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Does Francis Have a Teaching Strategy? Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 17 December 2013

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The story is told about the remarkable Francis Cardinal George when he returned to his native ground in Chicago. A reporter sought to draw him out by asking whether he would be a Cardinal in the style of the late (liberal) Cardinal Bernadin? As legend has it, the new archbishop niftily deflected the question by reminding the reporter that the Church has a certain “aversion to cloning.”

Like everyone else, people in the media will have their own sense of the story they would like to hear – or the outcomes they would like to encourage. We would need a rare innocence to suppose that this tendency was not at work as TIME magazine, in a gesture made all the more noticeable by its surprise, named Pope Francis the Person of the Year. 

The praise of this fine priest had to be taken as earnestly tendered, as it was so evidently earned. But it was clear also as to why a notable part of the American media finds a new pope newsworthy for doing something that looks to them new. He seems to be taking a path that even people outside the Church may wish to praise, and in praising him, drawing him further along that path.

As to what that path was, the write-up in TIME left little mystery. The editors found a certain fascination in the way that Pope Francis was “annoy[ing]” or unsettling what the editors call “conservatives” – i.e., the Catholics concerned that Francis is speaking less often, less forcefully, less clearly about abortion and the taking of innocent life. Or, as the editors note, “Francis both affirms traditional teachings on sexuality and warns that the church has become distracted by them.” The Deputy Managing Editor Rhadika Jones explained further that the editors were drawn to the pope by his accent on poverty and the “inequality of income.” 

Our readers know that some of us, writing in these columns, have set off tremors as we have registered our concerns that the teaching of the Church, on matters running to the core of the “human person,” has gently turned equivocal. Gentle or not, there is little doubt as to how the shift has been understood in a broader public.

As I remarked in response to readers last time, when did we ever hear of Catholic legislators voting in favor of same-sex marriage by invoking John Paul II or Benedict and declaring that they should not cast judgments on others? But that is precisely what we heard in Illinois, as we have heard it on the pro-life issue in other places – and we’ll hear it many times again.   

And yet, it must be said that Francis has brought us a new moment, or new possibilities, for teaching. At every turn, we hear of massive numbers coming to St. Peter’s Square, and of Catholics once fallen away now showing up at Mass.  But the question is whether people are returning because they see the Church receding from the teaching they had found uncomfortable, or because they have been reminded of the deep powers of forgiveness, of a Church willing to enfold them again with all of their sins, as its unfolds us all.  And once at Mass again, might they open themselves anew to a teaching they had once heard – and rejected?

I raised the question with one priest I know, a fine teacher who has not shied away from dealing in his homilies with those vexing questions that make some of his auditors uneasy. I wondered:  is there a strategy for teaching in a different way to the people returning to the Church? He pointed out that there is just so much to be done in a homily of ten minutes. And of course we know that priests have often been reluctant to speak on abortion or sexuality, precisely because those homilies may be felt by some of the parishioners with a sting of reproach.

Are we likely to see that teaching return, and return with more deftness, when the congregation now contains more people who have returned precisely because that teaching, as they understood it, had become muted?

Do we find ourselves falling back upon a kind of Aristotelian notion that if people become practiced in doing certain things, the practice may cultivate in time the understanding that fits the practice?  Could it be – as we usually hope – that if people regularly attend Mass, they may absorb even more fully the ethic that pervades the ritual; that in the wonder of things, their lives will become more ordered to the communion that enfolds them?  

I put the question in a note to a dear friend, and wise priest, Fr. James Schall. He noted that people may be drawn by a new enthusiasm, with a music of their own they are hearing, but “enthusiasm and jazz can only go so far, and deep down, it has its own norms that will replace doctrine if we do not pay attention.” 

 
           
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
 
 
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Comments (27)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, December 17, 2013
'Pascal certainly believed in the Aristotelian notion"

True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness [vous abêtira].—"But this is what I am afraid of."—And why? What have you to lose?" What indeed?
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, December 17, 2013
“enthusiasm and jazz can only go so far, and deep down, it has its own norms that will replace doctrine if we do not pay attention.”

It didn't seem to take much for the English to cease acknowledging Peter as the vicar of Christ's Church and replacing him with Henry.
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written by Manfred, December 17, 2013
Thank you, Dr. Arkes. I have argued for years that once the American Church accepted contraception, de facto, moral theology effectively collapsed. The children of my nieces and nephews are being raised in day care from the time they are babies. Why? These young adults tell me that in order to buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a home, send a child to school,etc, they are competing with other two-income families. Through their weakness, the bishops have allowed this economic world to come into existence which "demands" that people contracept in order to maintain two careers. The pressure on the young couples in our FSSP chapel is enormous as they are NOT contracepting, having the mother home with the children during their formative years.
I believe it was St. Teresa of Avila who described earthly life as "a night in a bad hotel," That is what has happened and there is no going back. Forget the New Evangelization. A recent Pew study, and others, suggests there has been no "Francis effect" whatsoever. The one positive effect we can point to is that phone and subway usage have increased in Rome since Francis handed out phone and metro cards to the poor.
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written by Bangwell Putt, December 17, 2013
To the Editor: Expenses run high in December, especially for those on retirement income. Please consider extending the donation period into the first of January, 2014. I and perhaps many others will be able to donate then.
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written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, December 17, 2013
Those who have concerns about Pope Francis' remarks, etc. are forgetting that Christ is praying that his "faith won't fail" and in so doing, the matter of the Pope's loyalty to the doctrine is part of the eternal dialogue between God the Father and God the Son. It won't fail. If Jesus could make a Pope of Peter He can make a Pope of Bergoglio. Jesus' is not short of resources there and He knows what He's doing. The Church survived Alexander VI so there is nothing to worry about now. We are not even close to that kind of crisis.

Francis is not a poseur, he never was and he is not going to turn into one now. He never compromised on doctrine, even under huge pressure.. Now that he is the Pope why should he?

Let us examine our thinking on this matter. I always thought it was interesting that we strive to save a baby -a fine deed but also our obligation- but when that baby is out of the womb we seem to loose interest in life. Serfdom, exploitation, blatant inequality of means ARE NOT proper in a Christian society but that is what Christendom had to offer always. "The poor you will always have with you" is a constant reminder that the opportunity for charity will never expire. In fact there is an eternal disparity of riches between God and us: there God teaches us a lesson by His constant giving to both wicked and just. The pro-life fight runs the risk of becoming an exercise in "holier than thou" attitudes. It should not be so, it should be an exercise on mercy that reflects God's mercy as perfectly as we can. We have not always used our affluence well. We have been indifferent at times with our brothers and sisters in need. We need to get the house in order and rise above our pitiful human miseries. I think Francis is showing us that: "I strove to be like Christ, now you go and do the same."
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written by Avery Tödesuhl, December 17, 2013
All I can say is that the same strategy was tried in the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches and it failed miserably. It can even be said to have backfired, since both those denoms now boast of practices so out of touch with their own historical roots, that in fact they have turned their back on historical Christianity and have made their own versions up out of contemporary liberalism. Do we want to follow their road? Is Pope Francis stumbling forward along that path?

And no, I am not a lIminal sede-vacantist like a few well known commenters on TCT.
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written by maineman, December 17, 2013
It's not clear whether Pope Francis has a teaching strategy, but we can be confident that God does.

People are probably coming back to the Faith, at least in large part, because modernity/liberalism is in ruins. They've no place to go except home. Christianity is the last man standing.
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written by grump, December 17, 2013
"At every turn, we hear of massive numbers coming to St. Peter’s Square, and of Catholics once fallen away now showing up at Mass."
I can't speak for other "fallen" Catholics but in my case, the pope's ambiguous stances on matters of sexual morality and capitalism have kept me from going back to Church. Nor am I "obsessed," as Francis inelegantly puts it, with the former.

There was one priest -- Fulton Sheen -- a staunch anti-Marxist/Leninist, who has kept me interested in the Church all these years despite my backsliding. Sheen's writings and TV talks left readers and viewers with clarity and certainty and contrast sharply to Francis' muddy rhetoric that needs constant reinterpretation.

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written by Robert, December 17, 2013
As a "revert" to the Catholic faith, I think I can appreciate what Francis is doing. In coming back to the Church, there was a period where my faith and practice were not fully orthodox, to put it mildly, and I still had many doubts and questions. But as I returned to regular attendance at mass, a wondrous change began to occur, subtle and almost imperceptible at first but gradually more and more noticeable: my doubts started falling away one by one until I could not help but see orthodox Christianity as simply true. So both Pascal and the old saying, "lex orandi, lex credendi," are quite true, as least in my experience.
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written by Guest, December 17, 2013
For decades our secular world has said Jesus was a nice guy who cared about poor people, mostly, and did not judge or talk about sexual matters.

The big bad Church should get out of the bedroom and just focus on "poor" people.

Now, our new Holy Father seems to talk about poor people and wants us to not talk so much about commandments and sin. At least that is the message received.

The world now has the message it has always wanted.

How does this actually help?
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written by ken tremendous, December 17, 2013
As I see it there is a teaching strategy

1. affirm traditional Catholic doctrine

2. speak from the heart and not only in magisterial tones

3. emphasize that the faith is bigger..much bigger than the culture war in which Dr. Arkes seems to have invested his entire career.

4. get people to look at the Catholic Church afresh as the world is full of ex Catholics and others curious about the Church

5. After the person has encountered Christ in the Church, allow the Holy Spirit to lead him or her to the fullness of truth, which includes the truth about homosexuality, abortion, artificial contraception and the like.

Will it work? I hope so but really I don't know. But it is certainly worth a try.

Because I do know that the polarizing approach Dr. Arkes champions hasn't worked and won't work. This is the approach in which Catholicism is presented essentially as an ideological system hostile in most every way to modernity , a system which demands a priori the assent of all right thinking people, a system whose progress is to be measured not in number of souls saved but in terms of the results of presidential elections, the willingness of elected officials to thwart the liberal agenda, and the appointment of judges and their rulings.

This latter brand of "teaching" has failed. And I think that God wanted Francis to be pope precisely to show a better way.
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written by Athanasius, December 17, 2013
From what I have seen, Francis is a total Catholic, but, like all of us, he is a product of his past. His past writings point to someone who is fully in sync with the doctrines of the Church. But being from Argentina, his primary economic experience is one of oligarchic corporatism. In this setting, the government works with the well connected to keep the "rich" rich and the "poor" poor. Being elected pope did not suddenly make Francis a world economic expert.

Here in America, we have a history of more virtuous captialism that has truly worked wonders to raise the poor out of misery. Our system, when it is working, has been a great antidote to poverty and thus has been a great place to live and a place where the dignity of work has been rewarded. I am afraid that today many in Washington and on Wall Street would like to move more towards the corporatist model, which is counter to Catholicism, but also counter to historic American capitalism.

I see no inherent contradiction between virtuous capitalism and Catholic concern for the poor. But in this fallen world, no system will be perfect. I believe that virtuous capitalism is the best long term strategy to address poverty and inequality of opportunity. But since it isn't perfect, we also need to practice traditional charity. Personally, I think charity works best when done locally and through private organizations. This is the best way to hold the organizers and the recipients accountable.

But, at an even deeper level, the Church must be about the complete person. We can't be all "concern for the poor" without recognizing that the sexual revolution (i) is a lie against the theology of the body, and (ii) has led to much unhappiness and poverty in its own right.

We can't be only "lefty" poverty fighters, but we can't be only "righty" prudes either. Neither extreme allows for joy, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Preach Christ's joy, and then you can show how Christian sexuality brings joy through faithful family life, and also how joy causes a wellspring of charity to bubble in us leading to concern for the poor and their inherent human dignity, which will be helped by jobs where possible.
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written by william manley, December 17, 2013
Here we go again....dissecting the Pope's words. This feels a lot like the gospels. The scribes and the elders simply couldn't understand what Jesus was talking about and why is was talking. The Pope's words need no parsing: serving the poor and working for economic justice is the Catholic thing. These Christian duties were not a matter of emphasis with Benedict. He emphasized doctrine. He was an intellectual. His background is the academy. Francis' background is pastoral in a third world country. They are different people with different points of emphasis. Both are wonderfully holy men. This is not rocket science. No need to bring Aristotle into this. Just read the gospels.
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written by Sherry, December 17, 2013

"Are we likely to see that teaching return, and return with more deftness, when the congregation now contains more people who have returned precisely because that teaching, as they understood it, had become muted?"

This sounds like a prophetic question. And, I really hope that the answer to the question asked in the title of this article is a well-considered "yes".

It is just difficult,based on the last fifty or sixty years, to see how this will come about. But then, the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

For years, there have been many who have had no problem understanding Jesus' unconditional love for them - and that they make decisions based on their individual consciences irrespective of what the Church might teach. And, dismissive of priests or bishops who teach otherwise.

And, yes, many of these are "good" people who give "time, talent, and treasure" to helping those less fortunate than themselves, which can be rewarding in itself. And, to them, this is all that is needed - the "horizontal" is the key.

Pope Francis has talked about the over-emphasis of key moral issues. I think that, at least in this country, it has greatly been in response to what is happening every day in our environment - in education, business, politics, entertainment, etc. It is a form of self-defense, trying to stem the tide of forces against religious liberty. It is getting more and more difficult to live your beliefs and protect your children from things taught in school that go against those beliefs.

Yesterday, Brad Miner's "Hail, Holy Queen" article says that heaven is "A place where we will be one with our king through worship at the foot of the Throne of God: He the sun, we the rays". This may be a difficult concept for those who don't have an appreciation for the concept of authority or obedience or hierarchy.

There are a lot of good things that have been happening over the last number of years in terms of our newer priests, religious and bishops - and the many lay initiatives - by people who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. And lots of people are praying. We are, indeed, living in interesting times.
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written by Guest, December 17, 2013
Ken,

I think you have it exactly backwards. The two Popes prior to Francis tried to right the ship. The Church was so left leaning and happy clappy that we now have most who do not know the faith and live as pagans. Enemies within and without. So those Popes were correcting the plan that is now being reintroduced that failed so miserably in the 60s and 70s. What is old is new again. Why would the results be better this time?
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written by Walter, December 17, 2013
Professors certainly make interesting students. Professor Arkes and Fr. Schall seem to know what kind of teachers they like, what they and others need to learn (or not learn), what kind of pedagogy the Church needs and doesn't need, the risks that this new teacher Francis represents, what he knows and doesn't know, etc.

I'm curious. As college professors, how do/did they react to students who brought this type of attitude to their classrooms? Or opined on their professorial abilities or casually referred to their course content as "jazz" after only one or two lectures?
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written by DS, December 17, 2013
Francis' teaching strategy is clear: he favors direct engagement with people and simplicity to teach people about God. Sound familiar?

This does not negate the rich philosophical or doctrinal underpinnings of the faith, or the different teaching of style of other popes (Benedict, for example). Different popes, different charisms.
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written by Guest, December 17, 2013
The Left loves it all. Should that not be a warning?
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written by Guest, December 17, 2013
DS,

If it is so clear why are so many confused and why the unending clarifications?
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written by Chris in Maryland, December 17, 2013
Well -

The NC Reporter, the paper-of-record for all things dissenting, told us that Pope F's strategy is based on unclarity.

One can understand why this is appealing to those who dissent.
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written by Louise, December 17, 2013
Hadley, I think so and it's called "Evangelii Gaudium"!
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written by Julianne, December 17, 2013
Chris in Maryland, I rarely go through the NCReporter neighborhood, Could you please give a link to an article, or a direct quote, which would show their claim that Pope Francis' strategy is based on unclarity? I need to look into this. Thank you.
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written by Jack,CT, December 17, 2013
William Manley and William,i agree .
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written by Ernest Miller, December 17, 2013
@Bangwell Putt,

Editor...I agree. Please give us a bit more time.
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written by Louise, December 17, 2013
Ken, you take a lot of shots at Hadley in your post which are really a false caricature of him.

How do you know he is not the perfect paradigm of what the Holy Father is saying? Actually, if we follow the pope's advice in E.G. we as individuals will be engaging the political world more not less, my friend.
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written by Guest, December 18, 2013
Pretty much anytime we see the charge of " Pharisee " you can bet we have a left wing ideologue. A Pharisee is somone who brings up the moral law and makes us uncomfortable.
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written by kristinajohannes, December 18, 2013
Hadley, I noticed this morning that the pope canonized Peter Faber, S.J., yesterday. Then I happened to be rereading some of the interview published in "America." Maybe this excerpt pertains to your question somewhat:

I ask the pope why he is so impressed by Faber, and which of Faber’s traits he finds particularly moving.

“[His] dialogue with all,” the pope says, “even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”

As Pope Francis lists these personal characteristics of his favorite Jesuit I understand just how much this figure has truly been a model for his own life. Michel de Certeau, S.J., characterized Faber simply as “the reformed priest,” for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable. I begin to understand, therefore, that Pope Francis is inspired precisely by this kind of reform. At this point the pope continues with a reflection on the true face of the fundador of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola.

“Ignatius is a mystic, not an ascetic,” he says. “It irritates me when I hear that the Spiritual Exercises are ‘Ignatian’ only because they are done in silence. In fact, the Exercises can be perfectly Ignatian also in daily life and without the silence. An interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises that emphasizes asceticism, silence and penance is a distorted one that became widespread even in the Society, especially in the Society of Jesus in Spain. I am rather close to the mystical movement, that of Louis Lallement and Jean-Joseph Surin. And Faber was a mystic.”

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