In Search of the Ordinary Good Life

A trusted friend, one of the wisest heads I’ve encountered in our fallen world, just called my attention to “this little item” from Monday’s synod briefing by Fr. Arturo Sosa S.J., a Venezuelan who was elected the Superior General of the Jesuits two Octobers ago: “The Church should show the multicultural face of the God who revealed himself in Nazareth, and promote a universal citizenship, that recognizes the richness that is brought by cultural diversity, therefore build a multicultural world.”

I was in the room when he made this remark. And as the Protestants say, “I feel convicted” now by my friend’s message. I simply typed a note into my running log for the day without giving it much importance. My bad. But when you are swimming around in many words that don’t seem to be attached to anything, you tend to get numb to the next little bit.

No excuse, but I remembered – the minute he stepped to the podium – that Fr. Sosa infamously tried to open up space for reinterpreting Jesus’ teachings on marriage, divorce, and adultery during the controversies over the Synod on the Family. He asserted that there were no tape recorders in Jesus’ time, so we have to “interpret” the words of the Gospel. (Presumably we would have to “interpret” a tape of those same words, but that’s a subject for another day.) So I expected some sophistry from him and – there’s so much else that demands attention – discounted it ahead of time.

Happily, there hasn’t been a lot of this sort of thing in the Synod, though it floats vaguely in the background. In a way, it’s good that Sosa gave it expression. By this sort of thing, I mean these abstract concoctions that point in so many directions that they mean everything and nothing at the same time.

Does “universal citizenship” here mean real, card-carrying belonging, like open borders everywhere in the world, certified by some international authority like the U.N.? Or does universal citizenship mean membership in a Church that recognizes the “universal call to holiness” and God’s desire to redeem the whole world in the Beatific Vision? Or neither? Or both? It’s like Teilhard de Chardin S.J. 2.0.

I have to wonder whether Fr. Sosa himself can answer those questions.

Sosa was trying to lay out an alternative to what he called the homogenizing of the world, if I recall correctly. Many have spoken at the Synod about the bland uniformity that digital media and economic forces are producing everywhere. But Sosa’s remedy, a “multicultural world,” is the very term that, paradoxically, encapsulates the very first-world uniformity he otherwise deplores.

Like many Synod Fathers, he seems blissfully unaware that in the United States – and not only there – we have thousands of colleges and universities that promote diversity and multiculturalism. And are fundamentally all the same.

Their idea of multiculturalism is not to study the values and ways of peoples separated from us in space and time, to appreciate how different they were or are from us, and the ways their response to God and the world might enrich our poor post-truth culture. Instead, they insulate young people from opinions and challenges outside the narrow radius of their concerns, which quite a few at the Synod seem to believe are primarily about sex. Especially “differently ordered” sex.

Arturo Sosa S.J. (Photo: sjapc.net)

The Catholic Church is – or perhaps once was – the bearer of the richest cultural tradition in the world, even the “multicultural world.” When we founded The Catholic Thing, recovering a better appreciation of that cultural tradition and its perennial value was one of our main goals. Indeed, compared even with successful multicultural political empires – Rome, Austria-Hungary, etc. – it’s the greatest example and the longest living multicultural reality. Ever.

Should we not be seeking to enliven that as well?

Someone else will have to try to “interpret” what Fr. Sosa means by the “multicultural face of the God who revealed himself in Nazareth.” It’s true that Jesus broadened the divine mission from the Chosen People to all nations. But that also meant preserving the main line of sacred history in its new phase.

By contrast, postmodern multiculturalism simply means including everything except that sacred history. And that simply will not do. As Bishop Robert Barron keeps repeating here, young people are hungry for a mission, would like an invitation to a high calling, one that can engage them passionately in something they can believe is real and significant.

You can try to make a universal politics or abstract multiculturalism your passion – if you are very young, whatever your calendar age. For young people, especially young Christians looking for an authentic life, that will pale, sooner rather than later.

There’s a phenomenon familiar to college professors that one of them, a friend, has dubbed the myth of “my beautiful career.” Young people are given such unrealistic expectations of the future in school – sometimes abetted by misguided parents – that by the time they enter university, they expect four years of study to make them famous or at least fabulously rich.

The reality for most of us is that adult life is a matter of responsibilities, sometimes heavy ones: earning a living, fostering the lives of a spouse and children, perhaps caring for elderly parents or relatives or friends. There are also many good days, very good days, of gratitude to God, at work or play, home or abroad.

But for most of us it’s in the ordinary daily responsibilities that we are going to find meaning and happiness. And in a way, it’s also there that we will build up the kind of “multicultural” solidarity in our dealings with all the people, of various backgrounds, with whom we come in contact.

In almost three weeks of talk now, there has been no expression of this “little way” of daily virtue and responsibility. At least, I haven’t heard it. [Author’s note: I’d written these words before a briefing today revealed that yesterday morning there was a mention of linking the ordinary with the extraordinary – perhaps evidence that the Spirit is at work in various quarters filling in what’s been missing.]

That’s the challenge that all but a tiny number of specially talented or fortunate people will face. The Church used to – and should again – teach the most important school of spirituality of all: how to live a passionate, ordinary, good life.

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