Thursday, June 13, 2013

Making Peace

In spite of initial aesthetic horror, I've come to really like Pope Francis for his down-to-earth style and his accessible preaching that isn't afraid to challenge us with the truth either. He speaks so powerfully, and yet almost nonchalantly, of the existence of the devil and immorality and the necessity traditional practices like confession and popular piety, seemingly just taking for granted the rightness of it all; there is not so much a sense of self-conscious defensiveness in his words.

Yes, he speaks to a world that he knows does not believe, but to me it seems like more than many bishops, indeed more than many recent popes, he speaks with authority to the Church rather than with an eye to convincing or answering our imagined observers and interlocutors. He doesn't seem too concerned with that phenomenon, that magisterial style of speaking as much (or more) to the Church's enemies than to Her own children, which started with the Counter-Reformation, continued through the Enlightenment, and was perhaps the hallmark of Vatican II and its subsequent era.

And yet, there is something very much, quintessentially, "Vatican II" about his style too (in a good way), in its lack of Scholastic pretensions or "legalistic" precision. Perhaps Francis reveals an interpretation of the Council's "new tone" that is much more "back to basics," and just "plain-language theology," rather than the (bad/problematic) interpretation of its tone being an indication of loosey-goosey, politically correct, fluffy modernist concession to the World. Perhaps here at last is the real reconciliation of the Council's "spirit" with its "letter."

I have for some time now thought that the arguments demonizing the former wound up incoherent; you can't ignore the clear change in ethos or posture towards the world that the Council adopted and represents. Sure, you can't dogmatize a "tone" or enforce the opinion that it is the most prudent posture to take in this Age, but you can't compartmentalize "spirit" and "letter" either. Perhaps Francis is showing us that the ethos inaugurated by Vatican II is not one of changing ourselves in order to appease the World, but rather can be interpreted as exactly the opposite: an attitude of giving up a reactionary theology that is concerned with "what the World thinks" period.

The "Tridentine style" (perhaps going back even to Scholasticism itself) seemingly sought to argue the World into submission intellectually. That's what the "traditional tone" since Trent has been, really: an attempted "answer" in a debate with the Protestants and their philosophical successors. Even when preaching to a church full of Catholics, the expected language was this sort of exaggerated apologetics and strict precision of categories taking place under the imaginary spectre of scrutiny by Outsiders. It was not "preaching to the choir" at all really, but rather, as it were, the vain and disingenuous affectation of raising ones voice and speaking loudly in hopes that others will "overhear" your "private" conversation, "*Cough* I 'hope' no one is listening in on us *cough* because I'll add that..."

Perhaps it was imagined that Catholics needed to be exposed to and armed with this sort of rhetoric inside the Church so that their Faith would not be shattered when they did encounter Others and their arguments out in the World; this was the fortress mentality. But the opposite of that, the "razing of the bastions," is not necessarily whoring ourselves in order to appease or "entice" the World either (sucking up pathetically at the expense of our own integrity to cajole rather than conquer), as if in some sort of surrender. Instead, it may mean just focusing on believing what we believe in a manner that is not so self-conscious, all our "observers" be darned (if not damned): "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

Perhaps because he has risen up from Latin American roots (where Catholicism may still embedded as a huge component of the popular folk culture) rather than decadent Europe, Francis simply isn't as worried about convincing those who don't believe with clever arguments or a trendy philosophical couching of the faith. I always felt like that approach betrayed a lack of confidence and a desperation regarding Christian belief, as if the proponents were mainly trying to convince themselves in a world where the truth was, socially speaking, no longer self-evident or taken for granted. Perhaps in the Third World, though, they are not as haunted by the "shaming" of arrogant Unbelievers.  

This explains, I think, why Francis can speak so casually and yet with a deadly seriousness about, say, the devil, while still coming across as someone rather liberal (I equivocate here, meaning both the virtue of liberality, and the side of the political spectrum which has appropriated its name) and tolerant and compassionate, instead of some evangelical fundamentalist. And I suppose this is where the emphasis on the poor is so crucial to Christianity: you are "allowed" to be moralistic and dogmatic only if your agenda is not some self-referential abstraction, but rather the "agenda" of the victims and oppressed and exploited of the world and if your spirituality is truly theirs, not in theory but in living practice.

It feels really authentic; why Popes have not been able to be straight-shooters in the past has baffled and frustrated me, and perhaps Francis's style is finally breaking through some of those weird affectations. I feel silly now for being put off by something as trivial as not wearing a mozzetta (not that I "agree" with that decision, mind you). Although, some traditionalists are up in arms again about the comment warning about the excesses of "rosary accounting" restorationists in the recent off-the-cuff "gay lobby" conversation that was published, the truth is that Francis doesn't seem to have any intention to overturn Summorum Pontificum, is entirely bland but not at all radical in his "beige Novus Ordo" style (certainly he is no worse than John Paul liturgically, mozzettae aside), and I was reassured by this on New Liturgical Movement:
"Then it was the turn of the bishop of Conversano and Monopoli, Domenico Padovano, who recounted to the clergy of his diocese how the priority of the bishops of the region of Tavoliere had been that of explaining to the Pope that the mass in the old rite was creating great divisions within the Church. The underlying message: Summorum Pontificum should be cancelled, or at least strongly limited. But Francis said no.

"Mgr Padovano explained that Francis replied to them saying that they should be vigilant over the extremism of certain traditionalist groups but also suggesting that they should treasure tradition and create the necessary conditions so that tradition might be able to live alongside innovation."
Though much of what I have come to appreciate about the new Pope's style suddenly crystallized and clarified in the process, I actually began writing this post to question for myself just how much the descriptor "trad" even makes for myself anymore. The truth is that I have recently just stopped caring as much about many of the things I used to feel passionately about. Though some of this may just be a sort of low-grade anhedonic depression from a rut I'm in practically (regarding career, living situation, general sense of loss of discipline or structure or independence, being a loafer) and on account of stress I've felt from the threat of instability always hanging over certain personal matters and the frustration of human flakiness therein, I also think that this development is to large degree a good thing. One cannot live ones life with ones head in the clouds, obsessed with abstract theory and philosophical fantasy, deeply emotionally invested in ideas which have little practical effect or which, on the other hand, exist mainly as an elaborate edifice for sustaining ones own psychological comfort zone.

That's not to say I've lost my Faith. In many ways I'd like to think what has happened is that I've "made my peace with God," surrendering to grace under the weight of the pelagian futility of human efforts at saving ourselves. But at the same time that does mean a certain spiritual malaise or sense of, if not stagnation, then wandering, a purposelessness. Where do I go from here? What are my goals? Having achieved a certain wisdom from the very failure of old projects, to what new project am I to apply this wisdom? Having attained a certain inner freedom, what is it a freedom for? My old "drive," religiously (but also in some other personal areas, I'm now realizing) may have been fueled largely by fantasy or, rather, symbolic conflicts in my own head. But one needs purpose in life, needs meaning, needs projects, needs a vision to guide further self-growth and (self-)creative activity. I'm no entrepreneur, I have no business to build. But it's quite likely now I'll never be a priest with some ministry to accomplish by creating a community or saving souls or founding schools or whatever.

But that's really a navel-gazing aside. The point of this post was not to lament my aimlessness or drifting (which can be good and profitable) but rather to try to take stock of the continuity I still do have with my past, and to remind myself of the values that I do still hold, which I take for granted even, even though I may now be much less defensive or self-conscious about them, much less concerned with Crusading for their triumph against the sneering or sniggering of the disagreeing and dismissive Other. Certainly, I can't wait for the implementation of The Good Polis in order to strive after the Good Life myself personally, and indeed fighting for the former (if only against invisible enemies) can become very much a distraction from pursuing the latter.


cor ad cor loquitur said...

Bravissimo! One of your very best essays, and that's saying a lot. Thoughtful and clear. Thank you!

Bridget said...

And how, I wonder, would you view the author of the Summa Contra Gentiles? One who betrayed a "lack of confidence and a desperation?" 
Thing is, the dogmatizing process is always a reactionary one. Dogma is a bringing to definition through the delineation of limits which shows up the form of truth against the background of lies, a background that may vary from age to age, as each age may configure itself differently using a different set of lies. (Indeed, what's true of the age is just as true of the individual.) It is not enough to simply state the truth without regard for the context of the age, even if that were possible. One must state the truth in such a way as to show why what falls on the other side of it is untrue.

And I think you confuse liberalism and Christian freedom. 

I sympathize with you, though. What is freedom for? Each free act is a furthering in the process of delineation. It places one under a further defining limit, even though one doesn't know what the ultimate defined shape will be. And yet after each free act one is forced to either act freely again, or to not act freely and just go with the crowd, in which latter case one spends all one's time trying to avoid the feeling of a guilty conscience.
I wonder of you have read Kafka's little story, "Before the Law"?

other Jordan said...

I give major props to Pope Francis for finally acknowledging that the clergy is tres gay. I really don't think the Pope's a hater. What I gather is that he's more concerned about gay prelates forming a corrupt caucus, and not the reality that probably a very healthy minority or even a majority of priests are gay. I'm more than sure that he's aware that some of the gay cardinals have lovers. Again, I think that HH is more concerned with institutional integrity than bedroom politics.

As for Pope Francis vs. the radical tridenistas: Padre Jorge shepherded ground zero for the SSPX in South America. (The SSPX is fierce, girl! Maybe this explains Pope Francis's nuanced view on gay people. ?) Anyway, given the generally annoying and downright nastiness of a healthy serving of Lefebvrists, I'm surprised that Pope Francis is given moderate traditionalism room to breathe and grow. Maybe time in Rome has taught him that the majority of EF adherents aren't Williamson clones.

Who Am I said...

NOW you understand what I have been saying all along ! :D

His experience of Catholicism, is essentially the very same experience of Catholicism I was raised with.

Welcome aboard !

It isn't going to be pretty !

Michael said...

Leave decadent Europe alone. What has it ever done to hurt you?