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Perhaps Better Than We Can Hope For?

Although my first take on the Pope's interview was to see it as not really offering much hope for changes in doctrine, reflecting on it a bit more I see a couple of rays of hope in the section under the heading "Human Self-Understanding" towards the end of the interview.  Quite a few commentators have talked about the Pope's statement in that section about the acceptance of slavery and the death penalty in earlier times.  These are certainly interesting examples, since they are errors that were shared by those in authority in the Church at the time.  They are also stock examples frequently cited by those who advocate for doctrinal reform against excessively triumphalistic understandings of Church history.

Another passage in that section that has received less attention is the Pope's discussion of Thomas.  Here's the passage I had in mind:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.


“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.

If you treat the part I have put in bold text as forming a kind of single thought, the Pope seems to be suggesting that the Church of late has been (or even still is) not operating in one of its moments of genius or brilliance.  ("The thinking of the church must recover genius.")  It is not the most flattering portrait.  And his reference to the development of an ability to better understand how human beings live today, a project he identies earlier in the interview with the Second Vatican Council, may be a portent of more dramatic things to come. I don't want to read too much into this short passage, but such a reading would support those who see something more than a mere change in tone in the interview. 

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



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It is more than a change in tone. Unfortunately, one has to take into account bruised egos and hurt feelings. Renewal does not have to be harsh. At the same time the gospel should take priority.

Thanks, Eduardo.  Just posted on your earlier comment in reaction to those who knee jerk by using - well, he hasn't changed any dogmas or teachings.  That mantra misses what Francis is saying and laying out - discernment, encounter, beginning with where folks are at.

Tired Thomism or von Balthasar, etc.  Would suggest that Benedict's writings were not genius; they were rehashed, tired writings (nice, comfortable, but not brilliant) and they will spend time on dusty bookcases.

Same goes for the already questionned *Theology of the Body* stuff of JPII.  Not many theologians, etc. think very highly of his worn out, tired, and *unique* approach to natural law, description/definition of the female gender, etc. And the contortions folks use to continue to justify Humanae Vitae; approachs to the use of condoms in HIV/AIDs, etc. 

These are examples of taking Thomism (which is limited by its 14th century view of science, the world, philosophy, theology, scripture, etc.) and making every issue today (moral, ethical, social, philosophies, theologies) fit into the square Thomistic hole.  Contraception alone is a good example; and then think about those theologians who talk about the narrowness of a male, western European mindset as the *foundation* for all of our church decisions - pretty provincial and narrow.

Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth is a very mediocre production.


One signal of possible doctrinal change is that Francis specifically mentioned changes in "the family".

Well, if there is one thing I know about "genius" and "understanding how human beings live today", is that I have never found them in the tired ideas (mostly derived from 20-th century liberal protestantism and the 1960's) that inspire what passes for Catholic progressivism in the US.

Ah yes, the usual *1960s bad mantra*......guess you and Francis Cardinal George will just have to continue repeating that *liberal catholicism died* in the late 1990s.

You know - in the US, those tired 1960 ideas such as the civil rights act; the voting right act; the push for expansion in accepting diversity, less racial,ethnic, religious biases; welfare acts to address pre-school, food stamps, improve education, increase job training opportunities for all, etc.  Congressional acts that improved health; expanded US international support for reducing hunger, lack of access to clean water, address and eliminate a number of worldwide diseases.

Those terrible ideas to improve our air quality, our water systems and preserve water resources, national parks, etc.

Yep, those *tired* 1960s ideas.

There is no need for Thomas Aquinas today in the United States. Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrinch, Rick Santorum and the Action Institute have all the Catholic answers we need.

Humans are in search of themselves?  What, are we back in freshman philosophical angst, wanting to 'find ourselves'?  Where is the mature explicit leadership, the Gospel of Christ?  Is Catholicism turning into intellectual food for doctoral candidates?  I'm sorry, this is drivel, and it is frankly embarrasing.  Where are the grownups for God's sake?  Please.......

Bob S, --

Lots of people with college degrees never did get the chance to ask those basic questions and discuss them.  It's why, I think, the NYT now has an op-ed section/blog, The Stone, which does raise basic issues at times.  And WaPo now has a whole section/blog devoted to religion.  Plus, judging by the two philosophy courses I had at a Jesuit college when I was an undergraduate, kids in Catholic colleges at that time were discouraged from asking such questions when they conflicted with the usual cut-and-dry, uncritical manual Thomism of that day.

For some people the questions "what am I, what am I to do" are of utmost importance.  Don't laugh at them.  You have answers to everything.  They don't.


These kinds of navel gazing "college kids'" questions usually only occur among the leisured, spoiled offspring who don't have to work for a living.   I answered these kinds of questions while working full time and going to college at night.  No angst, no navel gazing, just straight-ahead slogging through the life-affirming tasks of family, work, and college.  And it felt soooooo good.  I have no sympathy for the whiners, not when I see the real angst of truly impoverished people in the much less prosperous nations of the world, usually ruled by the deranged and truly evil (as for example, in Iran).  Just call me hard-hearted Bob...

Bob S:  we are soooooooo blessed to have a Real Live Adult lurking here.

"These kinds of navel gazing "college kids'" questions usually only occur among the leisured, spoiled offspring who don't have to work for a living."

Bob S. --

I taught in a predominantly black Souther college in the mid-60's where a majority of the students came from poor to destitute ffamiliess and had the worst imaginable high school "educations".  Most of them spent a large part of their freshman year taking remedial courses of one sort or another.  Other students were middle-class and there were a few very well off ones.

I assure you that it's not just the elite who ask the existential questions.  In fact, kids from pitifully deprived backgrounds are perhaps even *more* likely to ask "Why?  Why?  Why?"  

Yes, it's true that many people have little curiosity about anything beyond their front door except their favorite football team.  Sad for them.  There's a lot more to life than the Super-Bowl.

While looking around on another blog I found a quote from J.D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey" that seems apropo to the question of intelligence as mentioned here.

“I can’t see why anybody — unless he was a child, or an angel, or a lucky simpleton like the
pilgrim — would even want to say a prayer to a Jesus who was the least bit different from the
way he looks and sounds in the New Testament. My God! He’s only the most intelligent man in
the Bible, that’s all! Who isn’t he head and shoulders over? Who? Both Testaments are full of
pundits, prophets, disciples, favorite sons, Solomons, Isaiahs, Davids, Pauls — but, my God, who
besides Jesus really knew which end was up? Nobody. Not Moses. Don’t tell me Moses. He was a
nice man, and he kept in beautiful touch with his God, and all that — but that’s exactly the point.
He had to keep in touch. Jesus realized there is no separation from God,”

While I am more than a little reluctant to suggest Christ is the only way to God, as ole' Fran does on occassion suggest, I do believe this new Pope is more than a little convinced of the usefulness of the last sentence of the quote above.  Pretty smart fellow.

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