“Everything is simpler than you think,” wrote Goethe, “and at the same time more complex than you imagined.”
Those are words worth keeping in mind when trying to assess a particular stretch of time such as The Year of 2013. Any such assessment or summary is fraught with inevitable challenges, one of them expressed many centuries ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as follows: “I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.”
Or, in the words of the great philosopher and martial artist Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Granted, there are serious problems, to state the obvious, with the pseudo-Buddhist and neo-gnostic premises of The Matrix. My point is that we are so deeply immersed in a particular time, place, culture, and sea of rhetorical cues and influences, that we—to mix my metaphors in order to stir my editorial drink—struggle to see the forest for the trees. To remake another famous epigram, if a tree stands in a forest, and no one can see the forest, is the tree really standing?
When I think back on the past year, I am struck, again and again, by the power of words. It’s not simply because I work with words, but because words shape and direct our lives far more than we might ever be able to fathom, whether they are the words of politicians and popes, or the utterances of reporters and celebrities.
Language is powerful. In the words of the great philosopher Josef Pieper, in his short and brilliant book, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (Ignatius, 1992):
Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. … words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course …
A few pages later, Pieper noted, “Public discourse itself, separated from the standard of truth, creates on its part, the more it prevails, an atmosphere of epidemic proneness and vulnerability to the reign of the tyrant”. Apply that to current events as you wish, but have no doubts about how applicable it really is. And I would suggest that the past year demonstrated there are plenty of tyrants to found, not the least of them the ancient tyrants of cynicism, despair, and fear.
Trust me, as I speak from personal experience. I’ve found it quite difficult, at times, to stave off the assaults of cynicism, which has been helpfully defined in one dictionary as “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.” I’ve found that the line between healthy skepticism and cynicism can be incredibly thin.
Which is one reason, frankly, that I’ve not yet written too much about the furor and controversies over the Most Discussed But Least Read Papal Text in Recent Memory: Evangelii Gaudium (oops—I think my cup of cynicism is already spilling onto the page). First, I am as shocked as anyone that Pope Francis wrote a 52,000-word long document about the economy. What was he thinking? Lest you think I’m merely being snarky—I am, but not merely—it should be noted that the Apostolic Exhortation is indeed all about the most important economy of all: the economy of salvation. (After all, it is titled, “The Joy of the Gospel,” not “The Failure of Free Markets”.)
Blessed John Paul II, in Redemptoris Missio, his 1990 encyclical on the Church’s missionary mandate, wrote:
Just as the whole economy of salvation has its center in Christ, so too all missionary activity is directed to the proclamation of his mystery. The subject of proclamation is Christ who was crucified, died and is risen: through him is accomplished our full and authentic liberation from evil, sin and death; through him God bestows “new life” that is divine and eternal. (par 44)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the economy of salvation many times, and has a section titled, “Human Freedom in the Economy of Salvation” (pars 1739-42), which is essentially a blueprint for much of Evangelii Gaudium. While Francis does not use the term “economy of salvation,” he does write:
We know that “evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social”. This is the principle of universality intrinsic to the Gospel, for the Father desires the salvation of every man and woman, and his saving plan consists in “gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). (par 181)
The “saving plan” referred to by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph 1:10; 2:1) is the divine oikonomian—the economy by which grace is administered by God to mankind. In other words, the greatest economy is the merciful plan by which God became man so that we might exchange our fallen and sinful state for one of divine life and love, as Francis writes:
To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity”. To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a social dimension because “God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men”. To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable”. Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit. The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fulfilment or salvation purely by our own efforts. (par 178)
I don’t really hold it against Rush Limbaugh that he wanted to discuss the Holy Father’s remarks about the other, lesser economy (pars 53-60). Nor do I fault Catholics for debating the details of that section. Hardly! I get it. However, it is more than a bit ironic that shortly before that much debated passage, Francis wrote the following:
If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness. (par 34)
When I look back at the past year and the constant reports about what Francis has said or done, it often appears that the “secondary aspects” have dominated the news reports and the many discussions (or “discussions”). In fact, we arrived at the strange place, after a couple of papal interviews, where the mainstream media was obsessively lecturing certain Catholics (“conservative” and “right-wing”) about the pope’s dislike for said Catholics “obsession” with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and such. On one hand, I was delighted to learn that some journalists apparently still believe in the magisterial capacity and authoritative nature of the papacy; on the other hand, I was amused that they had to locate it in a misrepresentation of a small section of a non-magisterial and rather informal interview.
I don’t fault the Holy Father for very much of this, even if he has, at times, been ambiguous, vague, or even hyperbolic in his language (I won’t bother to repeat what I’ve already said in that regard). Unfortunately, it often seems as if the things Francis is most clear about—the reality of evil and sin (and Satan!), the need for moral change, the centrality and uniqueness of Christ, the importance of the Church (the term “the Church” appears well over 200 times in his apostolic exhortation), the need to evangelize—are either ignored or given short shrift. And even many pieces about his focus on the poor often overlook how he situates that focus, as when he writes, “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one” (par 198).
Benedict XVI was criticized, in some corners, as being too heady and academic for most ordinary folks. But few ever complained that he wasn’t clear and precise in what he said and wrote. Francis is lauded as the “people’s pope” who meets people where they are, and yet the breadth of interpretations of his young papacy are so wildly divergent that one might wonder if those people and these people are talking about the same pope. In a world flooded with information and interpretations, it’s easy to pick only those soundbites and short quotes that are agreeable. Seeing the forest for the trees has, in many ways, never been more difficult.
One last thought: this Sunday, the readings (in the Western rite) are from Matthew 2 and recount the story of the magi from the East and their conversation with King Herod. When the king heard of their search for the “newborn king of the Jews”, he said to them, in secret: “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” These words are filled with obvious deception, but also with unintended irony: The murderous Herod rightly exhorted the wise men to search for the Christ-child. Herod said the right things; he gave public lip service. But he spoke from darkness, he acted from darkness, and to darkness he eventually returned. The magi, however, knelt within the light, and they would never be the same.
Our world is full of promises, plans, policies, and pleas. Politicians give lip service to God; celebrities assure us of their sincerity; talk show hosts claim they have special insights; experts insist they have exactly what we need. The world is full of words. But there is only one Word who can fill our world, and He did so by coming to the world, taking on flesh, and dwelling among us men as Man.
To repeat the witness of Pope Francis: “To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God.” How simple. How complex. How wondrous! How unimaginable!