As a thinker Pope Francis puzzles. He raises issues, often ambiguously and in ways that unsettle things, but does not resolve them. He calls for encounter and dialogue, but refuses to answer questions. And he doesn’t like statements of doctrine.
So what’s going on? To find out we should look at what he considers basic. In Evangelii Gaudium he lays out four principles that he says “can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world,” and so are evidently basic to his pontificate. The principles aren’t self-explanatory, so let’s look at each and how he presents it.
1. Time is greater than space
For Francis, “giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces,” by which he means “spaces of power and of self-assertion.” The thought is that helping things develop is more important than controlling where they are now.
With such a view it’s not surprising he’d rather unsettle things, so they can begin a process of development, than try to pin them down the way he considers correct. What is surprising is the importance of the issues his words and actions call in question. The questions the five dubia cardinals raised regarding Amoris Laetitia provide an example.
The resulting confusions regarding basic issues have led a number of serious and competent people to call for clarification. Some have even accused the Holy Father of heresy. Under such conditions, why wouldn’t the Pope, as supreme pastor, allay the alarm of many in his flock by clarifying his meaning?
Seemingly, he thinks it more important to let the process he has started develop freely, without the constriction papal intervention would impose. But how does he think it will turn out? I have no idea, but to many ordinary laymen the whole strategy seems a bad idea—something that is further disrupting a Church already deeply troubled.
2. Unity prevails over conflict
Francis of course rejects the concerns of such people, and this second principle provides an explanation.
Conflict, he says, is real, and must be faced head on. What is needed, though, is solidarity based on consciousness of the dignity of the other, which allows a “setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve … a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.”
This view, which corresponds to the Hegelian understanding of conflict followed by synthesis as the creative engine of history, explains Francis’s willingness to provoke disputes he refuses to settle authoritatively. By doing so he is, in the Marxist phrase, “heightening the contradictions,” and so accelerating the historical evolution toward what he expects will be a better world.
(Note: Francis’s emphasis on universal solidarity is enough to tell us he is no Marxist. He does, however, have a soft spot for Marxists, because of a common emphasis on the poor and a somewhat similar view of conflict and history.)
3. Realities are more important than ideas
At first glance this principle seems clear and plausible. If reality is one thing and my ideas are another, I ought to change my ideas.
Even so, it hides complications. For one thing, it seems at odds with the Pope’s first two principles, which tell us that ideas like “peace” and “justice” will, through a process of historical development, ultimately prove stronger than the realities that now resist them.
So the issue is what realities and ideas we’re talking about. Francis mentions “empty rhetoric” and so on, which are of course less important than realities. But what about true ideas? If the reality is that I’m a drunk and the idea is that I shouldn’t drink so much, then I ought to go with the idea.
The possibility of true ideas isn’t something Francis mentions, an odd omission for a man charged with guarding Catholic doctrine. But that lines up with his wariness around doctrinal formulations, and with the Hegelian/Marxist rejection of truth that transcends history in favor of truth as something ultimately emerging from a long series of conflicts leading to progressively higher syntheses.
On that view there are no true ideas at present, only ideologies that express the point of view of one side of an historical struggle. That condition will continue until a final stage is reached in which all conflicts have been resolved, and a system of truth can finally come into being.
Perhaps it is that final stage Pope Francis has in mind when, in his discussion of time and space, he speaks (rather strangely for a Catholic) of “the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself.”
4. The whole is greater than the part
The discussion makes it clear that by “the whole” Francis means global society, by “the part” its constituents. He treats both as necessary and important, the local to give us something definite to work with and the global to add broader meanings. An image he likes is the polyhedron, in which the specific identity of each piece is maintained, but they are brought together in an indissoluble whole that makes each piece part of something much grander.
All well and good. But what does he mean by saying the whole—that is, the social whole—is greater than the part? Because some of the parts of that whole are, in basic ways, greater than it is. The individual is part of the global whole, but Catholics believe he has an eternal destiny that transcends every worldly social structure. And the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity, which tells us that other religions are also willed by God, makes the Catholic Church part of the global whole like Islam and Shinto. But the Church, headed by Christ, is plainly not subordinate in any basic sense to global society!
More generally, the idea that the whole is comprehensively greater than the part is somewhat troubling, because it suggests a Hegelian view that denies transcendence and makes history the whole that gives everything its place and meaning—including the human individual and the Church.
I’ve mentioned some concerns regarding Francis’s four principles. These concerns should not be taken in too absolute a sense, since he is not a man who strives for theoretical clarity and coherence, and what he says depends very much on the setting. However, these principles, and the conception of peace and how it might be attained that govern how he uses them, do seem troublesome in some ways.
It is notable, for example, that they present a this-worldly conception of social evolution toward ever higher stages of life and ultimately some utopian end state. There is apparently some inner dynamic of world history with no explicit connection to the Christian revelation, a sort of common grace, that points in that direction.
Various features of his discussion confirm that impression, for example his interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares: “the enemy can intrude upon the kingdom and sow harm, but ultimately he is defeated by the goodness of the wheat.” But in the Gospel it is not the goodness of the wheat but the supervening action of the harvesters that gets rid of the tares.
A tendency to look to some process within human history to save the world rather than God’s specific intervention can be found in some tendencies associated with the Second Vatican Council, as well as thinkers such as Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. but to a layman it seems basically anti-Christian. The Gospel doesn’t say the world will evolve into utopia; it says it will evolve into catastrophe from which it will need to be rescued by divine intervention.
All of which may require various nuances to be correctly understood. But to all appearances initiatives based on confidence in this world’s historical dynamics have failed. Rather than utopia we see decline, and rather than a new evangelization of the world we see a new worldliness within the Church. From pew level it appears we need a new clarity and distinctiveness rather than a call to merge into a general historical process of debatable nature and tendency.
When will we see that?
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