Brendan Hoban: Pope Francis, bridge-builder…

Building a bridge from the past to the future

Western People 16.3.21

The pope, someone said to me last week, looked ‘well shook’ after his visit to Iraq. And he did, showing all of his 84 years, with this time a worrying lack of mobility. On his own admission he said the trip had left him ‘more fatigued than previous ones’ – though it didn’t stop him from standing for 50 minutes on the plane on the way home speaking to journalists.

He didn’t have to go to Iraq. He could have used the COVID excuse with good reason. And he knew that in meeting the Grand Ayatollagh Ali al-Sistani, conservative Catholics would see his meeting as ‘one step from heresy’. But after a lot of prayer and reflection on the risks involved, he decided to go. ‘Sometimes’, he said, ‘you just have to take a risk’.

Francis, in his eight years as pope has taken his share of risks and pushed out a lot of boats into the deep. After two popes who hesitated to venture much beyond shallow waters, Francis is more adventurous, realising as Pope John XXIII did before him that while as Catholics we have appropriate regard for the tradition and teaching bequeathed to us there comes a time when a constant repetition of what served us well in the past may limit our ability to respond to the changing needs of the present.

I was reading Jordan Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order, 12 More Rules For Life and this sentence jumped out at me: ‘Respect for creative transformation must accompany appropriate regard for what . . . hierarchical structures bequeathed to us by the past’. It’s a sentence worth reading a second or even a third time because it sums up what Peterson calls ‘the twin natural laws built into the structure of our reality’. In other words, regardless of the context – and Peterson is not talking in specifically religious terms – old rules that give direction and that minimise uncertainty, suffering and strife need to be respected for what they are and what they offer but may also need to be transformed, as knowledge and circumstances change.

Peterson, a clinical psychologist and a professor at Harvard and more recently at the university of Toronto, and one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals, presents reality like this: those who tend to the right are staunch defenders of what happened in the past, and often correctly so; but, because the present and the future differ from the past, sometimes they can be wrong.

There are two clear approaches to life, including to religion: the conservative type carefully and cautiously implementing the wisdom of the past; and the creative, liberal type determined to replace what’s old and out of date with something new and more valuable. Peterson suggests that a balance between conservatism and creativity might be possibly achieved by bringing the two types of people together.

The difficulty, in religion as in other areas of life, is to have a conversation between the two that respects on the one hand that conservatism is good (though it has its dangers) and that creativity (or what Peterson calls ‘creative transformation’) is also good (though it has its dangers too).

This is where Pope Francis comes in. What he’s trying to do is to set two approaches, apparently in tension with each other, in actual harmony so that one makes the other possible. Without respect for constraints, limitations, boundaries (the old rules), the creativity (or change) that makes a new order is not possible. And vice-versa. Peterson’s conclusion is that ‘intelligent and cautious conservatism and careful and incisive change’ are both necessary. Francis would wholeheartedly agree. Francis is attempting to hold two positions in creative tension. On the one hand to respect traditional Catholic teaching and on the other to accept situations where that teaching may need to be moderated.

That was what he was attempting to do in starting a conversation about the possibility of couples in irregular marriage situations receiving Communion. Traditionally such couples were debarred from Communion but such are the extraordinary changes in recent times (and the variety of situations within that constituency of Catholics) that a consensus is developing around moderating that teaching.

Another example is the direct change Francis introduced in Catholic teaching on capital punishment. The conversation about the taking of life as a result of the verdict of a court – once acceptable to Catholics – produced a clear understanding that such a teaching couldn’t be justified on pro-life terms. The result is that capital punishment is now officially contrary to Catholic teaching.

What Francis is demonstrating is that in the difficult and sometimes complex moral dilemmas thrown up by greater knowledge and understanding it is possible to respect the teaching while concluding that a moral action – seemingly in conflict with the teaching – is both necessary and desirable.

This process is usually understood by the phrase ‘the development of doctrine’. In other words, Catholic teaching is not set in stone but develops as knowledge and understanding increase. And there are multiple examples in the history of Catholic thought – even though some continue to insist it never happens!

Those ultra-conservatives who reject any possibility of any change in Catholic teaching – as exemplified by some American Catholics still holding a flame for capital punishment – are like the Pharisees who criticised Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6:9). Jesus knew the Jewish law that forbade his decision but effectively he knew too that in certain cases conscience determines what is right.

The complex reality of balancing respect for traditional teaching with the necessary vision to sometimes moderate the rules reflects, as Peterson suggests, the wider society – conform to the rules but use judgement, vision and truth to guide conscience to tell us what is right, even when the rules suggest otherwise.

Talking of the balance that conscience provides, here’s a topical question for Catholics. Of the following two alternatives, which reflects what is right: to call for the opportunity to publicly celebrate the Holy Week ceremonies; or to sacrifice that good in order to ensure that fewer might contract COVID and fewer might die?

Answers on a postcard to the Irish Catholic Bishops.



















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