Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Proselytism, conversion and the problem of spiritual poverty

UPDATE: The reliability of the reported words of the pope discussed in this post has been cast into doubt without being completely denied. See my comments on this here.

First, a clarification. A lot of people are doing a kind of inquisitorial analysis of Francis's words, especially from yesterday's interview. I've heard accusations of outright heresy and even blasphemy, accompanied by the distinct sound of the rending of outer garments. I'm chewing the pope's words over pretty hard, of course, but I'm trying not to posit any definitive conclusion about their theological rectitude or what it means about his faith if they are wide of the mark. I'm a linguist and, I like to think, a historian of ideas. I'm not a member of the CDF. That incidentally is why I talk in terms of implications, effects and codes, rather than pontificate about how many times Francis has contradicted Pascendi. That is my method, even if I occasionally wander rhetorically towards the edge. Indeed, in this sense, what Francis intended to mean is less important than what he is construed to mean by an admiring world and the Church's own internal seam of relativists. That incidentally is also why the LMS's chairman's argument about what Francis really meant misses what I feel is perhaps my most important point.

All that said, I want to revisit this question of proselytism and conversion. The pope mentioned the word proselytism or proselytizing a couple of times yesterday in his interview and denied that he wanted to convert Scalfari. Regarding the former, he labelled proselytizing 'solemn nonsense'; he said the Church's goal was 'not to proselytize'. Regarding the latter, he said he didn't 'have any such intention' of converting the Italian journalist.

There are two problems here which are rooted in the pope's use of language and the current historical condition of the Church, so just be patient as I pick them apart. I'm not interested incidentally in the idea that what Francis meant here was that God converts us, we don't convert others. I think it's clear that he really means he is not going to try to draw Scalfari towards the faith.

In terms of usage, words are notoriously slippy, and ever more so in our informational age. I'm quite prepared, therefore, to accept that in Pope Francis's dictionary 'proselytize' has the meaning of strong-arm tactics, pressuring people to convert. Indeed, I suggest lots of people see it exclusively as a dirty word. In dictionary terms, the word is more or less a synonym of 'recruit' in the context of religion or ideology. But since every dictionary is out of date almost by dint of being published, I think we can accept the semantic slippage here. If proselytize means pressurize for Francis, then I can see why he rejects it.

As for the word 'convert', if we hypothesize for a moment that Francis sees 'conversion' as the result of 'proselytism', then likewise I can see why he would not want to 'convert' Scalfari. I am not sure whether this kind of slippage is apparent in Italian itself. I am aware of dodgy theologians questioning whether Jews should convert to Christianity but that has always been based on heterodox readings of the New Testament, not because conversion is coercive. But again, just for the argument, let us allow Pope Francis to use this as a dirty word. Of course that means he doesn't want to convert Scalfari, any more than he wants to proselytize.


Conceding the papal humpty-dumptyism here - i.e. words mean what I say they mean - might look like fighting with one hand tied behind our back, but we like a challenge here on The Sensible Bond, not least because the real problem lies elsewhere. I'm struck by the parallels between this dismissal of proselytism and Francis's accusation of doctrinal imbalance or obsession in the big papal interview. The stakes of the question are in fact the same: is this claim true? Does it have the least fundamentum in re?

To that end, I would really like to know in what country Catholic proselytism has meant pressurizing others to become Catholics, let's say in the last fifty years. Do we have serried ranks of Italian Catholics going from door to door with septic knuckles, disturbing unbelievers in their homes? Have French Catholic intellectuals been bullying their secular neighbours with disquisitions on the nature of the eternal torments awaiting them? Have Dutch apostles perhaps threatened to blow up the tulip fields of the Netherlands if the world's flower traders refuse to accept Mary's virginity? And if not, why does the pope talk as if he is distancing himself from the hordes of imaginary Catholics menacing unbelievers into accepting the faith? Does proselytism just mean enthusiasm in his book?

Okay, so you say he is keen to avoid a caricature, but if so, why does this avoidance essentially require Francis to place cushions (as Jeremiah might say) below all the pressure points of the secular consciousness? Jesus threatened people with hell: was that coercive? Should we edit that bit out of the Scriptures? If Francis is trying not to step on contemporary taboos, why exactly? Jesus trod heartily on the taboos of his own day. If Francis is attempting not to raise any obstacle to the passage of truth, why does this necessitate such a spinning of truth that he even says at one point that while "our species will end [...] the light of God will not end and at that point it will invade all souls and it will all be in everyone"? Honestly, I come back to this bizarre expression again: who on earth talks like this, what would it mean to a secular audience anyway, and what possible relation can it have to what the Christian faith says about the four last things? No wonder Vanity Fair called him the 'Hipster Pope' (though admittedly not for this interview!).

So, as I say, the problem here is like the question of doctrinal imbalance. If we give his usage of proselytism and conversion these most charitable readings, we find he is still fighting against a caricature without actually fighting it. Does he, as some believe, disarm Scalfari with this talk? Or does he, in trying not to shock, send out a rather confused message which Scalfari could easily take to mean: you're alright, I'm alright, we're both alright.

In any case, the problem goes further in this respect: again, Francis has been adopting so much of the liberal linguistic code, that whatever his intentions, the ecclesial relativists will probably run away with the interview. I'm not so much worried about what he believes as about what he actually legitimizes. Many find the very fact that he spoke to the newspapers in this way to be reckless. I don't. I'm fine with that. I just think he had to be a million times smarter about the way his words could be understood and used.


Lastly, in this evening's missive, I need to say something that has been bugging me for days. Francis is so solicitous for the poor and needy in this world. I'm sure it is a fact we all applaud. But that is all the poverty which seems to be on his mind.

So far, and certainly in these interviews, I don't recall his showing any awareness that the West has its own radical poverty, its own fundamental destitution, which is intellectual, spiritual and theological in nature. The physical poor have population problems, so it is said. Not so the intellectual poor. Their destitution is one that leads to rapid spiritual death and extinction. Their culture of death leads to a steep decline in numbers.

My question, therefore, is simple: if spiritual gifts are more than physical gifts, is not spiritual destitution, are not the spiritual misérables, poorer than the physically poor? The physical poor die for lack of clean water. The spiritual poor die for lack of clear doctrine. The physical poor are weighed down by capitalist oppression. The spiritual poor are mislead by ideologies of license.

Both the spiritual poor and the physical poor need help. Both need mercy. But the way Francis talks, his discourse about doctrinal imbalance and obsession seems to give the lie to those who thought they were feeding the spiritually hungry. I can see why a physically rich man might want his children to fast for the sake of the physically poor, but what benefit would it be to the spiritually poor if those who were spiritually rich deprived themselves?

I pray for the Pope. We all should. But I'm not convinced that love justifies this exhibition in incoherence.

And now, dear reader, I really don't think I can say much more on the matter.


Aimè Foinprè said...

Who speaks like this? How about Balthasar? More specifically, the Balthasar who believed that the Church must respond to, and overcome, Hegel. I have seen it argued that the most instructive aspect of the Holy Father's interview, and most worrying to me, is where he mentions his love for the music of Wagner and when he says "God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes. We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting." Again, he says, "God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths."

He also disclosed that he "loves very much Holderlin." The same Holderlin who lived with Hegel and Schiller at Tubingen. Though the Church has no official philosophy, I am not keen on a pope that admires the pagan Wagner and German Idealism/Romanticism. I also find the Pope, maybe uncharitably on my part, to have a certain haughtiness I am not accustomed. I was born in the midst of John Paul II, who was already an elderly and sick man when I was old enough to pay attention. Benedict, to me, is a future saint and one of the most important theologians of the 20th century- something we may lack on the throne of Peter.

As for liberal language, I keep coming back to the idea that:

1) Splitting the Church between liberal and conservative is one of the primary problems.
2) The social world with a "conservative" language died a long time ago. Conservative speak has already been cast in the darkness, and it did it to itself just as much as it has been marginalized. There are no signifers for outsiders in conservative language; it has been very insular, like an echo chamber, for a long time now.
That doesn't mean there is something wrong with it. On the contrary, much good can be lost if it disappears altogether. But this conservative group you speak of will not address its own problems and faults and have given so much ground to the other faction that pointing out two of the four sins that cry out from heaven is not considered liberal signaling. Always chasing narrative, never the narrative itself said the gerund, right? ;)

I can't pretend Francis is some sort of secret traditionalist [what's the Latin equivalent of 007] and that all is well remain in your homes; but I have to admit that I took Benedict for his word when he assessed the Church will get smaller as well as Francis reminding us that communion with the See of Rome is a lot broader and complex than just my viewpoint.

And about Girard: I knew I enjoyed your blog for a reason...

Liam Ronan said...

"And they that understand among the people shall instruct many: yet they shall fall by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days." Daniel 11:33

Thank you again for your careful and informative analysis! There is a kind of dry martyrdom attached to such frankness. May you win the crown.

Keep the Faith. Pray the Rosary. I remember you and your in my daily prayers.

Anagnostis said...

I haven't been paying very much attention to Francis since the buzz at his election and around his much-vaunted "humility". What strikes me is the appearance of addiction to the corrosive intellectual (or ideological?) vice of setting up false dichotomies here, there and everywhere. It's a hermeneutic of sorts, I suppose, but very remote from that of his predecessor.

He says some very good things, but their effect is generally vitiated by this unfortunate habit of mind.

Liam Ronan said...

Aime Foinpre's said "Who speaks like this? How about Balthasar?"

That is quite a coincidence because I have been thinking about how Pope Francis' remarks put me in mind of Balthasar's belief in 'universal salvation', a proposition which was expertly rebutted in Ralph Martin's recent book "Will Many be Saved".

Liam Ronan said...

If I could ask Pope Francis one question, I would ask:

“Holy Father, do you believe not only that all men have been redeemed by Christ but also that all men are saved?”

One’s outlook on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, etc. would be radically different were one to believe that everyone goes to heaven no matter their adherence to the Commandments.

Or is it all just a matter of 'following one's conscience'?

ATDP said...

"Ring them bells St. Peter
Where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep

Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells, for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies

Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong"


Katie said...

Thank you very much for your beautifully written blog. I've just found it !! Your thoughtful and (may I say) upcheering companionship in mind and spirit is much appreciated.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

You gentlemen have no idea how reassuring your insights (and those of the OP) are! I was of course troubled by the most publicized statements, but have striven to read them charitably in context, etc., etc., but I have also been perturbed by the comparative silence with regards to some of the meta-claims in the Pope's interviews. The Hegelianism, the Whiteheadian process thought, the universalism, the historicism, the iconoclasm--it's all there in the wings, and is all much more perilous than this is that masterfully ambiguous utterance.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Oh, and as you also note, two other themes that chafe are the quasi-Nietzschean obsession with power and change, and all the insidious false dichotomies. He is a consummate Jesuit!

ATDP said...

This is a penetrating analysis of how Francis is not Benedict:

GMMF said...

In regards to "who talks like that?" it's kind of like how Vatican II was supposed to address the world in the langauge of contemporary man, but it really used the language of some contemporary academics that some periti were familiar with. This Pope was formed and taught at a time when that kind of talk became all the rage in the seminaries and departments of theology. I see him as very much a product of his time.

He reminds me a lot of a previous pastor of mine, who converted, was formed, and ordained in the same time period. He loved the Baltimore Catechism (still popular among trads in the US today)and kept his copy always close, and also used language that seemed like liberal code, as you put it. He preached on the Saints of all eras, and also thought Vatican II and the new liturgy were the greatest things ever. He preached to us that our parish was not just a social service club and measured our success by how many converts we got each year, but was also all about respecting other religions, was a member of multi-faith groups, and definitely did not go around trying to convert people overtly (and yet, the number of converts we had increased when he took over). He certainly affirmed that the big sins of our day like abortion were big sins, but was more focused on alleviating the things that cause women to seek them out, etc.

He was ultimately an orthodox and good pastor, IMO, but his mix of attitudes seems paradoxical in our polarized Church, similar to this Pope's, and is something only that specific time period could produce in my opinion.

That's probably why I'm not in the tizzy (yet) that some are.

Just to add, "proselytism" has been used in the negative sense by the Church for a while now. See for example, footnote 49 here:

Of course, this same CDF document is pretty much all about how inviting conversion and entering into dialogue with the aim of conversion are not bad things and not proselytism in the bad sense, but good.

ATDP said...

On the vague spreading of "love":

"'God is love' is the profoundest thing we have ever heard. But 'love is God' is deadly nonsense."

GMMF said...

Just to add, the Pope has spoken of spiritual poverty:

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the "tyranny of relativism", which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.

Ches said...

Many thanks GGMF for your considerable knowledge of the files! I find this last quotation amazing, being so opposed to his remarks about everyone having his own vision of good in La Reppublica's interview.

Ches said...

Thanks so much for all the comments, one and all. I'm a bit short of time to answer everyone, but I am grateful for your thoughts and especially for your prayers.

Sadie Vacantist said...

B16 did some curious things also: publishing books and delivering academic lectures at universities. In many ways he did more to sever the link between Ratzinger the individual and the petrine ministry which was no less confusing.

I am not seeing an increase in vocations under this new Pope. The concern is that he has ushered in an era of self-imposed misery.The hope is that I am wrong but he looked so glum that first night on the loggia.