Metaphysical Mischief: The Bergoglio Gloss


August 2, 2017

Every theology necessarily incorporates a philosophy, for there will always be a natural way of thinking that under-girds the exposition of revelation. Like everyman, popes have philosophies, and although it is not the business of a pope to advocate any philosophy, the philosophy every pope presupposes will influence his representation of the Catholic faith and his government of the Church. John Paul II is often cited as an exponent of Thomism as interpreted through the lens of the phenomenology of Husserl. Benedict XVI is steeped in the Augustinian tradition, which carries with it certain themes borrowed from Plato, but which in the end was not too different from the Thomism of John Paul II, both teaching that human intellect could grasp transcendent ideas. Like his mentor Saint Augustine, Benedict has spent much effort explaining the relation between faith and reason. Famously, Benedict cited the rejection of reason as the great defect of Islamic thought.

Philosophy is common sense raised to the level of reflection, and nothing in the thought of John Paul II or Benedict challenges reason, rather the opposite, for reason itself is elevated in their teaching of the faith. But then comes Pope Francis who offers what seems to be yet another gloss on the Catholic faith. The pope does not deny the divinity of Christ or the necessity of the sacraments; his reiteration of the Divine Mercy and exhortation to solidarity in matters political and economic have won broad approval. But something that seems alien is at work in his teaching, and that is because he accepts, perhaps deliberately, perhaps unwittingly, the intellectual backwash of the Enlightenment as the philosophical basis of his teaching and particularly of his moral theology. He is at heart a romantic, and sympathy will always trump thought.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an eighteenth-century French critic and philosopher whose thought has permeated the West. It was a theme of his philosophy that man although naturally innocent had been corrupted by the intrusion of law and tradition, which, rather than informing and elevating, always restricted and deformed. Pope Francis has not been known to advance a doctrine of original innocence, but his persistent theme that the mission of the Church is misrepresented by defenders of the tradition, whom he unfailingly associates with the Christ-denying Pharisees, who are soul-damaging rigorists, is an idea that, while it may have other immediate sources, can certainly be traced, by however circuitous a route, to Rousseau.

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It is probably unlikely that Francis has read the turgid philosophy of the famous Prussian G. W. F. Hegel who lived a generation after Rousseau, but he is arguably a disciple. Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History were among the most popular philosophical sources of the nineteenth century, and if few had read the book there were many who knew the Hegelian slogan: “Whatever is, is right.” For Hegel, history was a process through which reason exhausts itself in events and world-historical persons. The truth of things is not known by the light of intellect or by the application of reason in its transcendent character but by what happens in history. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis notes that there is always a tension between reality and ideas. But then he writes: “Reality is greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom” (231).

At first sight this list seems unexceptionable, but at the same time one may see in it the shadow of the Hegelian triumph of whatever is over thought. One of its terms is a nod to Benedict’s condemnation of the tyranny of relativism. The reference to angelic purity is puzzling. Does it refer to a dedicated pursuit of holiness or to a destructive scrupulosity? There are commonplaces: the unexceptionable rejection of empty rhetoric and unwise intellectual discourse. But then what is “ahistorical fundamentalism”? In this context fundamentalism is a highly charged word. Ahistorical fundamentalism must be a system of rigorist moral precept that does not take into account what actually happens. However, it is the work of moral precepts not to take into account what may be done at any one time or place but instead to lift up, guide, and form.

In his introduction to his translation of Plato’s Dialogues Benjamin Jowett, the fabled president of Balliol College, Oxford, wrote: “The universal is prior to the particular; the law conditions the event, the ideal regulates the actual. Knowledge consists in the discernment of a general pattern which the particular thing embodies, virtue consists of regulation of impulse according to eternal standards.” Jowett was writing of Plato, but, broadly. Every Christian philosopher, including the modern popes, would subscribe to Jowett’s summary as the presupposition of thought and morality.

When Saint Thomas asks where truth resides, he answers that it resides in the mind and only secondarily in things. A historical or scientific account may derive truth from what happens in the world by explaining events under a generalization, but reality remains unintelligible without ideas, and in that sense ideas are always more important than reality. And also with theological truth and moral precepts. And so also with the exercise of authority. The attempt to rule without reference to tradition or any other transcendent rational ground, or even the regulative claims of the past, however benign the results may or may not accidentally be, will result in a government that rests upon unmoderated will, difficult in principle to distinguish from a vernacular Marxism.

The attempt to derive moral guidance from reality, from how mankind behaves, from the sorry story of our aspirations and failures, will make every teaching of the Church uncertain, as has Amoris Laetitia in the opinion of many. An editorial writer in the Guardian has said that Francis has changed the Church forever from a rule-bound institution to an instinctive Church. Good luck with your instincts. The world is full of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who think it would be good to receive the body and blood of Christ. If their instincts say they are at peace with God, why not? The vast majority of Catholics don’t follow Humanae Vitae anyhow so, as Francis has written, Humanae Vitae must be revisited. The teaching of the Church should be accommodated to what is actually happening. Rigorists, says Francis, do not go with the flow of life. Ah, Hegel.

Sed contra. Historically, it has been the role of the teaching Church, in the name of Christ, never to accommodate itself to the ways of the world, but to ask of mankind the impossible, proposing the heroic and offering unstinting forgiveness for failure. It has been unsympathetic to claims that human nature must be treated gently. “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted unto blood” (Heb. 12:4). It has viewed with horror the deliberate defection of one will from obedience to God. Cardinal Newman wrote that it would be better for millions to die in pain and poverty than for one soul knowingly to commit a venial sin, that, he said, was merely a preamble to the Gospel just as “Whereas” might be to an act of Parliament. To this has been appended the fact of the sacrifice of Christ, the aid of the sacraments and the offer of forgiveness. The requirement that we love God most is ideal, and it will be realized in his elect. Without this high calling, mercy is the answer to a question that has not been asked.

(Photo credit: wikicommons)


  • James Patrick

    James Patrick is Chancellor Emeritus of The College of Saint Thomas More. He earned his doctorate in theology from Trinity College, Toronto, and is the author, most recently, of Essays on Modernity and the Permanent Things from Tradition (2015).

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