something all Christians should be able to agree on. As C. S. Lewis put it, “one usually gets on better with people when one is making plans than when one is talking about nothing in particular”. By participating in the mission, we’ll not only find it easier to stay spiritually in union with the Church but we’ll also be working to actually solve the problems of the world.
Header Image: Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein in the Public Domain; Pope Francis, Casa Rosada CC BY-SA 2.0; Catherine of Sienna, Uffizi Galleries, CC BY-SA 2.0
References ↑1 All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. ↑2 Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” ↑3 Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.