Sunday, May 6, 2018


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I have blogged on some of the talks in this excellent series and the one advertised above is the last in the current season.

It was by Philip McDonagh, who I knew was a diplomat but did not know he was also a poet and playwrite. And I certainly wouldn't have predicted that he would be giving a learned talk on Pope Francis's world view as revealed in the Pope's encyclicals and others of his documents.

We had some few years ago a talk from Paul Vallely on the then newly elected Pope Francis which concentrated very much on his life experiences and his assumed dark night of the soul which transformed him from an anti liberation theology ideologue into a caring and thoughtful pastor.

The emphasis in this talk was quite different. Philip was examining the Pope's analysis of the world situation as he saw it, its causes, its characteristics and possible ways forward.

Needless to say the Pope's analysis was couched in religious terms but taking out God and religion still left you with a robust secular analysis. That's mine and not Philip's remark.

This was quite an extraordinary talk for its breadth and depth. Philip has trawled through and reflected on the Pope's various documents and has attempted to bring us a summary synthesis of what Francis is about. Clearly this does not convey the whole, in the sense that one would be better to read the documents and reflect on them oneself. In other words, follow Philip's own journey.

Nevertheless Philip has given us a worthy map or guide for so doing and if we don't get around to it then we have in his talk an adequate representation and sufficient material for reflection and discernment in relation to Francis's approach. Hopefully the full talk will be published soon.

Meanwhile I am committing what I hope is not a mortaller in distilling further, and commenting on, Philip's talk. It is well to state at the outset that Philip is not entering into discussion on specific theological or pastoral issues, even where he may refer to them in passing. His aim is to convey the broad sweep of Francis's thinking and in this I think he has succeeded admirably. Whether anyone is listening to the message and is prepared to act on it is another matter entirely.

My approach here is to refer to some of the elements in Philip's talk accompanied by comments of my own. I hope I am not doing Philip an injustice in my selection from his selection from Pope Francis.

Text starting from the left margin is mine. That with a single indent and in italics is Philip's. And that with a double indent but without italics is the Pope's direct.

I was aware of Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' but was under the impression that it dealt solely with the environment, particularly knowing that Seán McDonagh was said to have contributed to it. Philip, however, has shown us the breadth of the issues it deals with and I hope he'll forgive me for an extensive quote from his talk:
Laudato Si’, published in May 2015, offers a dramatic and original perspective on global affairs through this ecological lens. For Pope Francis, humanity is now at odds with nature in an unsustainable way. The encyclical deals in a scientific spirit with a whole range of issues including waste disposal, the warming of the climatic system, the destruction of ecosystems, the pressures that lead to mass migration, water quality and the control of water by multinational businesses, the loss of biodiversity, the over-exploitation of forests and oceans, new forms of social breakdown and social aggression, the role of the digital media, the disintegration of cities, weapons development, debt and the financial crisis; all this accompanied by a relative absence of leadership, laws, and political planning. Running through the whole picture are disturbing images of pollution and economic inequality.

Taking just one aspect of the modern world, I have been struck by how the choice of how to approach the economy is usually presented in binary form. Either regulate everything (USSR model) or regulate nothing (USA model). I note how both these approaches result in their own form of oligarchs.

My own view is for the social market economy where strong regulation is in place at a very high level, reflecting the social preferences of the community. Then the market is allowed to perform its distributive, resource allocation and incentive functions within this framework. This, I think, is compatible with Philip's take on the Pope:
Auditing the mechanisms of the economy from a well-rounded human perspective is essential for what Pope Francis has called ‘redemptive change.’
Achieving the well rounded human perspective, or agreeing the rules, is not so easy. This is big stuff going way beyond the market and the economy. And here Francis is insistent on the role of dialogue, the widest possible dialogue:
Pope Francis is deeply interested in dialogue. Laudato Si’ has passages on dialogue on the environment in the international community; dialogue for new national and local policies; dialogue and transparency in decision-making; politics and economy in dialogue; and religions in dialogue with science. Elsewhere the Pope calls for inter-generational dialogue; inter-cultural dialogue; and inter-religious dialogue. In his address on the occasion of the conferral of the Charlemagne Prize in May 2016, Pope Francis states that ‘peace will be lasting in the measure that we arm our children with the weapons of dialogue.’
This quote from Laudato Si' gives an idea of what is behind the Popels thinking on the dialogue bit:
If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them (211)

This is like the idea of sensus fidei when it comes to the promulgation of religious dogma or edicts. You have to bring the bulk of the faithful along with you for the edict to not only be obeyed but for it to have any validity. We come across the same distinction when differentiating between simple majority rule and the more complex concept of democracy. It's a distinction that people often find difficult to grasp and that suits their rulers just nicely.

As this advice is emanating from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church it is necessary to mention specifically inclusion of the oft neglected fifty per cent:
At the levels of both principles and ethics, room will have to be found for a dialogue on women’s equality and any lingering assumption that leadership in the different sectors is for a vir bonus, a ‘good man,’ as opposed to a ‘good person.’
And then, even when we get agreed rules they cannot bind everyone absolutely. There clearly has to be room left for individual moral choice, or in RC terms, following your informed conscience.
Discernment is essential, first, because the inner and true nature of any political situation is often not adequately captured by any rule.
Or, as Francis puts it in another way in Amoris Laetitia:
[natural law cannot be] presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions (305)
At the same time we cannot afford to let ourselves be carried away with a sense of our own righteousness at the end of this process:
We might listen to the ancient Greeks: hubris is the archetypal human folly, against which a spontaneous reaction of shame is one of the last lines of defence.
And to put it another way in the vein of "Eternal vigilance is the price of peace":
There are signs that complacency about the state of our societal values can undermine democracy itself.

Philip quotes the Pope's four rules, which I haven't the space to elaborate here:
Time is greater than space
Unity prevails over conflict
Realities are more important than ideas
The whole is greater than the part
And Philip indulges in a little speculation here:
It would be a good exercise to try to imagine a non-violent strategy based on the Pope’s four principles for Israel and its neighbours; for the two Koreas and East Asia; or in any other current crisis.
There is clearly scope for reform, in both attitudes and actions in a lot of aspects of the modern world and Philip has listed a series of ten questions we might ask ourselves. I have just chosen three below by way of illustrationn:
The scope for aggiornamento is evident from the following questions:

2. Do we agree with Pope Francis that where economic decisions impact on others, governments have responsibilities – regarding, for example, our decisions on interest rates?

8. Do we accept that markets need a political context and a culture of trust that they themselves are incapable of producing and what are the implications of this for a values-led approach to security?

10. What are the political responsibilities of those who create platforms on the Internet?

Philip has set forth his own ideas for the future. These pick up very much on Francis's idea of dialogue and Philip's own experience as a diplomat who has been involved in significant and sensitive negotiations on the international front. These envisage a regional approach to widely based stakeholder dialogue.

As far as Ireland is concerned:
In Ireland’s case, to support a new multilateral, multi-stakeholder forum for ‘region-building’ through a deepening of principles and values would be to build on policy foundations that are already there.
And given what's going on here at the moment I should include the following:
In Laudato Si’ (120), Pope Francis states that ‘concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion.’

There followed a lively Q&A where Philip gave substantial answers to questions put and to remarks made.

My attitude at a lot of talks is that I'll wait and see the take up on the Q&A and if it looks like dipping, or not even starting, I'll make an intervention. That was my intention on the night here and it seemed to be flagging after one contribution. That didn't surprise me in a way as the talk, although challenging, had been quite comprehensive.

Anyway I decided to put in my tuppence worth and asked Philip for his reaction to the following. Given that there is a need for change in the church, is it not anomalous that those priests at the vanguard of change have been silenced while dissident cardinals doing everything in their power to oppose change are still at large.

Philip's answer, as I understood it, was that this wasn't really on topic as far as his talk was concerned and anyway it would not be acceptable for priests in their official teaching role to be undermining current church teaching.

I think I must have started something as the next comment was particularly critical of the church's treatment of the late Fr. Seán Fagan.

You might like to supplement this post by reading Philip's article in the Irish Times which sets the wider stage and reflects on his own experience.

Posts on previous talks:
Michael Jackson, John Coolahan, John McDade SJ, Jim Corkery SJ, John Bruton, Margaret McCurtain, Paul Vallely, Ruth Patterson, Michael Burrows, Richard Clarke, Pat Storey

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