Monday, October 07, 2013

Mystical not ascetic: a Traditionalist response to Pope Francis, Part 1

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'.

Pope Francis' long interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ for the Jesuit journals presents a challenge for Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass. It is a challenge which I think we can meet.

My concern, in this first post of a series, is to get inside the Holy Father's thinking, really to understand what he is trying to convey, which is not always on the surface of the words. It seems to me that his thinking in the interview turns on a distinction he expresses when he makes the puzzling remark:

“Ignatius is a mystic, not an ascetic.”

He had, however, already indicated what this distinction means.

"A Jesuit is a person who is not centered in himself. The Society itself also looks to a center outside itself; its center is Christ and his church. So if the Society centers itself in Christ and the church, it has two fundamental points of reference for its balance and for being able to live on the margins, on the frontier. If it looks too much in upon itself, it puts itself at the center as a very solid, very well ‘armed’ structure, but then it runs the risk of feeling safe and self-sufficient. The Society must always have before itself the Deus semper maior, the always-greater God, and the pursuit of the ever greater glory of God, the church as true bride of Christ our Lord, Christ the king who conquers us and to whom we offer our whole person and all our hard work, even if we are clay pots, inadequate. This tension takes us out of ourselves continuously.”
"... The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical: this distortion of Jesuit life gave birth to the Epitome Instituti.”
St Ignatius of Loyola
To put it perhaps too crudely, what Pope Francis has in mind is simply this. The mystic is a person open to the influence of the spirit, and that means he is conforming himself to Christ and is always ready to serve others. The ascetic tendency is legalistic, it is an attempt to keep things neat and tidy; it is closed in on itself.
I have never heard of a mystic who was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, ascetic. But Pope Francis is using both words in his own sense for his own purposes.
When Pope Francis looks at different movements in the Church he asks himself which side of this distinction is applicable to them. Vatican II, obviously, was an attempt to shift the Church more completely into the mystical mode. On the other hand:
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”
It is not immediately clear who Pope Francis has in mind by the terms 'restorationist' and 'legalist'; it is best to try to understand the phenomenon he is talking about and worry about who, if anyone, represents this phenomenon later. There is such a thing as an inward-looking attitude. When talking about the Jesuits above, and elsewhere, Pope Francis has emphasised another, related, manifestation of this. In Brazil he warned:
"We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord."

In another sermon, he told newly ordained priests:

"Today I ask you in the name of Christ and the Church, never tire of being merciful. You will comfort the sick and the elderly with holy oil: do not hesitate to show tenderness towards the elderly. When you celebrate the sacred rites, when you offer prayers of praise and thanks to God throughout the hours of the day, not only for the people of God but for the world—remember then that you are taken from among men and appointed on their behalf for those things that pertain to God. Therefore, carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love, attending not to your own concerns but to those of Jesus Christ. You are pastors, not functionaries. Be mediators, not intermediaries."

The 'ascetic' side of the distinction, therefore, includes not only people stuck in the past, it includes people who approach the task of being a priest or bishop as just a job, people who look at the Church as just a human organisation, which must be defended, and whose rules are all-important. Because they look at things in a natural way, a merely human way, they are not open to the Spirit. They too want to keep things neat and tidy, in order to maintain bureaucratic efficiency.

Being Christ-centred: the 13th Station at the SCT Summer School
The challenge here for all of us is to ask ourselves: is the strategy I am pursuing within the Church mystical or, in Pope Francis' idiolect, ascetic? Traditional Catholics are subject to these temptations like everyone else. But it seems to me that the general tenor of the Traditional approach can be vindicated as genuinely mystical. What we need to do, to clarify what we are about to those who take on Pope Francis' way of thinking, is to demonstrate this.


  1. How concretely might we traditional Catholics demonstrate this?

  2. Yet another false dichotomy.

  3. 'It is not immediately clear who Pope Francis has in mind by the terms 'restorationist' and 'legalist'; it is best to try to understand the phenomenon he is talking about and worry about who, if anyone, represents this phenomenon later.'

    Look no further than the Comments section of American, Catholic blogs, Mr Chairman, Sar!

  4. Anonymous10:41 pm

    What is the Pontiffs beef with ascetic practices? "Spiritual Combat" is a classic & helped many Christian progress on the path of holiness.

  5. Anonymous10:42 pm

    What is the Pontiffs beef with ascetic practices? "Spiritual Combat" is a classic & helped many Christian progress on the path of holiness.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Perhaps our holy father Francis the Poor means that doing is not sufficient. The Church tends to be full of doers of the Word and not hearers of the Word. Perhaps he thinks we need to focus more upon being rather than doing for a least in our way of looking at the sanctified life. And you are all correct to say that you can't really have one without the other. So while on one hand the holy father speaks of what is to be done, so also he must speak of who we are all called to be and how we respond to that call in our own lives in the Spirit...looking first to the Indwelling to give us strength to step up to feed the hungry, of body and soul.

    I very very much appreciate the spirit of the author of this blog, here and elsewhere...thank you!