Author's note: This essay originally appeared over four years ago in the volume, Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis: An Anthology of Visions for the Future (2015). I sought permission from the editors to republish it here as, upon a recent rereading, many of the ideas I advanced then seemed to hold up surprisingly well almost half a decade later. Much has changed in the Church and the world since 2015, but the decisive circumstances for mature Christian faith and evangelism, I think, have not.
This “Age of Francis” is at once as illuminating as it is obscure. The radical sense of Catholicism it incites is as varied as it is powerful. Two things stand out to me as hallmarks of this era, and of the the intelligent, timely response we’re called to make as Christians living in it. The first has to do with an emerging clarity concerning the meaning of the word “Catholicism;” the second with the application of that meaning to the world around us.
It may seem strange that on one hand Catholicism has never been more acceptable than it is today. Its concern for the poor and marginalized, represented in the apostolate of Pope Francis, shares a space with the most widely accepted and popular American social ideals. Of course, as we’re coming to find out, it’s a bit of a linguistic trick: while Franciscan Catholicism is popularly palatable, to “be Catholic” is as unintelligible and only moderately satisfying as ever. The Western world continues its field day with our antiquated doctrines and beliefs, and our best responses continue to remain unimpressive.
Lest we forget, though, we’ve played this trick on ourselves. The appearance of Catholicism’s widespread acceptance is connected intimately to its structure: it’s an ism word, and it fits well within our mostly unimaginative framework of binary, up-down, left-right thinking. The Catholicism we as Westerners fight vigorously to defend is often inextricably tied to other isms which we admire, and which end up permeating its requisite self-extended boundaries. Most importantly, Catholicism is today universally disconnected from the complete cultural context, whereby it became comprehensive and self-extended in the first place. Put differently, it’s not wrong that Catholicism is an ism; but it is wrong — if the deposit of faith is truth — to act as though it is but one among many.
The result of this disconnect — and I suspect part of the motivation for this book — is a crisis among (at least) contemporary Western Catholics on the very content of their shared identity. The “Age of Francis” illuminates because it reminds us to answer the fundamental questions: “Who do I say that Christ is? And what do I believe about his Church?” It obscures because it does not contain a clear and distinct answer; or better, it suggests that an answer isn’t the sort of thing that can be clear and distinct at all.
The crux of this dilemma predictably plays out in a sharply divided response to socio-political problems — we might even call them persecutions. One advocates staking our Christian claim in the “public square” and proclaiming loudly our belief in the truth for all to hear. It involves little imagination on the part of truth seeking, yet an exorbitant amount on the part of economic and political theory. In a word, it focuses primarily on defining and defending the limits of the public square, and only secondarily on defining and defending the limits of the fullness of truth. An alternate response advocates pushing boundaries on the meaning of truth, and thinking less about the medium by which it is conveyed. Each response is tactical, yet each is not equally appropriate.
There is another consideration, too, one that relates to “ages” of the Church in general, which further measures our polarized reactions to cultural and intellectual persecution. Simply put, it’s the idea that Plato got something very right in his response to the pre-Socratics — the atomists and elementalists — and that this lesson is as important today as ever. The absolutism of Democritus is not disconnected from the “modern turn,” both in physical and moral senses. The age of early Greek “philoso-physics,” with its emphasis on linear motion and plenitude, matches in many ways the progression of ideologies after Descartes. There are variances in either case: for example, Heraclitus comes close to a sort of “participation” schema of logos, but the presentation of dogma itself requires too much rigidity to break the absolutist mold.
The brilliance of Plato, and one that Western Christians must rediscover, is the unique power of dialectic to transform otherwise inscrutable phenomena into intelligible points of possible agreement. At the risk of becoming ironically pedantic, it’s dialectic that opens doors for the authentic presentation of dogma. This is true on the macro level: consider Aristotle’s Metaphysics which benefitted immensely from Plato’s refutation of the philosophical status quo. It’s also true on the micro level: for example, having neighbors for dinner, showing the guts of a Christian family, and learning happily that morals and affections you’ve never spoken of are on their hearts, too.
The resuscitation of dialectic is, for many of us, corollary to our experience of a broken social response to the call of the Gospel. For this reason, and since it has the tendency to cause seismic shifts, dialectic is the ultimate feature of our present time. As some have said, the “Age of Francis” is distinctly post-modern because it engages and challenges the hegemony of modernity; and dialectic — rightly exercised — demands answers. To put this in a slightly different light, dialectic is the mode of evangelization in which the mature Christian finds himself, and with which he must be content at least for a while. (The comparison to early Roman Christianity is fitting in this regard, although many other ages like this have come and passed as well. A counterpoint would be the dogmatic mode of evangelization advanced to great benefit in the age of scholasticism.)
Apart from “finality,” there is another good reason to emphasize the fittingness of evangelizing through dialectic: namely, since it is the primary mode of thinking almost across the board in the very areas where the truth of the Gospel is most required. A recent surge of interest in the philosophy of Marx, for example, shows this in an unalloyed way. The same thing is true, although more obscured, in the general, all-consuming cultural preference for equality. Yet while dialectic has emerged as the prominent trend, its raw materials are lacking. This produces at best an emphasis on resolution, but short of a capacity for just what is being resolved, and whither. “One love” is Heraclitus reloaded.
If the “Age of Francis” is enlightened, it is so just in case it allows us to practice Christian dialectic more fruitfully. Here, I think, we ought to be cautiously optimistic. So far in the Franciscan papacy we have seen daily emphasis laid on the art of the encounter; we have also witnessed any number of painful encroachments into enemy territory — into the language and devices of acultural and emotivist worldviews. All of this has placed us on high alert, but for what reason? I dare say that the things we fear to lose the most — the intelligibility of the Church’s teaching on the dignity of family and human life, the priority of the common good, even the beauty of the liturgy — are the very things that demand a “Platonic turn,” one that invariably reaches into the muck of incomplete ideas, and with a bit of virtuous unknowing produces a glimpse of goodness worthy of deep affection.
As it happens, if all of this is correct, the last thing we can do is judge the “Age of Francis” as a success or failure. We are stuck — maybe for the best, and in real Franciscan form — in a moment of intuition. Here, our alternatives are somewhat limited, although not necessarily bad. We are still free to pursue truth, to evangelize and to teach about Christ on the shoulders of the great intellectual and spiritual tradition of the Church. Yet our freedom is mostly an intensive one: less the social and cultural climate to extend the Church laterally, as in the Early or High Middle Ages, our option is to permeate deeply the thin relationships we still do possess.