Monday 23 September 2013

The Pope's interview

Everyman and his dog (well, cat, since dogs apparently haven't yet worked out how to use the new i-phone) in the Catholic blogosphere have been worrying away at Pope Francis' 12,000 word interview.

Somewhere between the secular 'Pope abolishes morality and welcomes gay sex' (Yah!) and the ultra-Catholic 'Pope abolishes morality and welcomes gay sex' (Boo!) interpretations, there is lot that's worth pondering on. So let's do that very Jesuit thing of trying to apply what he says to our here and now in Scotland and the rest of Western Europe.

I think the heart of the interview is this:

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.

The Catholic Church stands in Scotland (secular, Protestant) and the rest of Western Europe as a missionary: we cannot rely on preaching to those who already have a good understanding of and good attitude towards Catholicism. Much better to think of those early Jesuit missionaries walking into a completely different and even hostile culture. Given that framework, what should the missionary do? There is little point in issuing isolated moral injunctions: they won't make sense to people and they will simply trigger hostility. The central point to be got over is a vision. And here the vision is of salvation and healing:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.

And in getting over that vision, there is an attitude:

The senses that find God are the ones St. Ignatius called spiritual senses. Ignatius asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.

So, first the big picture, then the detail of what follows from that:

A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. 

OK. What follows from all this? Let's take two (very) specific cases.

First, there is the question of same sex 'marriage' in Scotland. Where we are now -not where we'd want to be, but where we in fact are- is that it is in the process of being introduced. As I've said before, that means, now, that we're in a new phase: not one which is about the immediate influencing of policy, but one where the Church's interventions are about the vision of marriage and sexuality: the big picture. There is absolutely no chance of that vision having an immediate effect, but we need to focus on putting it forward, both as part of our contribution to the closing phases of the political debate, and as part of ensuring that the Church (and the family) continue to exist as part of the field hospital: without that continuing vision of what human sexuality is truly like, as part of that more general insight that we are all sinners and all broken vessels in need of God, then they cannot continue to function as healing in the world.

Second, and this is rather a personal focus, what of the Pope's comments on manualist Thomism?

Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

Now, I didn't particularly want to read this. My present view is that the tradition of Thomistic commentary and, in particular, the manuals produced by the nineteenth century neo-Thomist revival are underrated: they have a clarity and system that we clearly need in the intellectual life of the modern Church. On the other hand, a Church that was formed entirely in this tradition would be jejune: without (to put it very roughly) the sort of 'literary' sensibility that you find in eg Balthasar  (another refugee from the manuals), or perhaps more exactly that sort of open ended exploration and incompleteness you find in Plato's earlier dialogues, Catholic theology and philosophy would be impoverished.

So where does that leave me? Academically, it's always a good thought that if whole periods of intellectual endeavour are written off as decadent, they are probably worth investigating: the 'Whig' view of philosophy that holds it blossomed in Greece and then went into a 1500 year deep freeze until Descartes won't wash, and I don't see that we should adopt a similar 'Little Ice Age' view that nothing worthwhile happened between Aquinas and the present day in Thomism. On the other hand, 'ressourcement' can be an excellent idea and some minds (and periods) are indeed greater than others. That leaves me here:

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing.... We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

That general piece of advice holds as good for the intellectual life as it does for anything else in the human quest.

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