Pope Francis’ Verbal Jujitsu

While reading Jamie Cassata’s piece on whether people of faith can prove the existence of God (see Page 29) I was struck by this quote from the old Catechism: “Reason should prepare the minds of men to receive the Faith by proving the truth which faith supposes...”

Cassata points out how difficult it is to pierce the common perception that philosophy is, or has become in the modern era, largely the means by which faith is disproved, and he is correct in his observation. Already challenged by the stagnant and shallow philosophies of the popular culture, arguments from the faith perspective are additionally burdened by the pervasive faux reasoning of political correctness, which not only dominates all of our theories of instruction but manages to hobble our debates by assuming a lack of good will between people, one so vast as to require a vigilant policing of our words and, by extension, of our thoughts. The diminishment of our ability to speak persuasively on most topics — but most especially on faith — may be blamed on the very odd PC equation that goes something like this: you’ve said something that pricked mainstream sensibilities, and even if you simply expressed yourself poorly, or were misunderstood, we will take this as evidence that your thoughts are subversive and in need of rehabilitation, and that you are also a bad person.

Such a society, bent on bringing our thought processes into conformity with the secular culture, is intimidating to many. Some so dread giving offense to anyone that they simply stop opining, stop debating and — in the Christian’s case — stop evangelizing. Attempts to use reason in order to prove the existence of God are effectively silenced, and it becomes that much easier for secularists to portray other elements of faith — hope, worship, prayer, liturgy — as so much mumbo jumbo best relegated to the dead past.

Quite literally, thank heaven for our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who seems to practice a kind of verbal jujitsu in both his homilies and his offhand remarks. By addressing the world informally, and in the very PC sort of language that, on the surface, seems to win the world’s approval, he invokes the countercultural realities of the Faith in a way that stands modern philosophies and secularist assumptions on their heads. Sometimes he seems counterintuitive to Christians, too, as he did in early September, when — for the second time in his short pontificate — he pointedly declared that atheists and unbelievers could well be as moral as any man or woman of faith and could go to heaven, too. Responding to an editorial in which La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari wondered how the existence of God could be proven and whether “the Christian God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith,” Pope Francis wrote a published response expressing gratitude for the question: “This dialogue is not a secondary accessory in the existence of those who believe, but is rather an intimate and indispensible [exchange].” Francis proceeded to explain how the life and witness of the Church, in all its faults, did — through both faith and reason — lead him to the reality of Christ Jesus, and that, “God’s mercy has no limits; if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.”

Most Catholics found nothing new or surprising in Francis’ remarks, but the secular press ran with bare-bones reports (“Pope says ‘obey your conscience!’”) that caused some Christians to wonder whether the Pope was advancing a new, more relativistic understanding of mercy, and even left some Catholic writers grousing (as I admit, I did) that rescuing Pope Francis’ full meaning from the filters and willful truncations of the press was becoming a full-time job. But it is a job worth having. Pope Francis means to convert the world by speaking its language back to it; clarification and discussion of his words, then, becomes a gift of dialogue and our evangelical privilege.  

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current-events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com