Sometimes, the Church’s call to embrace voluntary poverty and her emphasis on the poor and oppressed can seem counterproductive. After all, growing in virtue is an important part of the Christian life—and wealth would seem to be conducive to such an end. Or, if not wealth (since the wealthy are hardly exemplars of virtue) at least a moderate amount of affluence. With middle-class prosperity comes a certain respectability. By contrast, the lives of the poor are often chaotic and messy.
Part of this seeming paradox stems from a conflation of poverty and destitution. While the Church calls for poverty, she does not endorse destitution; destitution really does make a life of virtue more difficult to achieve. Similarly, even moderate poverty can be spiritually oppressive in today’s culture. Our society is focused on the accumulation of wealth, and so the poor are despised and marginalized. Those who can’t engage in conspicuous consumption are seen as inferior and even morally deficient. This is why we need “a poor Church for the poor”; the Church should be a society in which the poor are treated with respect and dignity. For more on this, see my recent essay on whether the poor are “busted” or “blessed”.
It should also be remarked that the virtues of the well-to-do are often an illusion. Pope Francis has often said that we should go out to the peripheries. We should go to aid the poor, certainly; but most of all, Pope Francis calls us to go to the peripheries to encounter the world as it really is. At the peripheries, we can escape the distorting smog of wealth and power. With sharpened vision, we will see defects and problems that we never noticed before.
What is true for society as a whole is also true for the individual. At the peripheries, we are more likely to see ourselves as we really are. Stripped of the finery provided by wealth, we will discover the true state of our spiritual muscles. For most of us, this unveiling will be an unpleasant and unsettling experience! It is easy to act virtuously when everything is going smoothly, but the real test of virtue comes when the going becomes rough. At the same time, the peripheries can also provide the setting for amazing acts of charity and trust that are called forward by the difficulties of daily life.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, wealth is the opposite of community. Wealth gives individuals power and makes them independent of others. They can choose their companions, choose their location, and have as much or as little company as they please. It is easy for them to retreat into personal pursuits or private rooms if they want to “get away from it all”.
By contrast, the poor need the support of a community, and can’t be as picky about who they interact with. Such unintentional community is going to be messy. Living in close quarters will generate friction. Tempers will be lost, and personal idiosyncrasies will grate on others. This might be mistaken for a lack of virtue when, in fact, it is the only way in which virtue can be developed. Community is a school of virtue in which development occurs through failure. If we don’t know our own faults, we won’t know where to focus our efforts. By making spiritual flaws apparent, a community can save individuals from falling into pride; the most serious spiritual disease is thinking that one is well. Jesus was gentle to sinners, but severe toward those who “were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
It is important to remember that no amount of virtue will ultimately save us. Before God, we are all sinners, and we are all dependent on his mercy. At the same time, none of us can truly judge our own virtue, let alone that of others. C. S. Lewis writes:
Most of the man’s psychological make up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst of this raw material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us; all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.—Mere Christianity
And I could add “all sorts of nice things that were the result of wealth and education will fall off of us; all sorts of nasty things that were the result of destitution or ignorance will fall off of others.” Certainly, there will be many surprises in store. We can, however, get some of those surprises out of the way now, while there is still time to change the results. By stripping away illusory virtues, poverty and community remind us of our inherent weaknesses. At the same time, such an unvarnished experience of reality will give us more insight into human nature. The experience of weakness in an authentic community is tempered by love. Having received the love of others even when we were at our worst, we will be able to adopt a merciful outlook toward the weaknesses of others. In a small way, we will be able to see with the mind of God, who “knows what is in man”, but whose love is nevertheless beyond our imagining.
(Originally recorded during Advent 2021, so references to “last year” are references to 2020.)
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter finish discussing the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the fourth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, and the third here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
Viewing the Past
In Chapter 1 of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis discusses our relationship to the past in light of the racial justice protests of 2020. He voices his support for those protesting against racial prejudice and injustice, but also notes that he is concerned by the growth of a flawed attitude toward the past. He writes:
What worried me about the anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020, when many statues of historical figures were toppled in several countries, was the desire to purify the past. Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful. Amputating history can make us lose our memory, which is one of the few remedies we have against repeating the mistakes of the past. A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny it, and learns its best lessons.
In chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses prescribed what the Israelites were to do after taking possession of the land the Lord had given them. They were to take the land’s first fruits to the priest as an offering, and pronounce a prayer of gratitude that recalls the people’s history. The prayer began: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” Then came a story of shame and redemption: how my ancestor went down into Egypt, lived as an alien and a slave, but his people called on the Lord’s name and were brought out of Egypt, to this land.
The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressors but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of others in order to proclaim my own innocence.
Of course, those who pulled down statues did so to draw attention to the wrongs of the past, and to deny honor to those who committed those wrongs. But when I judge the past through the lens of the present, seeking to purge the past of its shame, I risk committing other injustices, reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.
The past is always full of situations of shame: just read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels, which contains —as do all our families—quite a few characters who are hardly saints. Jesus does not reject his people or his history, but takes them up and teaches us to do likewise: not canceling the shame of the past but acknowledging it as it is.
Of course, statues have always come down and been replaced by others, when what they stand for no longer speaks to a new generation. But this should be done through consensus-building, by debate and dialogue rather than acts of force. That dialogue must aim to learn from the past, rather than judge it through the eyes of the present.
Attacking the Past rather than the Present
Sometimes the past is attacked because attacking the past is safer than attacking evils in the present. For instance, large corporations that currently use slave labor can easily score points by condemning the racism and slavery of the past. Similarly, it is easy for modern individuals to “like” social media posts that condemn past slave owners—on mobile devices that are made with slave labor. In this way, too much attention to past evils can actually serve as a way to white-wash the present.
A Spirituality of Humility
As Pope Francis pointed out, the way the People of Israel related to the past was informed by a certain spirituality. They were supposed to remember how good God had been to them and how much they had been given. In this way, remembrance of the past was supposed to lead to gratitude. At the same time, they were supposed to remember how many times they had failed to live up to God’s covenant. Remembering their failures was supposed to make them humble before God.
This remembering of the past was ritualized through festivals and religious ceremonies. It played a large role in guiding the people and in shaping their spirituality. By contrast, today we do not have a spiritual understanding of the past. We are often ungrateful for the benefits we have received. At the same time, we sometimes try to use the sins of the past as an excuse for turning away from faith in God.
Mercy toward Others
By remembering the sins of our collective past and how good God has been to us, we can also grow in the quality of mercy toward others. The People of Israel were supposed to care for the stranger and the poor precisely because they had been poor themselves. They were to avoid oppression because they themselves had been oppressed in a strange land. If we imitated this view of history, it should make us more generous toward migrants and the marginalized in the present.
The Personal Past
We should have the same attitude toward our personal past. We all have sins and failures in our past for which God has forgiven us. We have all received blessings that we did not deserve or merit. We are all in need of redemption.
This should make us charitable and merciful to others. We’ve received so much from God; in response, we have to give to those around us.
Peter brought up the story of his walking pilgrimages. Many times, he relied on the generosity of others for food and shelter. Remembering this helps him to be generous, to give freely since he received freely.
The Redemption of History
Pope Francis mentions that the genealogy of Jesus includes many sinners. Jesus does not reject this flawed past; rather, he takes it up and redeems it. He brings the best out of it. That’s the way God works with us; he brings good out of the brokenness of human beings.. And we must do likewise. We should acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the past, and use it to build a better path going forward.
History and Community
The past is often a burden, a source of shame. When one is part of a group, one ends up answering for the actions of that group. As Catholics and as Americans we have to answer for sins that we didn’t personally commit.
The Christian way is to bear such burdens with love and humility. There are, however, two different ways in which people try to escape these burdens. These two kinds of escapism map onto two flawed attitudes toward community in general.
We’ve talked before about how Christians sometimes join a community in a futile attempt to escape the messiness of life. In reality, however, the advantage of a community is that it forces individuals to directly confront the messy reality of life. Communities often bring out the worst in others and in ourselves; we can’t as easily put on a good “show” for others when we live in close proximity to them. Such exposure to reality is humbling. At the same time, however, community can bring out the best in people as they carry the burdens of life together.
The temptation is to deny that mistakes and burdens exist and pretend that everything is perfect. This is particularly the case when people join a community with unrealistic expectations of perfection. If the community tries to escape into idealism and an imaginary perfection, it will ultimately fail.
Since community is often messy, people sometimes try to avoid community altogether. If one isn’t part of any community, then one will never have to carry the burden of another—whether that burden is spiritual or physical. In our society, many people are rootless and lead individualistic lives for just this reason. Our culture encourages people to leave behind the particularities of their communities and families for individual freedom. In the religious sphere, this is why many people try to confine religion to their personal relationship with God. That way, they won’t have to carry the burden of belonging to a religious organization.
These are both flawed responses. We need community and we must take up the burden that the community will inevitably lay on us. Community makes us part of a greater whole, and gives us the aid that we all need.
Our choices when confronted with the burden of history are similar. Too often when people say we should remember our past, what they really mean is that we should approve of the past. To aid in this approval, they produce a slanted version of history which ignores the crimes and sins of their group or nation. They refuse to carry the burden by denying that any past mistakes or sins exist. Truthful remembering of the past will always include a certain amount of shame, since we’re in a fallen world. It calls for repentance—but not rejection.
Such rejection is the other error, the mistake of rootlessness. If we deny that we have anything in common with the past and look on it merely with rejection, we are not being truthful. We are each the product of a certain history and a particular community, whether we like it or not. We can’t imagine ourselves as spotless heroes compared with the benighted individuals that came before us.
Choosing our Past
Too often, individuals today choose their own history and narrative. When we are isolated and individualistic, we can pick and choose the history we want for our own lives and for our country. We can reinforce this choice by only exposing ourselves to that with with which we agree. Our polarized news media makes this easier. Social media can also feed this dynamic by isolating individuals in self-chosen echo chambers.
We need to resist this dynamic and take ownership of our history and world as they really are. That’s what Pope Francis invites us into. We can’t be afraid of what we might be faced with. We have to allow the history of other people and other groups to challenge and change the way we see the world.
Community is a great help in this process. As Tim Keller said, there WILL be people with different political viewpoints in a community—or it isn’t a very good community. This will produce tension. In a community, people will be confronted with perspectives that they never would have taken the trouble to seek out. Even the differing personalities found in a community can create this kind of creative tension.
We Are All Connected
Nobody’s history is isolated from anybody else’s history. For instance, we are all part of the tragic history of the Native Americans who were killed or displaced by European colonizers. This tragedy can’t be blamed on any one individual in the present, but it is still something that we have collectively inherited. We need to acknowledge that we’ve inherited a world that is terribly unequal and that our own ancestors were often part of this history of exploitation and conquest. We have to make amends for the past as best we can. If we don’t do anything about it and merely ignore the fact, then we will become guilty for the sins of our ancestors. We will become complicit if we continue to take advantage of their misdeeds.
In a sense, nobody can own anything with clean hands. That’s why we are told to “make friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon”: by giving it to the poor. That’s the only way to avoid condemnation for holding wealth, since all wealth at some point was derived from injustice. We are each the indirect beneficiaries of shocking evils. It is one thing, an easy thing to condemn the evils of the past. It is a much harder thing to live out that condemnation in one’s way of life!
There are the great societal evils; but there are also personal evils that we are complicit in. We only need to think of the sweatshop labor that went into our gadgets, or the migrant workers who are harvesting our food. Almost anything we buy is cheap simply because somebody else was abused. It is critical that we try to avoid benefiting from exploitation, past and present, as much as possible.
Listening to the History of Others
Another important way we relate to history is by listening to the history of others, both as individuals and as groups. Particularly when those others come from very different backgrounds than ours, this will expand our horizons.
Everyone has a story to share; they are made in the image of God and have the potential for sainthood. With that in mind, we can learn from everyone. Of course, what they are saying might be incorrect or flawed, but even so we can learn by trying to understand them. Why do they hold these ideas? Where did this perspective originate? We should take particular care to listen when people are speaking out of their own experience. We can show love in letting that experience be received and understood, and find points of common ground and agreement.
That doesn’t mean that we should depart from the truth or the teaching of the Church, but it means that other people and other traditions can shed light on aspects of the Truth of which we are not aware. Eastern culture and spirituality, for instance, can help to expand our Western traditions.
It is easy to become angry at those who disagree with you. That’s a funny thing about human beings. If somebody is wrong, we should be sorry for them because they are missing something. Malcolm pointed out that if he suddenly met his past self he would violently disagree with that past self! It can be good for us to remember that we didn’t always get everything right. Our past mistakes should inform the way we respond to the mistakes of others.
Similarly, as a nation, if we think we’ve always got it right, then we will not be to enter into the kind of dialogue and fraternity to which Pope Francis is calling us.
The Standards of the Times
Pope Francis also talks about not judging the past by the standards of the present. That almost sounds relativistic, as if he was saying that different times have different standards. He isn’t saying that, however. The standards are always the same. But God is going to judge each of us by what we did with what we have been given: our health, resources, etc. Those who have more are called to a higher standard. Privileges come with responsibility. This also applies to each individual’s access to the truth. At some points in the past, it was perhaps harder to see certain truths. So when we are discussing historical figures, the question should be; what did they do with what they were given? Did they to some extent transcend the flaws of their culture? Or did they sink below the level of their era? That should make a difference in how we judge their actions.
The Beauty of Our Environment
Let Us Dream discusses our relationship to Creation and our environment. As the Pope says, we can’t carry on as if we could be healthy in a world that is sick! Creation is a gift for us to cherish and tend.
In particular, he mentions that beauty is the entry point to ecological awareness. In a world focused on technological efficiency, beauty is more important than ever.
Today, we tend to impose things on the landscape, instead of being in love with a place and working in harmony with the beauty of the place. We create the same dreary strip malls and sub-developments across a huge diversity of environments.
This is a problem, because the role of beauty is to lift up our hearts to something greater than ourselves. Beauty is going to play a significant role in dreaming of a new world and embracing a community that is greater than ourselves.
By contrast, when people are surrounded by trash and an ugly built environment, they have less of a sense of dignity. If we treat the world with contempt, we are treating the giver with contempt. In disrespecting the Creation, we’re not only disrespecting God, but also those around us. We send a message about the value of those around us when we create certain kinds of environments. We need a sense of ownership, of responsibility for our places and our communities. How can we create beautiful spaces that invite people to cherish the world and one another?
C. S. Lewis wrote about two different ways to see trees. We can see them primarily as a source of lumber, or we can see them in all their glory as amazing creatures of God and only in a secondary way as a source of lumber. Obviously, the first kind of viewpoint will not lead to restraint or respect or gratitude.
Beauty is not useful; rather, it is a recognition of what a thing is in itself. If we see only utility and not beauty, then everything (including other people) will be seen as something to be used up and ultimately thrown away.
Seeing Properly in Contemplation
This whole first chapter is about seeing properly. And if you move too fast, you won’t see properly. We can’t see if we are not contemplative, if we don’t slow down and really try to see what is around us. God will give us a deeper vision if we are attentive. Advent is about being attentive, or the coming of the Lord will pass us by. If we want to avoid that, we have to be open to everything around us, since God can speak to us through anything.
The shepherds and the wise men received a sign, and then they acted on it. They were ready. In fact, it came to them because they were ready. If we are attentive, God will invite us into something different.
On a purely practical level, the sign came to the shepherds and the wise men because they were awake at night. The shepherds were keeping watch. That was because they were the poor and had to work at night.
The wise men had spent a whole lifetime being attentive, even if they didn’t know what was going to happen or what exactly they were going to see. Many others may have seen the sign, but without a lifetime of attention, it didn’t mean to anything.
In our next episode on Let Us Dream will be moving from chapter one, about being attentive, into the second chapter about discernment. If we are attentive, we will see many things: but then comes discernment, discovering what God is telling us. Think of the difference the same piece of news made to the wise men and to Herod. We need discernment to understand what we see. The second chapter is very Ignatian, very much about discerning spirits and the voices that we hear.
At some point we all need to choose. We need to make a decision to follow God in everything. Such a decision might draw us away from what is comfortable. God never forces anything on us: how we will respond is up to our free choice.
In a way, this is a good summary of the community building process as described by our guests. First comes openness to God and to those around us. Then comes discernment, which is ultimately a communal process. Over time, the small initial group can work to discern the best path forward. And finally, the members of the community may find themselves involved in projects they would never have even imagined. But it all starts humbly with openness and discernment.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
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.
Why this website is not “Liberal” or “Conservative”
“Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.”—Fr. Dubay, in “Happy Are You Poor”
As we discussed in our last podcast episode, cult members tend to see all outsiders as malevolent and untrustworthy. The cult sees itself as fundamentally righteous, and therefore above criticism. Such thinking produces hate and fear directed at outsiders. It also produces blindness to any problems within the group, or within the individuals who make it up.
In a subtler form, this mentality is the constant temptation of the devout Christian. It is the fault of the Pharisee who “thanked God he was not like other men.” The devout are tempted to fixate on the obvious moral failings of “inferior” outsiders, while ignoring their own more subtle sins of pride, rash judgment, and envy. It is always tempting to ignore our own flaws by focusing on those of others.
In the United States today, both of the major political parties have developed this cult-like, pharisaic attitude. Increasingly, the members of both parties see their opponents not merely as mistaken, but as maliciously bent on destroying the country. As with any cult, this fixation on the “evil outsiders” makes party members increasingly unlikely to see internal flaws.
When Christians are drawn into the cult-like world of political ideology, it increases their danger of becoming Pharisees. A conservative friend was lamenting the lack of “really good sermons.” As our conversation progressed, it became clear that in his mind, a “really good sermon” was one focused on abortion or homosexuality; in other words, a sermon that challenged those he saw as outsiders but did not challenge him. Of course, there is a liberal counterpart to this, which laments the fact that sermons aren’t aimed at xenophobia or greed. Political ideologies have divided Christians into opposing groups, each of which sees Christianity as being primarily about defeating “the other guys” instead of about a loving and humble relationship with God and our neighbors.
Both political parties are corrupting because they are “totalitarian.” Just as nothing in a cult member’s life is separate from the cult, political ideologies are increasingly affecting every area of life, from healthcare to education. Religion is no exception. Political platforms often determine the stances that Christians take. This is a serious problem, as the letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” The Christian message does not align with either of the major political parties.
Political ideology contrasted with the Gospel
Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Is this the message of any political leaders today? Do they not rather encourage their followers to seek revenge, to hate opponents, and wish for their downfall? Don’t they encourage a fixation getting what is owed us?
Jesus tells us: “Happy are you poor”; and “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is this the message of either political party today? Or do they rather hold out promises of ever-increasing material wealth to those who vote for them?
Jesus tells us: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Do our political parties encourage us to become angry, to call our brothers and sisters fools… and worse?
Before his Passion, Christ prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Our political parties, on the other hand, produce division; it is their basic strategy, just as it is the basic strategy of the cult.
St. James tells us: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Jesus tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided depending on how they served the poor. Yet Jesus also tells us: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Neither of our major political parties upholds both social justice and the sanctity of marriage.
The Gospel message can’t be divided up. Christians can’t pick and choose the truths they accept, but this is what both political parties want us to do. C. S. Lewis said, “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
We can’t let ideology warp our understanding of the Gospel. Instead, we must “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and perfect and true.”
This website strives to serve this renewal by providing a place where those with different viewpoints can interact in friendship. Please join our mission, and pray for unity among Christians.
Prayer from Fratelli Tutti
O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community. Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start. Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.
“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of others in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left the traditionalist movement in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.
A Spirituality of Trust
In podcast 6, Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz discuss the Fr. Gaitley’s book Consoling the Heart of Jesus and the spirituality that underlies it: the great love that Jesus has for each of us, despite our sins and failings, and the great importance of absolute trust in his mercy. We also discuss The Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux and Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries. Other topics mentioned include: scrupulosity; an outward focus; pride; “performance orientation;” Pelagianism; the Good Thief; St. Paul; attachments and addictions; the danger of self-sufficiency; the danger of agendas; the Prodigal Son; C. S. Lewis; detachment; A.A.; St. Faustina; St. Margaret Mary; Eucharistic Adoration; Pharisees; Jansenism; and St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)
In podcast episode 5, while discussing the economics of Christian community, I said, “I would prefer to use as few words as possible to describe what we are doing [building local economies based on justice and charity].” This of course was rather ironic, coming in the middle of an hour long conversation involving some 8,000 words! In context, however, the “words” referred to are ideological or political “labels,” such as “conservative” or “socialist.” This preference for “not naming” stems from several different principles.
Most pragmatically, “naming” oneself or one’s movement can unnecessarily antagonize others. We live in a time of polarization and division which has affected our nation, world, and Church; as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.” (Paragraph 156) Since the kinds of local projects I’m advocating are not “liberal” or “conservative,” “Democrat” or “Republican,” “Left” or “Right,” it would be counter productive to antagonize neighbors by the use of such labels.
This unnecessary divisiveness among neighbors points to something deeper; these labels are divisive precisely because they are unreal, false universals that prevent us from interacting with the glorious diversity of reality, blinding us to the particular persons and situations around us. Saying “Democrat” or “Conservative” allows us to homogenize and write off millions of fellow human beings, but the neighbors next door are not Democrats or Republicans, even if they might identify as such; they are human beings like us, made in the image of God, with many interests, cares, and concerns beyond politics or ideology. We share more than we might realize, particularly at the local level. Abstraction, naming, categorizing, gives a certain kind of power. Yet that power comes at the cost of isolation and depersonalization, making hatred and division much more likely.
As Christians, our relationship with Christ should be our sole identity; “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And for the Christian, there can only be one fundamental outlook on others, an outlook of love. Ideologies are unloveable; erroneous ideologies may need to be opposed by the light of the Gospel message. This opposition, however, can’t be applied to the human beings around us. Deeper than any political, ideological, racial or even religious division, we all share a fundamental unity as members of the human race, as Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent encyclical. He challenges us to show a radical respect for others: “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 191) A good first step towards practicing such respect and love would be to drop divisive labels and embrace the freedom that comes from a shared identity as children of God.