Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Conscientious objection


1611 words, 8 min read

The supremacy of conscience in determining the actions of an individual is a key principle of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, in no uncertain terms, presents it as the ultimate criterion: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC, §1790). Regardless of whether it is “right” or not - and it can certainly also be wrong! - “[i]n all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience.” (Dignitatis Humanae, §3).

This is, indeed, not only the teaching of the Catholic Church, but also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ articles 1 and 18:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In practice, the picture is far from clear though, in that external forces - but internal ones too - often push in directions opposed to a person’s conscience and going against them can come with significant risks, to the point of putting one’s own life on the line. The United Nations themselves recognize this clearly and in their guidance about conscientious objection with regard to military service, give the following example of probably the earliest recorded conscientious objector:
“In the year 295, on reaching the age of 21, Maximilianus, as the son of a Roman army veteran, was called up to the legions. However, he reportedly told the Proconsul in Numidia that because of his religious convictions he could not serve as a soldier. He persisted in his refusal and was executed. He was subsequently canonized as Saint Maximilian.”
It may not always be a matter of life and death though, at least for the person whose conscience can come in conflict with external forces, such as a state’s laws, and the qualifier “certain” used in the Catechism as well as the knowledge that one's own conscience may be erroneous can both put a question mark over one's conscience. The principle of following it can therefore be less than unambiguous in practice and arguments for its bending and dulling can easily creep in. This may, in part be what has resulted in the, to my mind, disgraceful positions taken by some politicians and representatives of the Catholic Church in Central Europe with regard to the refugee crisis (and the opposite of what has thankfully lead many citizens as well as clergy and lay persons to do the right thing).

Against the above background, I would here like to translate parts of an interview that Cardinal Walter Kasper gave yesterday, in which he addressed the question of conscience in the context of the refugee crisis and with reference to the laws of individual states. Here Kasper starts his argument from the position of mercy:
“To welcome someone is a work of mercy and justice that goes beyond state laws. The Holy Year of Mercy reminds us about what the Old and New Testament teach: we must welcome as brothers and sisters those who arrive to us from oppressions and persecutions. And even before we understand whether or not they are to be considered refugees, we must remember that they are human beings and as such have the right to live in a healthy and free environment. It is clear that immigrants must respect the rules of the society that welcomes them, but we must be open because that is what Christian mercy asks of us.”
Next, he goes on to directly address how mercy and the laws of states relate:
“State laws are to be observed, but they are not the ultimate criterion of being a Christian. Mercy goes further. The state cannot give orders to mercy. In this sense, the laws stipulate a minimum level for the rules of coexistence, while mercy goes beyond. And it is only mercy that gives a certain warmth to our society, without it and without compassion we would live in a very cold society. [...] There is a question of conscience. One has to wonder if a man who has no documents can be returned to a country where he was persecuted. It is clear that a state has the right to ask for the documents of immigrants, but there is always room for individual conscience.”
In fact, Pope Francis took this same argument even beyond the confines of the Church, by emphasizing the inviolability of a person's conscience also in the case of non-believers (in one of his first acts as Pope - the letter to the atheist Eugenio Scalfari):
“[T]he mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. There is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed. Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil. It is on the basis of this choice that the goodness or evil of our actions is determined.”
And, some months earlier, in his remarks before the Angelus prayer, he explained what he means by conscience, in clearly Christian terms:
“[T]he importance, even for Jesus, of conscience [was this]: listening in his heart to the Father's voice, and following it. Jesus, in his earthly life, was not, so to speak, “remote-controlled”: He was the Word made flesh, the Son of God made man, and at one point he made a firm decision to go up to Jerusalem for the last time - a decision taken in His conscience, but not on His own: ​​with the Father, in full union with Him! He decided in obedience to the Father, in profound intimate attunement to the Father’s will. For this reason, then, the decision was steadfast: because it was taken together with the Father. In the Father, then, Jesus found the strength and the light for His journey. Jesus was free. His decision was a free one. Jesus wants us Christians to be free as he is: with that liberty, which comes from this dialogue with the Father, this dialogue with God. Jesus wants neither selfish Christians, who follow their egos and do not speak with God, nor weak Christians, without will: “remote-controlled” Christians, incapable of creativity, who seek ever to connect with the will of another, and are not free. Jesus wants us free, and this freedom – where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience. If a Christian does not know how to talk with God, does not know how to listen to God, in his own conscience, then he is not free – he is not free.

So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.”
During the press conference after his visit to the USA, Francis also explicitly applied this same principle to the scenario of a conflict between individual conscience and state law:
“[C]onscientious objection is a right, and enters into every human right. It is a right, and if a person does now allow for conscientious objection, he or she is denying a right. Every legal system should provide for conscientious objection because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise, we would end up selecting between rights: “this right is good, this one less so”. It is a human right. I am always moved when I read, and I have read it many times, when I read the “Chanson de Roland”, when there were all these Moors lined up before the baptismal font, and they had to choose between baptism and the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It’s a right and if we want to have peace, we have to respect all rights.”
While its prominence has recently been heightened, conscience has been given great respect throughout the history of Christianity, which can also be seen in the following guidance given by St. Francis of Assisi to the leaders of his own order:
“If a superior give any order to one who is under him which is against that man's conscience, although he do not obey it yet he shall not be dismissed.”
At a time when obedience to hierarchy was unquestionable, Francis underlined the importance of placing conscience above obedience even in a context where authority may be exercised with the best of motives and by the best and most holy of people.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Enter darkness, make your closeness felt

Widow nain

1532 words, 8 min read

A book-length interview with Pope Francis, by the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli and entitled “The Name of God is Mercy”, has been published today and I would here like to share some of my favorite passages with you (and encourage you to read it in full!).

First, there is Francis’ rooting of mercy in Ezekiel’s account of the foundation of Jerusalem:
“[M]ercy is God’s identity card. God of Mercy, merciful God. For me, this really is the Lord’s identity. I was always impressed by the story of Jerusalem as it is told in chapter 16 of the Book of Ezekiel. The story compares Jerusalem to a little girl whose umbilical cord wasn’t cut, who was left in blood and cast out. God saw her wallowing in blood, he washed the blood from her, he anointed her, he dressed her, and when she grew up he adorned her with silk and jewels. But she, infatuated with her own beauty, became a harlot, taking lovers not for money but paying them herself. God, however, will never forget his covenant and he will place her above her sisters so that Jerusalem will remember and be ashamed (Ezekiel 16:63), when she is forgiven for what she has done.

For me this is one of the most important revelations: you will continue to be the chosen people and all your sins will be forgiven. So mercy is deeply connected to God’s faithfulness. The Lord is faithful because he cannot deny himself. This is explained well by Saint Paul in the Second Letter to Timothy: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” You can deny God, you can sin against him, but God cannot deny himself. He remains faithful.”
Second, Francis exalts the goodness of starting again over that of an (impossible) never failing:
“The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way. The important thing is always to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds. The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He loves me for what I am, he wants to raise me up, and he extends his hand to me.”
In fact, earlier in the book, Francis is explicit about the impossibility of not sinning and follows it up with a great quote by St. Francis de Sales:
“We must take this sad reality of ours into account: no one can avoid sin, small or great, for very long. ‘But,’ as Saint Francis de Sales said, ‘if you have a little donkey and along the road it falls onto the cobblestones, what should you do?’ You certainly don’t go there with a stick to beat it, poor little thing; it’s already unfortunate enough. You must take it by the halter and say: ‘Up, let’s take to the road again . . . Now we will get back on the road, and we will pay more attention next time.’”
Third, there is a good number of personal experiences that Pope Francis shares in the book, to give his answers to Tornielli’s questions a fresh sense of concreteness and specificity. Of these one of my favorites is the following:
“Back when I was rector of the Collegio Massimo of Jesuits and a parish priest in Argentina, I remember a mother with young children, whose husband had left her. She did not have a steady job and only managed to find temporary work a couple of months out of the year. When there was no work, she had to prostitute herself to provide her children with food. She was humble, she came to the parish church, and we tried to help her with our charity, Caritas. I remember one day—it was during the Christmas holidays—she came with her children to the College and asked for me. They called me and I went to greet her. She had come to thank me. I thought it was for the package of food from Caritas that we had sent to her. “Did you receive it?” I asked. “Yes, yes, thank you for that, too. But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.” Experiences like this teach you how important it is to welcome people delicately and not wound their dignity. For her, the fact that the parish priest continued to call her Señora, even though he probably knew how she led her life during the months when she could not work, was as—or perhaps even more—important than the concrete help that we gave her.”
Fourth, in response to being asked to clarify what he meant when he said that famous “who am I to judge” soon after being elected pope, Francis said:
“I am glad that we are talking about “homosexual people” because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love. I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together.”
Fifth, in the context of being asked about the “scholars of the law” whom Francis frequently lambasts in his homilies, he recalled a great quote from St. Ambrose’s De Abraham:
“When it comes to bestowing grace, Christ is present; when it comes to exercising rigor, only the ministers of the Church are present, but Christ is absent.”
Sixth, Francis addresses the important question put to him by Tornielli of whether there is a risk of “infection” when dealing with those who live in sin:
“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brethren live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it. Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock. It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many “wounded” we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy. So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance.”
Seventh, there is also a great deal that made me smile in this book, like the following passage that, while clearly communicating a profound truth, does so with humor:
“At times I have surprised myself by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet Jesus. I think back to the words of God’s servant John Paul I, who during a Wednesday audience said, “The Lord loves humility so much that sometimes he permits serious sins. Why? In order that those who committed these sins may, after repenting, remain humble. One does not feel inclined to think oneself half a saint, half an angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults.””
Eighth, Pope Francis speaks beautifully about how compassion relates to mercy, using Jesus himself as the example:
“Let us reflect on the beautiful pages that describe the raising from the dead of the widow’s son. When Jesus arrived in the village of Nain in Galilee, he was moved by the tears of the widow, who was devastated by the loss of her only son. He says to her, “Woman, do not weep.” As Luke writes in the Gospel: “When the Lord saw her, he felt compassion for her” (7:13). God Incarnate let himself be moved by human wretchedness, by our need, by our suffering. The Greek verb that indicates this compassion is σπλαγχνίζομαι [splanchnízomai, ed.], which derives from the word that indicates internal organs or the mother’s womb. It is similar to the love of a father and mother who are profoundly moved by their own son; it is a visceral love. God loves us in this way, with compassion and mercy. Jesus does not look at reality from the outside, without letting himself be moved, as if he were taking a picture. He lets himself get involved. This kind of compassion is needed today to conquer the globalization of indifference. This kind of gaze is needed when we find ourselves in front of a poor person, an outcast, or a sinner. This is the compassion that nourishes the awareness that we, too, are sinners.”

Friday, 8 January 2016

Reason in Faith: God’s exile of love in the world


1592 words, 8 min read

The questions of how faith and reason relate to each other and to reality are of central importance in contemporary dialogue, and while I have previously focused on this topic with the desire to either make religious thought accessible to a non-religious reader or vice versa, I would here like to share a view “from inside”, a view that is deeply embedded in Christianity. I will do this by providing an English translation of a few passages from a book I have just read, in which the great Christian philosopher, Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, gives an account of his personal journey through philosophy. It is an account that is profoundly internal to its author, whose roots as a poet give the narrative both a mesmerizing beauty and, at times, call for his words to be be wrestled with repeatedly, putting us in the position of Jacob’s encounter with the angel (Genesis 32:22-33). Even if the result is defeat, and a hip injury, I believe that Zanghí’s words will leave us with an inner conviction that then allows for free, universal dialogue with all.

Zanghí, who in his youth met and then throughout his life followed Chiara Lubich, recounts this foundational piece of advice early on in the book:
“It was Chiara who [...] made me pay attention to all expressions of human enquiry, because, she told me, each of them had been, is in love with the truth and in one way or another had, has touched it. In all there is a patrimony of suffering, invocation, anticipation, which must be respected with humble attention and strong participation. “You have to learn from everyone,” she said, “so that you may draw near to all with love.””
It is with this conviction, that behind all human enquiry there is a desire for truth and that all human enquiry also arrives at some truth, that its various forms can be approached with humility and be candidates for participation.

In this context, Zanghí understands our engaging with reality as:
“a unitary discourse set in a reality that is wholly given as God-Love’s word of love. An intuitive discourse, in which a face of reality, infinite in its original source that is the Word of God, opens itself up rationally and thereby offers itself to our weakness, to be reached in its entirety by the unity of knowledge that is wisdom.”
Since the above is a highly concentrated expression of what engaging with reality consists in, Zanghí proceeds to spell out what he means and anchors thought in Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross (pp. 26-27):
“The philosopher’s1 approach to reality does not presuppose a previous mathematical approach (as Plato wanted): it captures, in one go, an aspect of reality in which reality speaks-gives itself all-in-a-piece. To the philosopher (like the mathematician, physicist, artist), in their “innocence”, reality gives herself wholly, without mediation through other kinds of knowledge, but she presents herself with a face that expresses all of her concealed in her entirety.

Every field of knowledge grasps all that is real, but reality is given to it in a way that hides while revealing.

And here the fulfillment of Jesus’ question - the commandment of mutual love (John 15:12-17) - opens itself to the thinker (and the artist). Because it is in the actuality of this that the one reality can be approached by a perichoresis of different kinds of knowledge, in a circular dance of knowledge, that is light and in tune with the profound harmony of God. Each kind of knowledge is custodian of its approach to reality; reality that unfolds fully in the mutual embrace of the different kinds of knowledge, an embrace in which individual thinkers will be lead to stripping themselves of their own approaches, making them gifts for the others. To receive as a gift the real in its entirety, that transcends individual kinds of knowledge.

Jesus forsaken is always the teacher: being and non-being. Knowing how to face the “emptiness” that follows the true gift, “losing” one’s own knowledge out of love in the attentive listening to the other, joined in their knowledge by my knowledge, mine and no longer mine, and waiting for their gift of a response in which I find again my knowledge made more complete by theirs. Without making their knowledge pass through the maze, the grating of my knowledge, that would result in me being joined by none other than myself.

In this communion one can, in some way, catch, in the faces of reality through which it is reached by our knowledge, the one face that it speaks and does not speak, to reveal itself to our reciprocal love. Catching the face of the triune God, of Trinitarian perichoresis, that speaks itself while hiding in realities and opens itself in their communion.”
What Zanghí presents here in highly dense and poetic language is an understanding of reality, knowledge and God that is unlocked by what Jesus revealed about the Trinity, and therefore love, in his abandonment on the cross. Since love is about loving in a way that requires a total self-giving, to the point of becoming empty, and about being loved, where my emptiness is filled by the other’s total gift, and since the God whose very life is such love is the source of reality, it too can only be grasped in that same dynamic of love, and knowledge too follows the logic of self-giving to an empty recipient. As a result, reality (spoken by God) makes itself known to our mutual self-giving. Knowledge is received when we empty ourselves and offer ourselves as gifts to each other. In such a world, dialogue is fundamental, since it is the space where knowledge is received as gift. It becomes the privileged locus of understanding and participating in reality and the lives of others, rather than being a mere PR exercise or an attempt at influencing others and changing their minds.

With the above world-view, let’s finally turn to Zanghí’s reflection on faith and reason (pp. 38-39):
“Faith and reason are not two ways of knowing. Faith without reason would remain blind, suspended in emptiness. Reason without faith would remain unfulfilled desire. They would remain one outside the other, one foreign to the other, ripping man apart.

And reason could never offer its light, out of love, to penetrating in faith the mystery of God and as far as possible to opening his riches to a creature, allowing itself to be lead to the pinnacle of its power, and immersing in those riches the created realities. Reason, without faith, would remain folded in mortifying impotence.

And faith could not let penetrate to the heart of man the light of God who is God in his loving self-offering to the efforts of the creature - efforts which, moreover, are provoked by that very light. The promise of knowing in the way in which it is known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12) would remain unfulfilled, the order of created things would not be illuminated by the divine Order, by the Trinity, but would have to give itself a poor and unsatisfactory foundation and unfolding.

We must unite the divine that is offered in faith immersed as “form” in reason, and the human that is open in reason, pulled to himself by God, in faith for being filled with light. Without confusion and without separation.

For me it has been a beautiful experience to follow the rush of reason unfettered by cultural blocks, to the point of feeling it welcomed by God, who responds to it in faith, in a perichoresis, still on a journey, of the divine and the human.

Faith, due to one of its aspects, is, in some way, reason itself being led by God, in the ecstasy of cognitive love, outside itself, remaining itself but permeated by Christ.

Reason in faith is, in some way, the voice of God in its exile of love in the world.

Reason is the material offered to God who gives it human-divine form in faith.

Reason as the seal of divine love that participates in man, as a creature, his Logos.

Faith as the tenderness of God-Love for his creature, whom He does not want to burn with His divine power but lead, respecting it in its creaturely weakness, in a consuming embrace in which the creature, while entering the searing heart-mind of God, must remain herself.

Faith, in short, as a moment of mediation between that which I can here, as a man, know of God through the Revelation of God, and that which I will then know of God in God’s own way, no longer mediated through faith. Remaining man, like Jesus at the right hand of the Father is always the man of Nazareth.”
What strikes me as I re-read these passages for at least the tenth time is that clear both-and instead of an either-or that Zanghí establishes between faith and reason. On the one hand, the picture he presents can be seen as showing reason as supreme, since faith only plays a temporary role, as tender protection against the overwhelming power of God and therefore as a means for preserving our identity in the face of God. On the other hand, his words can also be heard as exalting faith above reason, since faith is reason transfigured, Christified, an expression of God’s love.

1 I will render Zanghí’s “metafisico” as “philosopher” even though it might be more correct - but arguably more cumbersome - to say “metaphysician”.