Is “listening” overrated? (or, Are we all second-graders?)
It is perhaps typical of the current pontificate that the Letter of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to the People of God should embrace the theme that the “Church must listen to everyone”. Unfortunately, this emphasis suggests also that the Church herself has nothing to say. And, to speak the full truth, there is something just “a little bit off”—indeed, one might more accurately describe it as “diabolically creepy”—about a Church which, through a process of endless listening, never actually comes to the point.
Moreover, the current pontificate provides a sort of inverted case study of “listening”. Francis has consistently separated both the members of the Church and the the citizens of the world into two very identifiable groups: Those to whom he is willing to listen, and those to whom he is not. In living memory at least, there has not been a pope as quick as Francis to deny a hearing to those who are in any way critical of his pontificate, whom he instantly marginalizes as “rigid”.
Indeed, over against “listening”, Francis is famous for his emphasis on one point, that is, his constant and outrageous denunciations of an ill-defined clericalism—clearly his favorite whipping boy. This is so true that one could almost believe that the failure of the Gospel in the twenty-first century is entirely the fault of priests and bishops with particular characteristics that Pope Francis does not happen to like. Yet the Pope never seems to listen at all to those who either protest this overriding emphasis or want the Pope to say frankly exactly whom he dismisses as “clericalist”—and therefore exactly whom he regards as beyond the pale, and so unworthy of being heard.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this year’s Synod of Bishops is what we might frankly consider to be the puerility of its ecclesiastical posturing. The Letter itself reeks of a self-congratulatory childishness in its frequent testimony to the magnificent experience of mutual sharing and listening that has made the Synodal process so deeply meaningful, and its assurance that each participant feels—oh, so very, very deeply—that he or she has “lived this blessed time in profound communion with all of you”, the People of God. One wonders whether what we are actually witnessing is a distressingly silly exercise in corporate team building. Or, perhaps the Pope and the Synod leaders are convinced that we are all little second-graders.
Such reflections suggest that we have an enormous problem. The Church does not grow primarily through touchy-feely (and often utterly fake) “kumbaya” moments but through her members’ sacrificial engagement with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Listening: Value and disvalue
It should go without saying, but it is unfortunately necessary to repeat, that we are not like Jesus Christ in our ability to learn what is most necessary for the effective proclamation of the Gospel simply by reading the hearts of those to whom we speak. Unlike Christ, we do not have an unerring understanding of what preys on the minds of those with whom we seek to share the Good News, the saving truth about God and His Plan for all of us. Yet the sin and selfishness and false gods of the present age grow increasingly clear to those who allow themselves to be formed by Christ through sacramental prayer and discipleship in the Church. And as for listening to others, there is a tremendous need for a genuine discernment of what we hear in light of the Gospel.
It is certainly true that the better we know others, the greater the likelihood that we can address their neuralgic points—the particular blindness, confusion and, yes, spiritual suffering which points to the very heart of their resistance to the Gospel. Moreover, listening is always a sign of respect in human relations, and in tending to the needs of others we must, as we strive to love, at least always treat them with the utmost courtesy. Belloc made this very point in his poem “Courtesy”, the first stanza of which reads as follows:
Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.
For this reason, the willingness to listen to another is very definitely a component of Christian charity. It also helps us to get to know those with whom we interact, lest we leap to conclusions which may be as facile as they are false.
But surely we have learned by now that our incessant contemporary emphasis on listening is very often a means to advance the agenda of those to whom we are so piously instructed to listen. It is also—and far more importantly—a way to avoid both preaching the Gospel and insisting on the difference between truth and falsehood. Endless listening creates an illusory solidarity that has yet to be established in Christ.
But listening to anyone but God is never an end in itself. No human ideas and aspirations can possibly be on the same level of importance as the Gospel. Even if is not a deliberate means of prioritizing an anti-Gospel, the pretense of “listening”—and especially a formal program of listening—very often masks a selfish reluctance to come to the point, a selfish failure among putative Christians to proclaim the Gospel, to share their life in Christ, and to live in exemplary obedience to the doctrinal, moral and sacramental authority of Christ’s Church.
Alpha and Omega
Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, and we know Christ accurately in this life (if never quite fully) only through the Church and through obedience to what the Church teaches. Moreover, if (in St. Paul’s theology) to be joined to Christ is to be joined to the Church, it is also true that to be joined to the Church is to be joined to Christ, and it is precisely through a complete Gospel that leads to acceptance of, reverence for, and joy in the Church that we most easily and fully attain unity with our Savior. Listening to others may enable us to respond more wisely and precisely to their particular spiritual needs, just as it may enable us to recognize some real deficiency in ourselves that is in need of correction. But in the work of Christ, it is not so much our deficiencies that matter as the proclamation of the Gospel itself, of which we must always recognize ourselves to be unworthy servants.
So color me suspicious of too much “listening”, which seems always to be a methodology to create a level playing field for sin and error in an ongoing effort to make the Church more acceptable to the world by diluting her goals and her methods, and above all the purity of her witness. We were not given the incomparable privilege of being joined to the Church so that we might discuss the pros and cons of Christianity or the pros and cons of the Church, or still less the pros and cons of Jesus Christ. We were given this incomparable privilege so that we could become one with Christ and forever bear witness to Him—that is, to the whole Christ, alive and active in His Church, and especially in defense of those aspects of the Way, the Truth and the Life that are, in our current circumstances, most frequently ignored or denied.
Our one requirement is sacrificial fidelity, fidelity when it chafes, fidelity when it hurts. Any other kind of fidelity is suspect because of its very refusal to be put to the test. Tellingly, then, perhaps the most obvious weakness of the Church in our current age is the extreme contemporary ecclesiastical reluctance to allow that to happen. I refer here to the constant emphasis on a kind of dialogue in which, since no one is ever wrong, no Catholic is called upon to be faithful, to press the truth as a requirement for Christian growth, to go out on that frightening limb which most people are eager to cut off. And why? What would be the sin? The sin would be to tell the truth when you were supposed to be listening….and listening…and perpetually listening.
You’re not listening!
Perhaps before we embark on an entire program of listening, we should listen first to St. Peter’s warning against precisely the kinds of frivolous and even false interactions I have been discussing here:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. [1 Pet 3:13-18]
Why can we not see that whenever our listening undermines our willingness to proclaim the Gospel, it is a form of cowardice? Indeed, precisely insofar as listening to others becomes a comprehensive Christian program, it becomes a perpetual failure to take Christian responsibility. Is it not precisely this most cowardly of sins that defines the essential character of the post-Christian world? I mean the failure to listen first and foremost to Jesus Christ, and then to do whatever He says.
This is what Mary advised—because she believed in miracles.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Oct. 29, 2023 6:44 AM ET USA
IMHO, Dr.Jeff, listening is just code heretics use, and it means don't make a pronouncement or decision until you can agree with them. Only then will listening not be asked for. It's like when the soviets called for peace, which was their code for complete enslavement of the whole world. It never ends, and it always comes from the same people.
Posted by: jalsardl5053 -
Oct. 28, 2023 9:37 PM ET USA
A resounding YES must be how the question is answered. The whole listening thing smacks of a political venture and, as such, has built in its own probability for failure. For just as a politician says he will listen to everyone but must eventually take a position on this or that, there will be, at best, disappointed constituents at worst, those who say "I'll never vote for him again." The indigenous culture thing was disingenuous and Mr. Mirus is sadly correct as to what isn't heard.
Posted by: TheJournalist64 -
Oct. 28, 2023 11:18 AM ET USA
The answer to all this posturing with hand up to ear, occasionally opening it but closing it to anything that is not "liberal" is the very good and traditional phrase "sentire cum ecclesia." Meaning we listen to the Church, interpret it as God speaking truth, and adjusting our thinking to what God wants us to do. And that means the 2,000 year old Church.
Posted by: gskineke -
Oct. 27, 2023 7:22 PM ET USA
“It is certainly true that the better we know others, the greater the likelihood that we can address their neuralgic points—the particular blindness, confusion and, yes, spiritual suffering which points to the very heart of their resistance to the Gospel.“ Words are often mere placeholders (or smokescreens) when a soul is confused or obstinate regarding God. Actions are more telling. Those corroded by sin need guidance towards sources of grace and healing. To deny them that gift isn’t love.