Living in Untruth

See? Continuity.

Pope Francis met with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican today, and gave an address that could not have been more of a piece with Benedict XVI, whom he invoked as "much beloved."  Themes: the Church (& papacy) in service to all mankind; peace; Truth as the foundation of peace. Compare the text with this one Benedict gave to a similar body.  Or to political and cultural leaders in Croatia. Or especially this address in Fatima to leaders of culture.

I'll highlight a few things and then get to what I think might be the most important sentence.

  • Good will. He opens by pointing out that their presence as diplomats demonstrates their nations believe the Vatican brings "added value" as it were to the world. If the Church were irrelevant, there'd be no Vatican diplomatic corps. So they share broad common goals. 
  • Poverty. He chose the name "Francis" because Francis of Assisi is revered even among unbelievers for his kindness, service to the poor and respect for creation. The name is a sign of solidarity with and intention to serve the poor, who suffer tremendously and who are not small in number in the world -- and everyone knows of the work Christians do among the poor, homeless and marginalized. Poverty, however, is not only material but spiritual, and the wealthy nations of the West are plagued by this form of poverty:
there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the "tyranny of relativism", which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.
I highlighted the line about nature --natural law-- because I've been meditating for months about Western refusal to accept any limits and what it portends.

Last June a friend of mine who has become L.A.'s go-to joke-writer visited. Over the years he's written for everyone: SNL, Conan, Jon Stewart, Martin Short, every award show imaginable. His wife works as a film "colorist." I'd never heard of that, so he cited as an example of her work a starlet thought of as a fashion maven and health guru who actually has a terrible exercise addiction and is so skinny and stringy that the veins of her arms pop out hideously all over. (He maintains that pretty much everyone in Hollywood has an addiction. If it's not drugs or alcohol, it's exercise -- but it's always fanatical.) His wife's job is to fiddle with the color in the film so that this haggard, frightening looking person appears luminous and vital -- glowing with health. Then he made an off-handed remark I've been thinking about ever since. "We've conquered nature; the rich are skinny and the poor are obese."

What are we to make of a culture in which the poor are obese? And the sickest, most dysfunctional people in the world are giving us health tips in the fitness magazines?

Shortly thereafter I re-encountered Benedict XVI's remark in Light of the World about the colossal debt all the Western nations are mounting up without thought:
We are living at the expense of future generations. In this respect it is plain we are living in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.
Then there is the fraught topic of sexuality. People who can't go even a day without looking at p0rn are considered free, in opposition to the "repressed" who have no such addiction. The people who still know where babies come from are mocked as anti-science while pseudo-science brings us same-sex marriage. We fund Planned Parenthood in the middle of a profound birth dearth.

Increasingly we aren't even able to discuss these things -- we all use words like liberty, freedom, democracy, family, sex, gender, happiness, budget cuts, care for the poor -- but there is no common definition of these words on which to build any genuine communication. I used to think Babel was one of those Biblical metaphors for human experience. How could people be working together on a project and suddenly start speaking other languages? But the last election cycle -- particularly my exchanges with fellow citizens at the polling place where I worked, and my conversations with young cousins-- were precisely like that. It seems like one minute we were speaking the same language and suddenly we aren't. The actual change has not been sudden, but we see it starkly all of a sudden. Like the time when I momentarily thought my rosary links had turned to gold. No, I'd merely worn off the plated finish over time -- and suddenly noticed it. 

Getting back to Francis. It seems from this address that we have a hint of his program: to remind us all that there is such a thing as truth, as reality, which cannot be infinitely and indefinitely defied without man himself crumbling like the Tower of Babel. And he emphasises the title "Pontiff"  -- bridge-builder- as his mission:

One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is Pontiff, that is, a builder of bridges with God and between people. My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced! ....
In this work, the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world. And it is also important to intensify outreach to non-believers, so that the differences which divide and hurt us may never prevail, but rather the desire to build true links of friendship between all peoples, despite their diversity.
Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges: these, as it were, are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries here represented to take up. But it is a difficult journey, if we do not learn to grow in love for this world of ours. Here too, it helps me to think of the name of Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation.....
I didn't ever fully understand Benedict's emphasis on the environment since he often criticized the green movement, but the reflections of the past several months have brought me deeper clarity, I think. Calling us to recognize beauty, to re-connect with nature and have some respect for it is part of the journey back to a recognition of natural law and recognizing limits that are not arbitrary exercises of authority but an acknowledgment of the the way things are.

Benedict has already the intellectual labor. It falls to Francis to embody it with prophetic witness.

P.S. Have you seen the photo going around equating John Paul with Faith, Benedict with Hope and Francis with Charity in terms of the focus of their missions?  I think I like this formulation better, in which the trio of pontiffs embody the Transcendentals. John Paul II (think Fides et Ratio) articulated Truth; Benedict articulated Beauty; Francis seems poised to embody Goodness.

Update: See also Samuel Gregg: Pope Francis and the Return of Natural Law