Francis, the Finger, and the Moon

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.