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Francis, the Finger, and the Moon Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 01 April 2013

Among the more intelligible things found amidst the wilds of Zen Buddhism is the saying, “Better to see the face than hear the name.” Like all true sayings, it applies to many different realities and – we might remember in these gentle days following Good Friday and Easter – not least to God.

In Zen, there’s also a warning about properly understanding a finger pointing to the Moon. If you focus solely on the finger, what’s meant to help does serious harm.

These are both useful reminders in our information-drenched culture in which, unlike any previous age, you have much of the artistic and intellectual heritage of the human race instantly available on your smartphone. Few of us can understand those signs, however, without lengthy instruction – let alone the reality towards which they point us.  

The truth is that we need intermediary signposts as well as ultimate ends. It’s a pernicious modern notion to think that we can leap directly from wherever we happen to be to God, or to the “spiritual,” or to – frightening thought – our real selves. Almost every healthy culture teaches that it takes patient application to grasp – and then long effort to live out the truth of things.

The early humility and availability of Pope Francis have gotten me thinking about all this because, genuine as I believe his gestures to be, it would be a great tragedy if they were misunderstood – or simply ignored.

He is not a pope of the great world-historical sort like John Paul II. Papa Wojtyla was the perfect man to throw a wrench into the Enlightenment contraption we call Marxism. Not only did he help throttle it, but he also made clear why that version of Enlightenment materialism by its very nature had to produce high body counts. It had a mistaken notion of human nature. And when ideology clashed with real human beings, the latter had to be eliminated in the name of “progress.”

Wojtyla was not as successful against the materialism of the West. I appreciate what he was trying to do with the Theology of the Body, for example, though some of his followers seem at times to want to turn it into something almost like a middle eastern sex cult.

But it was Joseph Ratzinger, both before and after being elected pope, who understood at great depth the larger cultural distortion of which the sexual element is only the most prominent feature. In the modern view, the cosmos is chaos and reason only a late and weak tool to help satisfy our desires. Such a view denies without even considering, the Logos, the creative Word that produces and orders all things, including human life. Any order or meanings that exist come from us, not nature or nature’s God.

As our now California-based guru Fr. Schall has often said, Benedict truly named this modern reality. But brilliant as that naming was, it did not much move the default settings we see all around us. To do that, even the most penetrating thought is largely helpless because it moves in a world that largely ignores thought.

Enter Pope Francis. At this early point, it’s difficult to say how his clear preference for the humble and simple will serve larger purposes. Properly understood, of course, humility and simplicity are themselves pathways into Christian truth. But it’s one thing to do certain things as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, quite another as the universal pastor, the pontifex maximus – the figure who must build bridges to all points on the compass and shepherd flocks in diverse climes.

The simple, humble acts are one way to show the Face. But absent deep teaching that names that Face, those acts will be lost on a world that lacks something like facial recognition software. Francis seems to understand this. At the Holy Thursday foot-washing last week, he said:

To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service. . . .But it also means that we have to help each other. . . . I do it with my heart because it is my duty as priest and as bishop; I have to be at your service. . . It’s a duty that comes from my heart because I love doing this, because this is what the Lord taught me. . . . This sign is a caress from Jesus, because Jesus came exactly for this, to serve and to help us.
This is a good start, but if such gestures are not to get assigned instantly to what the world already thinks it knows about Christianity – yes, help one another and all that – it will have to lead people inside the Church and out to a larger reality.

That needs to happen on multiple levels. L’Osservatore Romano reports that, before his election, Cardinal Bergoglio warned against “theological narcissism” meaning the ways in which we prefer to debate the meaning of the finger and neglects the Moon. He even referred to the Church as the mysterium lunae – the “mystery of the Moon.”

In this, he’s taken the old Zen saying a step further: even the Church does not shine by her own light, but as a reflection of the sun – or as the old English divines used to pun, the Son.

So we have something interesting before us: A pope teaching about the Church as a divine reality that needs to see itself as shining by the light of God Himself. There’s nothing entirely new in this. But maybe, just maybe, after the great drama of John Paul II and the great learning of Benedict XVI, we now have a third necessary element: a pope who understands how, through the small cracks that little gestures may open up, to turn the world towards the light.

 
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
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written by Randall, April 01, 2013
Another thoughtful essay, Mr Royal. By the way, I love the oriental Madonna and Child. What an arresting image.
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written by FrancisX, April 01, 2013
Thanks for a great essay. It reminded me in part of CS Lewis' Reflections in a Tool Shed. The analogy of the moon reflecting the light of the sun is very useful. That the finger is useful in pointing it out is important but each must continue to the source.
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written by Manfred, April 01, 2013
Zen???Pope Francis is the seventh Pope to have served in my lifetime and I have never felt any particular warmth toward the last six. All one has to do is an analysis of the present Church to see why-these Popes have basically destroyed it. All of them were ideologues to a greater or less degree and all one has to do is research what the Church was that was left to us by Pius XII. Robert, when you mention Francis washing the feet in a Roman detention center for minors, you fail to mention that this Pope broke the Church's rubrics and washed the feet of two females. In my religion, the washing of the feet of the Apostles was always considered as the establishment of the priesthood. I have been trained enough to understand that when God is angry with His people, He sends them weak, inadequate and corrupt bishops and priests. If Francis wants to work with the poor and isolated so badly, why didn't he become a physician or a social worker? He could have even joined Rotary and worked to eradicate polio throughout the world. When I see this behavior coupled with Cdl Dolan's handing Holy Communion to Joe Biden on Palm Sunday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, I know it will just be business as usual for the next period of time. As my focus is only on what I can control in order to achieve salvation for myself and those with whom I interact, I will be drawing the curtain on any further news reports concerning the hierarchy of the Church.
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written by Chris in Maryland, April 01, 2013
Manfred is right about the liturgy of the washing of the feet...the gesture is a mistake.
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written by Grump, April 01, 2013
Washing the feet of a Muslim was unpardonable. Sorry, displaying humility is fine but not debasement.
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written by DS, April 01, 2013
Pope Francis' gesture in prison on Holy Thursday was important for one reason: it was Christ-like.

And lest one forget, Francis has the right to interpret/change rubrics by virtue of his office.
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written by Grump, April 01, 2013
Christ washed Peter's feet, not those of the infidels. Christians are being killed, threatened, imprisoned or tortured throughout the Muslim world and this is the way the Pope responds?
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written by william manley, April 01, 2013
Great essay, but the comments so far are even more telling. I had a hunch that Pope Francis' early departure from tradition, would elicit the same kind of intolerant criticism that Christ received from the elders, scribes, and high priests when he dined with sinners. Francis is being Christ like and a lot of Catholics don't like it. How ironic.
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written by Graham Combs, April 01, 2013
"Wait and see" seems to be becoming the mantra of many commentators. Perhaps because I come from the South and am wary of the "common touch" or the "populist gesture," I have not responded as enthusiastically to some of what the Pope has done. In an EWTN interview from a few months ago (available at EWTN), he talks at some length in 14 minute interview about "money wasted on pets." It seems an odd fixation. No doubt an extension of his concern for the poor. Both my parents grew up in the poverty of Depression-era Appalachia. Pre-welfare, shoeless, go-to-bed hungry poor. And yet even the poor whites of region had a dog. If only for hunting but which was loved nonetheless. I know too many who have taken great comfort in a dog companion including my youngest sister amidst the chaos and economic uncertainty of our youth. I don't as a consequence romanticize poverty. And I noted that although in January the Bishops could not or would not comment en banc about this recession that grinds on and grounds down so many, in Rome a few months later they waxed long and enthusiastic about "the poor" echoing the new Pope. Then in the South we have had the working poor equivalent of the caudillo further Latin South. The Big Daddy or politician such as Huey Long. "Every man a king." The Holy Father must be careful here. We are already on the threshold of "every man/woman a Pope" in America and elsewhere. By the way, the Holy Father Emeritus never struck me as cold. On the contrary in his writings and his appearances he has been one of the most insightful, empathic and consoling of the men who have sat in the Chair of St. Peter. Imagine the honesty and courage to admit that "sometimes it seemed that God was silent." Pope France is to be thanked for one gesture when he knelt next Benedict XVI so that we could see in contrast just how frail he had become in service to Christ and His Church.
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written by Chris in Maryland, April 01, 2013
To DS and William Manley -

I greatly admire Pope Francis for his clear determination to live the vow of poverty. I believe we must all do likewise.

The gesture may still be a mistake, if it distorts something else of greater need.

I ponder this: I heard the other day that the diocese of NY ordained only one priest this year, and expects 5-8 in the next 2 years. If there is a dearth of priestly vocations, and the washing of the feet signifies the priesthood, then it seems it might best be reserved for washing the feet of new priests and seminarians, no?

The Catholic Church is the biggest provider for the poor on earth, and I think that service to the poor is a message that already gets transmitted by the Church loud and clear, in words and deeds.

On the other hand, Fr. Bramwell has pointed out that Pope Francis is setting a very good example for not a few priests who, he reports, have grown "unaccustomed to poverty."

So some things may be fitting, and others not. As Christ said of one famous liturgical error..."the poor you will have always with you."

I admire and like Pope Francis, and I intend to try and learn from him, as I did from Pope Benedict. I know that Pope Francis admires and loves Benedict XVI, and I hope Pope Francis is preserved from denunciatiation at Holy Mass, which I have witnessed numerous times levied against Pope Benedict, in a number of different Catholic "communities."
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written by Manfred, April 02, 2013
@DS and William Manley: Thanks to the both of you for your comments. You might benefit from reading the Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters comments on the subject and how the Mandatum and Canon Law exist precisely to avoid antinomianism. I know that it is hard to believe after the last fifty years, but the Church does have a mind.
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written by Alecto, April 02, 2013
I wasn't thrilled this man was elected, and nothing he's done since has impressed me, not that it matters. I am certain he is like every other Jesuit, a Marxist. He seems very weak when we need strength, and ambiguous when we need clarity. I do not think any of his actions bode well for the future, but I will, of course, reserve judgment and pray for him and us.
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written by Chris in Maryland, April 02, 2013
I also join with Graham's observation about the character of Pope Benedict - he lived as he taught others to live. As to truth - he was a courageous witness for Christ Jesus -daring enough to stand against counterfeit Catholics in the Church - like so many in 'academia' or political operatives like the LCWR - people who don "business casual" in one forum to declaim they have "moved beyond Christ," and then change into their clerical garb en route to another forum and claim status as "Catholic."

As to temperment - he imitated the same Christ he so faithfully gave witness to - and modeling his own behavior on "the only totally open Man," Benedict was willing to be wounded for the sake of others. And wounded he was - by many in The Church - yet because of his willingness to witness - truth has been handed down to the next generation.
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written by Jim Flynn, April 02, 2013
by JRF:
With Manfred's parting philosophical point, "my focus is only on what I can control in order to achieve salvation", his lack of warmth for any of the last 6 popes is understandable--since he could not control them. The thing Manfred and others who share his views can control is how they interpret scipture so there is really no good reason to have the Church.
For my part it is just a little early to write of Francis' legacy as Pope. This finger may be pointing to a side of the moon we have not concentrated on enough in the past. Same moon but a different profile of its face.
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written by David Naas, April 02, 2013
I pray for all those whose hearts are so filled with bitterness, they have no room for the charity of Christ in their evaluation of Pope Francis. I think God is in control, and if that does not suit the boxes into which some folks wish him to exist (safer to have a God-in-a-Box, rather than God-on-the-loose. I think that the Popes of the last century -- all of the Popes -- have been there by God's will, for God's reasons. Obviously, some folk think they are more Catholic than the Pope, and may think that God would do a better job if he took their advice. I can't decise if that attitude is heresy, schism, apostasy, or simple old sin.
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written by Louise, April 02, 2013
I already love Pope Francis and I think God for him!

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