The Pope on Christian Humanism: To understand, we need concrete applications.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 12, 2015

In a major address to the Italian bishops on Tuesday, Pope Francis outlined his vision of the Church in terms of “Christian humanism”. We now have a translation of the entire text, though the quotations in this commentary are from the substantial excerpts provided by Vatican Radio. The whole address is inspiring. Francis made many excellent points. But, as is his wont, he raised more questions than he answered.

The centerpiece of the Pope’s vision of Christian humanism is the principle that everything must start with Jesus Christ:

We can speak about humanism only by starting from the centrality of Jesus, discovering in Him the features of the authentic face of man. And the contemplation of the face of the dead and risen Jesus that recomposes our humanity, fragmented as it may be by the hardships of life, or marked by sin. We must not domesticate the power of the face of Christ. The face is the image of His transcendence.

The Pope went on to emphasize the importance of certain sentiments or characteristics in the Church, and especially among bishops and priests, such as humility, selflessness, and beatitude. On this last characteristic, he said: “The Christian is blessed.… In the Beatitudes, the Lord shows us the path. By taking it, we human beings can arrive at the most authentically human and divine happiness.” Clearly, this awareness of being richly blessed by the presence of God is a mark of the vitality of one’s faith.

In this context, once again, Francis took up his usual themes: “I have said this more than once, and I will repeat it again today to you: ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security’.”

He sees two great temptations to a proper Christian humanism: First, there is the temptation of Pelagianism which “leads us even to assuming a style of control, of hardness, normativity. Rules give to the Pelagian the security of feeling superior, of having a precise orientation. In this it finds its strength, not in the soft breath of the Spirit.” The pope warned that in the face of the Church’s problems “it is useless to seek solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of outdated forms and conduct that have no capacity for meaning, even culturally.”

Second, there is the temptation of Gnosticism:

[This is] the gnosticism that leads us to place our trust in logical and clear reasoning that, however, loses the tenderness of our brother's flesh.… The difference between Christian transcendence and any other form of gnostic spiritualism resides in the mystery of the Incarnation. Not putting into practice, not leading the Word to reality, means building on sand, remaining in the pure idea and degenerating into [vague intimations] that do not bear fruit, that render its dynamism sterile.

What is inspiring may also be vague.

It is difficult to disagree that both temptations are to be avoided, but as usual one wonders whether clear Catholic teaching could be considered a manifestation of both Pelagianism and Gnosticism. If only forms and conduct that have no capacity for meaning are condemned, or only intellectualisms which stand aloof from the need to engage with real persons in the effort to transform real lives—well, then, both errors are damnable. The problem is that Pope Francis is typically short on particular applications which just might provide a more precise indication of what he means.

But Francis’ vagueness may be studied. Surely it is not insignificant that the Pope exclaimed to the assembled bishops: “But then, you will ask, what must we do? What is the Pope asking of us? It is up to you to decide: people and pastor together. And I invite you, again, simply to contemplate the Ecce Homo above us.”

“I ask the bishops to be pastors,” he answers. “Nothing more: pastors.”

The Holy Father concludes:

I would like a restless Italian Church, ever closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect. I wish for a joyful Church with the face of a mother, who understands, accompanies and caresses. May you too dream of this Church, believe in her, innovate freely.

To fully understand, I need more.

I do not want the Pope to encourage the bishops as if he is always afraid they are one step away from throwing the Baby out with the bathwater. Properly understood, we should all wish for a joyful and a tender Church! But the risk is that we may accompany the sinner and innovate so freely that we feel unbound even by the very things Our Lord and Savior came to reveal. The God-Man did not claim only to be “the life”, which we all find easy to accept, but also “the way” and “the truth”. Separated, all three qualities disappear.

Truly, innovation is essential. We should always be seeking new, creative ways of involving ourselves in the lives of others so that they can accept an invitation to their ultimate happiness. Who can doubt, for example, that new ways of ministering to the divorced and remarried are needed, ways which avoid ignoring them as if they really are not present among us? But as the Synod emphasized, the greatest purpose of our interaction with others is always to assist them in relating to the Incarnate Lord and “discerning” (a key word) His holy will. This, and this only, without fudging or contradiction, is our key to happiness.

So has the Pope given sound advice? Undoubtedly. The question is whether he has given advice we do not have to be already perfect to follow. Any of us can listen to Francis and find a wonderful spiritual application to our own tendencies, so that we might grow more available at once to both Christ and our neighbors. In some ways, each of us is too comfortable with the essential irrelevance imposed by the constraints of modern secularism. Here I raise my own hand.

But we can succeed in the dynamic creativity envisioned by Pope Francis only if we are well-formed and truly responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. One would very much like to think that all priests, religious and bishops are sound enough spiritually to undertake bold and creative pastoral ministries. Those who are should indeed be encouraged to set forth in new ways. But the Church’s pastoral experience amply demonstrates that this is not always the case. In fact, the combination of sound spirituality with a sure ability to reshape the conventions of ministry is most likely comparatively rare.

The sad human reality, even within the Church, is that those most proud of thinking outside the box often do not think in a Catholic way at all. They are merely locked in a different sort of box. Taught by the dominant culture that bold creativity consists of secularization, they fail to recognize the counter-cultural richness that marks a true disciple. Can anyone be unaware that there is an entire narrative among spiritual “progressives” that identifies dynamic creativity with worldly accommodation?

That is why pastoral wisdom demands far more specific guidance. I say this without rancor or condemnation, much as I used to argue that Pope St. John Paul II could have been an even better pope if he had coupled discipline more closely with his truly inspired teaching. I am, as any Catholic should be, a very friendly critic of God’s ministers. Pope Francis can become a better pope if he begins to couple the rhetoric of creativity and innovation with concrete examples of the intellectual and spiritual deficiencies which render creativity and innovation fruitless.

The reason is simple: The Church in our time still has much to learn about what transforms freedom into folly, and creativity into capitulation.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 14, 2015 12:56 PM ET USA

    Really...? Maybe I am missing the point. The Pope seems to be telling all of us to live this wonderful Faith right where we are. Not in intellectual seminars and logical syllogisms but rather in your life with your space where you are. How can he offer specific examples that apply uniformly to everyone's specific circumstances? We are to precisely work out our salvation in fear and trembling by living and sharing Christ's mercy and forgiveness where we are. Justice belongs to God not us.

  • Posted by: Reuben Slife - Nov. 13, 2015 5:37 PM ET USA

    It may help to point out that Francis' use of the word 'Pelagian' is, to all appearances, borrowed directly from a book by Ratzinger: https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/varieties-of-neopelagianism/

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 13, 2015 7:36 AM ET USA

    The comments particularly related to Pelagianism, belie a conception that appears novel. They attack confidence. It's as if the exercise of human compassion ought to be divorced from "rules." But we are men, not angels, and we need the tangible. The missionary saints maintained their discipline, and they were innovative. "The sad human reality, even within the Church, is that those most proud of thinking outside the box often do not think in a Catholic way at all." This is where peril lies.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Nov. 13, 2015 12:59 AM ET USA

    I have been reading the work of French philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj, and it seems to put me more in tune with the Pope's teaching. There seems to be something fresh there. I must also note that the Pelagian charge at first bothered me, but now I feel that it might have grounds (as applicable to me).