Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mystical not ascetic: a response to Pope Francis, Part 4

Praying outside the abortion clinic in Bedford Square, London, with 40 Days for Life.

Update: to ease navigation here is the complete series of posts:
Part 1: what his disctinction 'Mystical' vs. 'Asectic' means

Part 2: why traditional Catholics can better accomodate this perspective than 'Neo-Conservatives'
Part 3: why liberal Catholics shouldn't feel too comfortable with it
Part 4: what is going on with the reference to the life and family issues.
Part 5: what to make of the worry that the Vetus Ordo suffer 'ideologization'.

I said in the last post that there was something about which I wised to disagree with the Holy Father. This is about what quickly became a well-known passage in the interview with the Jesuit journals:

“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."

"The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

As before, I want to take this seriously, to understand it, and recognise what is true here, before voicing my concerns.

First off, if someone were to say to me: what's Catholicism all about, then? What the point of it all? I would certainly not begin my reply by talking about abortion and contraception. I would talk about the existence of God, the Incarnation, the Redemption: 'the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.' Absolutely. Perhaps the phrase ' dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent' is open to misunderstanding, but let's be fair to the Holy Father, he explains what he means. He means that there are fundamental ones from which others flow, the latter are not less true or easier to repudiate. In the missionary mode we would start with the fundamental ones. They offer the best way in.

The counter-demonstration (and Joanna Bogle)
On the radio, and I have been in this position myself, the interviewer is not likely to allow this mode free operation. You get asked (as I was on one occasion) 'well what about condoms then?' This is a dirty trick to set the audience against you, to raise everyone's defences, and you have to use the means at your disposal to deal with it. Pope Francis mentions using a technique used by Our Lord: answering one question with another.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ "

That can work. It assumes of course that everyone knows what the Church teaches, and that we - the speaker, the voice on the radio or whatever - agrees with that teaching. That may be a fair assumption (if, say, you are Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires).

the Holy Father's speech to a group of gynaecologists recently is not a repudiation of this strategy (as William Oddie seems to think) but an example of it. The occasion allowed him to put the teaching of the Church on abortion into the right context, and he expressed that teaching with power and beauty. The point isn't that he doesn't believe it - that's a liberal misreading. The question is only about how far he'd go in 'insisting' on it, as we might say, 'out of season'. He is clearly criticising a certain approach taken by some Catholics, presumably including some Catholic bishops, who he thinks insist on it too much, and not only when they can place it in a proper context.

Bishop Alan Hopes leading the Rosary in Bedford Square
Here is my disquiet. It is not just a matter of how to deal with aggressive interviewers. We also need to deal with what is coming up in Parliament, in debates in the media, even classroom discussions. When we hear that the Government wants to kill even more babies, and old people too, to destroy marriage, and heaven knows what else, we cannot remain silent, and to a lesser extent this is true whenever the subject comes up for discussion. We can't say 'making a fuss isn't going to reach people's hearts,' and leave it at that. It is a matter of justice: too bad for our evangelisation if some people are going to be put off the Church by her opposition to abortion, or for that matter to genocide. Come to think of it, Pope Francis doesn't seem too bothered about putting criminal plutocrats off the Church by defending the poor. Not to speak out can be a form of consent to evil.

But I also think that, paradoxically given what I said above about the way to evangelise, defending the unborn and marriage isn't always such a bad strategy for the Church in terms of winning souls either. Here in England, whatever the deficiencies of our bishops on these issues, it has been very clear that the Roman Catholic Church is the only serious organisation with determined and reasoned opposition to the agenda of of the culture of death. We have reaped a rich harvest of conversions from this over the years, particularly of serious-minded Anglicans, of both the High Church and Evangelical varieties. Perhaps most famously Malcolm Muggeridge (long an agnostic, then a non-Catholic Christian) converted because of these issues. Many now in the Ordinariate developed a deep respect for the Church for speaking out on these issues; without such a respect the issue of female ordination might have pushed them towards Constantinople instead of Rome. Strong ties have been forged with the Orthodox themselves, with Jews, and even with Muslims, because of our shared concerns. It has also had a very salutary effect internally, giving many Catholics a visible and emotionally charged cause which puts their faith into contact with political realities. It takes the Church out of herself and onto the streets.

The final result.
So this is what I would say to a follower of Pope Francis on this issue. You want Catholics conformed to Christ, who don't worry about keeping things neat and tidy, who aren't concerned above all with bureaucratic structures and procedures, but recognise Christ in those crushed by the injustices of modern life: let me show you the pro-life movement. You want Catholics who are mystical, who are spirit-driven, the modern followers of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah: take a look at the pro-lifers. I'll tell you what they do, they take away the shame the Church deserves for failing to defend life and the family, for preferring committee meetings with Government ministers to causing any offence to our rulers. The Spirit in them is not confined to a little box called 'religion', it permeates their lives and directs their actions. They can make a 'mess', yes, but thank God for them.

Pope Francis' remarks on the life issues make perfect sense at one level: the level of thinking how to get something useful across to unbelievers, and the best strategies to adopt when cornered in an aggressive interview. But at another level it is inconsistent with his general outlook. God has placed us in a situation where our cleverly thought-through human strategies are constantly frustrated, where we are forced to admit we oppose contraception, sex change operations, homosexual sex, same-sex marriage, explicit sex education, all those things we'd rather leave to lesson 94 in our catechetical programme.

I'm not saying that the most bone-headed approach to preaching the Gospel is more responsive to the Spirit than the more media-savvy ones. God gave us intellects to use. We should be as cunning as serpents as well as innocent as doves. What I am saying is that if you are out there, on the streets, in the student bars, on the radio, among unbelievers, you are going to be backed into a corner from time to time.

St Henry Walpole's name on the wall of his cell in the
Tower of London, which he carved before his martyrdom in 1595
We are cornered because to deny would be to apostatize and to stay silent would be to consent to injustice. When that happens we just have to trust the Holy Spirit to bring good out of our witness. He will indeed do so, if we follow the demands of the Spirit. It may be that our words will reach the hearts of the most unexpected people. That after hearing those horrid Catholics being tarred and feathered for the thousandth time for their bigotry, someone might say: how is it that they are so faithful to a lost cause? Where does this zeal come from? And maybe a seed of Faith will be planted, as it was when the young Henry Walpole was splashed with blood at the execution of St Edmund Campion

What I have attempted to show in this post is that Pope Francis' own thinking and rhetorical provides the resources to an effective response to what appears to be his critique of the pro-life movement. Tomorrow I'm going to do something similar in relation to the one remark which appears to be directed squarely at those attached to the Traditional Mass: the worry about the 'ideologisation' of 'Vetus Ordo'.


  1. Here is how you characterise followers of Pope Francis: "You want Catholics conformed to Christ, who don't worry about keeping things neat and tidy, who aren't concerned above all with bureaucratic structures and procedures, but recognise Christ in those crushed by the injustices of modern life: let me show you the pro-life movement. You want Catholics who are mystical, who are spirit-driven, the modern followers of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah ..." etc. This implies that this is what Pope Francis himself actually wants.

    Well, what does he say himself?

    "I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that."

    The right approach, according to him, is thus to not say much about these things. That is the concrete policy he is recommending. He supports it by saying a lot of true things, such as "The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently." But these true remarks - in a strategy that is familiar to us all - are marshalled to support this concrete recommendation; and they do so in a dishonest way, by accusing those Catholics who do say a lot about the evils of abortion of failings that they are not in fact committing.

    This has nothing to do with wanting people to be mystical, spirit-driven and all that. What is going on is that the Pope is presenting a lot of high-flown rhetoric - or canting nonsense, depending on your taste - to justify a policy of being silent about evil, when that evil is firmly adhered to by the worldly powers that be. This is a very familiar strategy, as I said, that is commonly deployed by many leaders in the Church. Its goal is simply to justify avoiding confrontation with evil. That is what the Pope is doing here. It is obvious to anyone with experience of Catholic affairs, and should be obvious to you. I really do not see what good is achieved by giving a pious interpretation of the statements of the Pope that is detached from reality. It is dangerous to people who are taken in by it, because it disarms them in the face of the real harm that these statements cause. Opponents of the faith within and without the Church know exactly what he is saying here; they are not going to be convinced for a moment by these pious interpretations, but are going to use what the pope obviously actually means in order to further their causes to the utmost. To counter this strategy, you have to be up front about the fact that what the pope is saying is bad and wrong, and should be rejected by Catholics who are loyal to the faith God gave them.

  2. Consider as well the Pope's description of proselytism as "solemn nonsense". This description occurs in the context of the unbelieving interviewer asking His Holiness whether he is going to try and convert him. When the Pope immediately replies that proselytism is solemn nonsense, the message is clear and unavoidable; trying to convert people is solemn nonsense. He is not talking about cult-like recruitment and indoctrination; he is talking about the attempt to convince people to convert to the Catholic faith. That is what the interviewer was referring to. That is the sort of thing the present pope thinks and says. To claim that "In sum, Pope Francis is opposing the invasion of the Church by secular attitudes and secular goals" is really quite mad.

  3. Actually, you can use even insincere rhetoric in a discussion. People don't like their inconsistencies exposed. And if the source is insincere, the followers may not be.

    I don't think he is insincere. I think he believes that he is in favour of being open to the Spirit. We can argue about whether he is.

  4. Thank you Mr. Shaw. You make an analysis of the Pope's thought which is frank and yet, charitable; something which we need very much these days. I always look forward to reading your columns.

    Obviously we are getting an insight into his mind, but I sometimes wonder: who is the real Jorge Bergoglio?: the man who has preached about the devil more times than any other pope so far?, the man who sometimes says things that give secular journalists glee?, the man who published quite willingly most of the draft of Pope Benedict's excellent encyclical on faith? the man who sometimes gives Catholic liberals false hope? the man who excommunicated the Australian liberal priest and continued the investigation against the liberal American nuns' group (LCWR) ?

    I think most of us are still puzzled by the man.

  5. On 'proselytism' it turns out he believes in 'witness' as a way of getting through to people. He doesn't reject conversion as such, whatever this distinction really means.

  6. It would be fascinating if there are Latin American (or otherwise knowledgeable) readers of this blog who can comment on the nuances of the word “proselytism” in a South American context. I would not be surprised if the Holy Father is referring, at least in part, to the methods used by US-based evangelical groups to hoover up millions of marginal Catholics in South America.

    In response to John L’s first comment, it's important to bear in mind that Pope Benedict made comments about a possible lop-sidedness in the Church's proclamations on moral issues that are similar to the words that some have criticised Pope Francis for making. As Cardinal Ratzinger, in his interview with Peter Seewald, "Salt of the Earth", he said the following:

    "For many people what remains of the Church's words are just a few moral prohibitions -- principally having to do with sexual ethics -- and in this respect they have the impression that the Church's real function is only to condemn and to restrict life. Perhaps too much has been said and too often in this direction -- and without the necessary connection of truth and love." (p.171).

    1. As an American (though not Latin American) Catholic, I can confirm this view of "proselytism" as I have seen it and been the recipient of it. You are treated like a cardboard cut-out of a person who has to have "Jesus" preached to him and then you have to make your decision for Christ right then and there. You are not treated like a person at all. To be fair, the majority of Evangelicals are not that bad, but there is a definite subset like that. I immediately assumed that this was what Pope Francis was talking about, thus that particular comment didn't bother me.

    2. The CDF's 2007 instruction on evangelization has a footnote that reads: 'More recently, however, the term [proselytism] has taken on a negative connotation, to mean the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person.'
      And a passage in Benedict's Deus Caritas Est also seems to recognise this 'negative connotation'. It reads: 'Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practise charity in the Church's name will never seek to impose the Church's faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God's presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. He knows—to return to the questions raised earlier—that disdain for love is disdain for God and man alike; it is an attempt to do without God. Consequently, the best defence of God and man consists precisely in love.'

    3. Proselytism in Argentina in the 19th century for the indigenous population meant having to choose between Catholicism and Death.

  7. I do wonder to what extent there is a kind of a "Jeckyl and Hyde," personality going on: 1) Jorge Borgoglio, the off-the-cuff speaker and 2) Pope Francis, the writer. We haven't seen too much of his writing, but it seems to be more conservative and cautious. I know that I have been somewhat indelicate in my speech at times, but tend to be more careful and thoughtful when I write. I think most of us are. Of course, I know that 80%-90% of Lumen Fidei was originally written by Pope Benedict, but Pope Francis kept most of it and didn't add anything that shocked or upset any of us (from what I can remember.) It is the speaking, the interviews, that tend to sting. As we see more of his writing and actions, we will see to what extent this bears out.

    1. 'It is the speaking, the interviews, that tend to sting'? The interviews, maybe, but I personally think that his speeches and homilies have been some of the most moving testaments of Christian faith that I've ever heard. The likes of his post-election remarks about the cross in the Sistene (, his talk to the disabled in Assisi ( and his homily on charity in Sardinia ( moved me deeply - as a tear-filled Cardinal Schonborn said to Cardinal Dolan in response to Francis' Inauguration Mass homily ( 'Tim, this man speaks like Jesus'.

  8. I couldn't say if your views run counter to those of our pope, but I am certain that they run counter to the views of your fellow philosopher Roger Scruton, who seems to think that religion should be a purely private affair.

  9. Just for the record, I became much deeper in my faith and discovered the Extraordinary Form through the pro-life movement