A statue of Christ is pictured at Santo Domingo de Guzman Church in Managua, Nicaragua. What the Church needs, argues Douglas Farrow, is Jesus. OSV News photo/Maynor Valenzuela, Reuters

Christ Himself must lead the Church’s journey, not a fellowship of listeners

By  Douglas Farrow, Catholic Register Special
  • November 3, 2023

In (paragraph) 28 of Laudate deum, Pope Francis issues a word of warning to the world “on the climate crisis,” couched in apocalyptic terms.

“We need to rethink among other things the question of human power, its meaning and its limits,” he writes. “For our power has frenetically increased in a few decades. We have made impressive and awesome technological advances, and we have not realized that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings, capable of threatening the lives of many beings and our own survival. Today it is worth repeating the ironic comment of (Russian philosopher Vladimir) Solovyov about an ‘age which was so advanced as to be actually the last one.’ We need lucidity and honesty in order to recognize in time that our power and the progress we are producing are turning against us.”

Francis released his Apostolic Exhortation on the eve of the Synod on Synodality, which has just concluded its first phase. The Synod is also about the meaning and limits of power: papal power, episcopal power, lay power. And I do mean power, not authority. Authority leads to dogma. Only on the grounds of authority can dogma be dogma or be received as dogma. But attention to dogma, we have been told, encourages rigidity, if not frigidity. The goal of the Synod is to turn the Catholic Church into a sort of procedural republic, of the kind familiar from Anglican and Protestant spheres. It will be a fellowship of listeners and a communion of communiqués. It will be a people who through “conversations in the Spirit” learn to find a word from God in each other’s experiences. But they will still have to find ways to distribute power, or ways will be found for them.

The name of Jesus appears in this Exhortation only three times: twice at the beginning, to tell us that He was sensitive and tender; once near the end, to tell us that He invited others to attend to the beauty of nature. He was the very model, in other words, of one who listens to nature and to His fellow humans. Only as such, it seems, is He the answer to the alleged “crisis,” a word that appears 10 times. Or of “global” relevance, a word that appears some 30 times. His own power lies altogether in His sensitivity. So the Exhortation is as germane to the Synod on Synodality as to the climate crisis. Arguably the whole synodal process, the prototype of which ran in Germany as Der Synodale Weg, is a decadent Catholic version of what (German theologian Friedrich) Schleiermacher called for at the end of his fifth speech on religion: “To worship the God that is in you, do not refuse us.”

In a curiously inverted fashion, however, this three-year exercise in navel-gazing also answers to the final lines of the epilogue to the Speeches, fulfilling Schleiermacher’s prophecy respecting those who still insist on being Catholic after the great Illumination: “They will rush into a vain and fruitless activity, and the portion of art that God has lent them will turn to foolishness.”

In this context, the Pope’s appeal to Solovyov appears painfully dislocated, like a shoulder out of joint. It was on the eve of his death that Solovyov wrote the book from which Francis quotes. In it, he makes a prophecy of his own. Solovyov prophesies that a false church will betray the true, but, in betraying it, also reveals it as true. Only thus will the latter at last be granted that peace and unity which is in accord with God’s will. The former, on the other hand, he expounds as the product of an apostate generation that thinks it can dispense with truth, beginning with dogmatic truth. It is to a crisis of truth — the truth of the faith and especially of resurrection faith — that he points, and it is the tendency to see dogma as rigidity against which he warns. Olovyov lampoons the false church already in the preface to his book. It is vain and fruitless in the extreme, for at its heart is no gospel but only a hole where the Gospel ought to be.

Like Francis, Solovyov directs a question to evolutionary optimists and their cult of progress. It is not a question about the dangers inherent in man’s technological prowess, however, but a question about man himself and his religion. More specifically, it is a question about whether we should regard evil as “only a natural defect, an imperfection disappearing of itself with the growth of good,” or reckon with it as “a real power, possessing our world by means of temptations.” If the latter, then help in fighting it, insists Solovyov, “must be found in another sphere of being” altogether. Mere political manoeuvring, such as Francis proposes… or “listening” drills, such as were used at the Synod, will avail nothing. What is really required is Jesus Christ Himself.

This is not what we hear in Laudate deum. In its final line, Francis does warn technocratic man against presuming to take God’s place as conductor of the “marvelous concert” of all God’s creatures. Such a man, he says, becomes his own worst enemy. For “the technocratic paradigm can isolate us from the world that surrounds us and deceive us by making us forget that the entire world is a contact zone” with God (66). To this warning even the dogmatically rigid might manage an amen. But note: these words, “contact zone,” are drawn from a passage in Laudato Si’ (233) where he leans on the Sufic spiritualist, Ali al-Khawas, who “stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God.” Francis displays here his tendency to think outside the confines of the Creed; even to tug at the pantheistic strands of Western mysticism, from (Meister) Eckhart to Teilhard (de Chardin), which also invite one to go in search of the God within us, or at least of that “narrow gate in the depth of the soul,” as Martin Lings puts it, “through which it can strike out into the domain of the pure arid unimprisonable Spirit which itself opens out on to the Divinity.” For this, Jesus Christ, however inspired, is not required. He may even be an impediment.

(Douglas Farrow is a professor of theology and ethics at McGill University in Montreal. This is an excerpt from his long form essay “Beware the Beast from the Earth,” readable at douglasfarrow.substack.com.)