"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yes, but what does it MEAN?

I'm taking the occasion of Pope Francis' birthday--which he's celebrating by inviting some homeless people to breakfast--to talk about the hermeneutical challenge he seems to pose to so many traditionalist and conservative Catholics. Lapsed Catholics and standard-issue worldlings seem to love him, as if they just knew that his gestures and words are those of the kindly, sprightly grandpa they want in a pope. For such people, this pope is less about ideas than about their feeling understood and sought out. And they're correct to feel that way. But the very things causing the prodigal children to feel that way leave many of us older brothers and sisters in the house feeling suspicious. That's inevitable, and I'm not judging anybody in particular. But I do want to focus on what seems to have upset traditionalist and conservative Catholics the most in the new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

EG seems addressed primarily to Catholic "intentional disciples" and pastoral workers. It explains why evangelization is and ought to be a joy; yet it spends at least as much time explaining various ways in which the joy gets killed, or is never even allowed to arise. To me, it seems that the chief of those is what Francis calls "spiritual worldliness" in §93-4. Before we get to that, note how he describes, in §82-3, its manifestation in the main audience he's addressing:

The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable.  As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue. This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of  things.  Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can.  Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven. Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of  success. Others, because they have lost real contract with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself. Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of  disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.
And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of  the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.  Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.  For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization! [Footnotes omitted; emphasis added.]
None of that is hard to understand for anybody who's been active in ecclesial ministry for any length of time. In fact, the bolded passage describes many of the educated Catholics I know, including myself. What does seem hard for some to understand, though, is how the Pope describes the underlying problem.

He calls that problem "spiritual worldliness." Thus:

93.   Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of  piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but  human  glory and  personal  well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s “own interests, not those of  Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21).   It takes on many forms, depending on the kinds of persons and groups into which it seeps.  Since it is based on carefully cultivated appearances, it is not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be.  But if it were to seep into the Church, “it would be infinitely more disastrous than any other worldliness which is simply moral”.  
94.   This  worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of  those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of  opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism.  It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. 
95.    This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of  “taking over the space of the Church”.  In some people we see an  ostentatious  preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.  In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of  self-help and self-realization.  It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution.  The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ. Evangelical fervour is replaced by the empty pleasure of  complacency and self-indulgence.
I've noticed a curious contrast in the reactions to that account of spiritual worldliness among intentional disciples and pastoral workers: "progressive" Catholics don't seem to feel targeted in those passages, but conservative and traditionalist Catholics do.  Why is that?

Clearly, as many "progressives" are being criticized as their opposites.  It's not as though the Pope isn't even-handed. There is, for instance, a certain faith-style that is indeed "gnostic" in a "subjective" sense: people believing what makes them feel good and smart, but which doesn't really change anything, least of all themselves. I know many baptized Catholics like that, especially ones who are into this-or-that "self-help" or "self-realization" program; and many of them are proggies. Some proggies are also being criticized implicitly when the Pope talks about "fascination with social or political gain." For instance, many proggie-Catholic academics are far more concerned about being considered respectable among their secular peers and friends than about witnessing to Truth. And last year, many Catholics bought the absurd argument that voting for Obama was being more effectively "pro-life" than voting for a candidate who, if elected, might reduce the rate of growth in spending on various social programs. Of course, it's also quite possible to be theologically and/or politically to the "right" and be guilty of "gnosticism" and/or of politicizing the Faith too. But that's the point. The Pope is less interested in singling out one "wing" as more guilty of spiritual worldliness than another than in warning us of a spiritual danger which is no respecter of ideology.

Yet for some reason, Catholics more toward the rightward end of the spectrum are in conniptions about EG. That's due mainly to two things. One is what it says about economics, the reaction to which strikes me as overblown, based in part on mistranslation. The other is this sizzler: "
the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of  opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying." I've encountered a lot of grumbling about that from "right-thinking" Catholics. Fr. Z has even made a bitter joke-mug out of it (depicted above).

Of course they claim it's unclear: "What does he mean by 'self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'? That's just nasty rhetoric with no clear thought behind it." But the rest of the quoted description is not nearly so unclear about whom the Pope has in mind when using that phrase. I know such people; one finds them on the Catholic "right," especially among self-described "traditionalists." And when such a person reads the above description, they know they are the target of the criticism, even if they protest that the criticism is unjustified. I don't need to name anybody. Still, there's deep content worth pondering in the phrase '
self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'.

According to Ben Mann, the notion of "Promethean" theology comes from Thomas Merton, in his book New Man. I've read the relevant chapter and have no doubt that Jorge Mario Bergoglio once did too. With that in mind, I think we can understand 'self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism'
to mean an attitude which inclines certain people to earn their salvation by being rigorously right-thinking and virtuous in spite of God's mean-spirited reluctance to save them or even make life pleasant for them. One finds such an attitude more often on the Catholic "Right" than on the Catholic "Left", because viewing God chiefly as Judge and Taskmaster, from whom the fire of grace and the bliss of salvation must be wrested by force, is much more common on the Right than on the Left. In short, what the Pope is describing is a latter-day Pharisaism.

One does of course find Pharisees on the Catholic Left, not just the Catholic Right. If one is not politically correct enough, or is not reliably Democrat, or even if one prefers more traditional forms of liturgy, one can find oneself the target of much scorn from professional "progressive" Catholics. But I find it most interesting that hardly any proggies seem to feel themselves targeted by any of the Pope's criticisms. Only traddies and conservatives feel hard done by.

I believe that's the work of a high-up (better: low-down) spirit of division. Because proggies and worldlings seem so happy with the Pope--so rightist "thinking" goes--his message must be as much designed to diss us as to please them. And so many of the Pope's ambiguities and infelicities of expression, both formal and informal, are interpreted by some traddie and conservative critics in the worst possible light.

My advice to such people, many of whom are my friends, is this: Calm down. Pray. Stop being so querulous and defensive. Be determined not to become a pawn of the spirit of division. The Pope knows he's not above criticism, and he doesn't hate or disrespect you. In fact, he agrees with you more often than you've been led to think.
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