Not Only the Truth but also the Way and the Life: Understanding Global Catholicism

Not Only the Truth but also the Way and the Life: Understanding Global Catholicism

An interesting follow-up to my post about rules of disputation derived from the Dominican and Jesuit traditions is this piece, also from one of the Jesuit bloggers at The Jesuit Post, about Pope Francis and understanding the agenda of the “global south.” Global Catholicism: The Church is Changing, But Not How We Might Think

The author, Jeremy Zipple, SJ, is a Jesuit graduate student studying theology at Boston College and the column is the result of many days of polling the various men in his community, who come from 22 different countries on six continents, asking them what are the most pressing issues for the Church in their home countries.

After the conversation with Ignace, I resolved to poll every non-Western member of my community regarding the most urgent problems confronting the church in his home country. I polled them all – Japanese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Nigerian, Kenyan, Chilean, Brazilian, Tanzanian, Turkish, Mexican, Syrian, Rwandan, Filipino. Poverty made the top #1 or #2 of all but three lists. Other top vote-getters among the Africans included: tribal tensions, HIV/AIDS, reconciliation after genocide, the rise of an aggressive form of evangelical Protestantism. Central and South Americans often mentioned evangelicals, drugs, and lack of educational opportunities. Many of the Asians mentioned poverty, too, as well as interreligious issues, i.e., the challenges of co-existing in multi-religious societies in which Catholic Christians were minorities. Clericalism and lay-cleric tensions were mentioned by nearly everyone I talked to.

From the men I lived with, I heard anecdote after anecdote of personal and communal hardships, of Catholics navigating problems so much more pressing than those I faced, in parts of the world I’d struggle to locate on a map. What shook me again and again was how removed their concerns were from the ones I spend most of my time debating on Twitter and at the dinner table. There was not a single mention of contraception (except obliquely, in relation to the HIV/AIDS question) – nor women’s ordination, abortion, liturgical disputes, or religious liberty (a few mentions of all-out religious persecution though – of the death-threat variety.)

And turns out, I’m not the only American guilty of solipsism in ecclesiastical matters. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find a commentator who doesn’t mention those “hot button” western cultural issues, and even more hard pressed to find any who seriously contend with Pope Francis qua churchman-from-the-global-south.

The whole piece is fascinating, but I wanted to focus on this bit that questions the whole enterprise of making the search for Truth the cornerstone of evangelization and the primary path to encounter with Christ:

Fr. Nicolás had befriended a Japanese bishop from Tokyo named Kazuhiro Mori. And once, when the two were conversing, Bishop Mori observed to him (I paraphrase): you westerners are so obsessed with truth – the truth of this or that doctrine, the orthodox belief – but that is not what Asians find compelling. In our intellectual traditions, our focus is on the way, e.g., the Taoist way, the way of the Buddha. So please, the bishop admonished Nicolás, never forget that Jesus says he is not only the truth, but also the way and the life! (cf. Jn 14:6).

Most of the American Jesuits in the room that night had spent time living outside the States – ministry experiences in the developing world are a built-in component of our Jesuit training – yet, as our big boss dropped those words, I saw surprise on many of our American faces. This was a way of considering Jesus that could sound nearly heretical to western ears. But the message from our fellow Christians in Asia conveyed to us by Fr. Nicolás was that this notion of Jesus, a Jesus who is not primarily a purveyor of doctrinal truths but a model for living a fecund and fulfilling life, was right there in the Bible.

Nicolás went on to suggest that while a concern for “truth” has long dominated a western-lead Church, that focus must now be tempered by values Asia and the global South bring to the table. In Nicolás’ understanding, Asian Christians had much to teach the global church about the necessity of the “way,” while Africa and Latin America could teach us of the “life.” In light of these considerations, Nicolás proposed to us that we might frame the global Christian journey as: “On the way. In truth and life.”

This also seems a healthy corrective to the blog flaming tendency. When we hyper-focus on Truth, getting it right, worrying about the distinctions and doctrines, do we risk losing people for whom that’s just not what is attractive about Christ? I can see how this plays out with Pope Francis. I know some people have been really disturbed by what they perceive as Pope Francis’ downplaying of many of the primary concerns of the Church in the US: abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. Yet it seems that Pope Francis’ concerns are typical of Catholics from Latin American, Africa, and Asia. Is he out of touch or are we?

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And while we’re looking at American Catholic concerns from a foreign point of view, I thought this piece on the HHS mandate was interesting.

One question remaining is whether or not an effort should be made to get exceptions to the HHS mandate on the grounds of freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. This, I have to admit, makes me very nervous.

Regarding the first—freedom of religion—the problem is that it simply is not a religious question. Abortion, contraception, and sterilization are no more a religious issues than are murder, rape, and incest. I fear that to claim an exception on the basis of religious liberty has a long term negative effect on morality in society because it leads people to think that right and wrong is not something that can be known by reason but is just about religious sensibilities.

Regarding liberty of conscience, I think this is ultimately conceding ground to relativism. The fact is that liberty of conscience only exists in indifferent matters. There can be liberty of conscience about whether the holy day in the week is Friday, Saturday, or Sunday because this cannot be settled by reason alone. But there can be no liberty of conscience in matters of stealing, raping, or paying reasonable taxes because reason can decide these issues. Therefore to claim liberty of conscience on the HHS mandate is to place abortion, sterilization, and contraception in the former category of indifferent matters. But this is just what the relativists claim and what we should deny.

The only benefit I can see about the freedom of conscience argument is that if it is granted by the State it is then, on their side, an implicit admission that one cannot know for sure whether the law is a just one. After all, when the State is certain about the justice of its laws—laws on theft, and tax, and so on—it does not give exception clauses on the basis of conscience. Hence, in this way, perhaps a freedom of conscience clause might act as a kind of Trojan horse within the law because it is an admission about the possible injustice of the law that might in time develop into a clearer recognition of its injustice. However, given what I have said about its relativist undertones, claiming freedom of conscience is a very risky strategy indeed.

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1 comment
  • “Is he out of touch or are we?”

    Neither. Although poverty is a problem here, it is not on the same order of magnitude as in other parts of the world. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work to eliminate what we can but it isn’t as pressing here. There is a hierarchy of problems that need addressing and the more, um, spiritual ones (that’s not quite the right word) seem a little silly when facing abject physical needs. Once physical needs are largely met, the more intellectual problems come to the fore. They are still important problems. Our focus depends on what surrounds us.