A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Speaking of Discernment

During this morning's homily at Santa Marta, Pope Francis prayed:

Lord give me the discernment to recognize the subtle conspiracies of worldliness that lead us to negotiate our values and our faith.

He then, apropos the reading from Maccabees, offered an interesting allusion:

with a reference to the 20th century novel, Lord of the World, that focuses on the spirit of worldliness that leads to apostasy, Pope Francis warned against the desire to “be like everyone else” and what he called an “adolescent progressivism”. “What do you think?” – he said bitterly – “that today human sacrifices are not made? Many, many people make human sacrifices and there are laws that protect them”.

Lord of the World was written by Robert Hiugh Benson, a convert to Catholicism and Catholic priest, who was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Of the novel Joseph Pearce writes that it depicts "a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity...a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all."

Benson wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Francis clearly finds his dystopian novel a cautionary tale.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Well, I never thought I'd hear of Robert Hugh Benson again on this earth.  Amazed that the Argentine pope has read him.

(His play, The Upper Room, was in my 12th grade Prose and Poetry of England, as an example of 20th century drama.)

I wonder if this recommendation by Pope Francis will lead to a revival of interest in Benson's work.  He credited his vocation to an 1882 novel, John Inglesant, by J. H. Shorthouse.


(I wonder if the pope mentioned Benson because today is his birthday.  Born Nov. 18, 1871. )

I read Benson's Come Rack, Come Ruin in high school.  Enjoyed it then.

I'd like to read his letters.  A shame they were destroyed.  From Wiki:

As a young man, Benson recalled, he had rejected the idea of marriage as “quite inconceivable”.[2] Then, in 1904, soon after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, he formed a chaste but passionate friendship with Frederick Rolfe. For two years this relationship involved letters “not only weekly, but at times daily, and of an intimate character, exhaustingly charged with emotion”.[3] All letters were subsequently destroyed, probably by Benson’s brother.[4]

In Teihard de Chardin's "Hymn of the Universe" (at least in my French edition) there are "Trois Histoires Comme Benson;" and the note refers to the English author, R.H. Benson, whose "mystical tale" had made a lasting impression on Teilhard.

"He said worldliness is the root of evil and it can lead us to abandon our traditions and negotiate our loyalty to God who is always faithful. This – the Pope admonished – is called apostasy, which he said is a form of “adultery” which takes place when we negotiate the essence of our being: loyalty to the Lord." -- from the above linked report on the homily.

I wonder to whom exactly this warning is addressed. The Vatican report certainly suggests that the target is a secular worldliness, and so, in a broad sense, it is. But is secular society in fact the only exemplar of worldliness? Unfortunately the whole history of the church (and churches of all sorts) suggest that all to often they too have embraced the ways of the world, most particularly the grasping for wealth and power that have vitiated the Christian message over the centuries. Secularism, in this sense, is nothing new, and though there are many saints (Francis himself one of the most extraordinary, of course) who have sought to counter these tendencies, they have all too often been unable to prevail against the temptations of secular worldliness for ecclesiastical as well as more secular leaders.

Paying a bit more attention to Ignatius's very pertinent advice (in the next post) would be very helpful indeed. But unfortunately his advice runs counter to much that we sadly see in our all too human (and worldly) nature.


Dr. Clifford:    Isn't it clear that the warning is addressed to Christians, and not least of all to ecclesiastics? seems to have a fuller account of Pope Francis' remarks.

One must ask what Francis means when he says "..the worldly spirit exists even today, even today it takes us with this desire to be progressive and have one single thought."


Charles Ryder:


the original Italian

"Perché lo spirito della mondanità anche oggi c'è, anche oggi ci porta con questa voglia di essere progressisti sul pensiero unico."

would be better translated:

"... desire to be progressive by embracing the pensiero unico"

where "pensiero unico" is a common Italian and French expression used to indicate a conformist ideology that attempts to marginalize all other forms of thought (in this case, based on the rest of the homily, it appears Francis is referring to Western liberal progressivism making  claim as a universal ideology). See:





Words that give pause for discernment:

«Voi pensate che oggi non si fanno sacrifici umani?», il Papa ha risposto:
«Se ne fanno tanti, tanti. E ci sono delle leggi che li proteggono».

"Do you think that today there are no human sacrifices? There are many, many.
And laws that protect [legitimize?] them."

"But is secular society in fact the only exemplar of worldliness? Unfortunately the whole history of the church (and churches of all sorts) suggest that all to often they too have embraced the ways of the world, most particularly the grasping for wealth and power that have vitiated the Christian message over the centuries.

In order to apply it to the leadership of the church we need to be specific. That is, is the 187 million renovation of St. Patrick's Cathedral necessary when people are working three jobs (some don't have any) to survive? Francis might start with selling off those "titular" churches and getting people like Cardinal Law a regular job. 

We have to revisit the fourth century discussion when Paulinus of Nola and Jerome re-directed the gospel practice of selling all to the poor to the renovations of great basilicas, shrines and the giving to monasteries rather than the real poor. 

Francis needs to redirect the giving to the poor where it belongs. Not to building edifices. But to real people. He is making a fine start by noting how human sacrifices (read slavery--fifteen million in India alone) are very much present today. Next he needs to show that hedge fund managers are not to be the honorees (divitees) in the church. Rather lazarus....

The better Benson to read is his younger brother,  E.F. Benson.  E.F Benson wrote the fabulous Lucia books.

Fr. Komonchak.

You're certainly right about it being addressed to Christians. And, I hope, to ecclesiastics as well as the rest of us. No doubt I'm guilty of reading the passage through lenses ground by the American episcopacy, which seems to prefer the place the blame on the rest of us, and seems unwilling to recognize that Christians have much to learn from world beyond the church doors.

Not that the questions are by any means easy. How do we distinguish between the kind of relativism that ultimately suggests there are no really important questions -- you have your ideas, I have mine, and who's to judge? -- and genuinely important questions for us as Christians? We as Catholics have historically not always been very good in recognizing the importance of those ideas that come to us from the outside, both Protestant and secular, though some of them eventually make their way in through those church doors (I'm thinking of ending slavery, for instance, economic justice, questions of race, political and intellectual liberty, and so on). And I'm thinking of us all too often being relativists ourselves, willing to ape the ways of the greater world outside us (the notion of a papal monarchy, for instance, which takes us back to ancient Rome, and more recently to the so-called "new monarchies" of Renaissance Europe, which brought us a kind of absolutism less known in the medieval world than it became a bit later).

And I think of the church's views of women today, and the call now for a new "theology of women" as they somehow don't fit into "normal" theology. An article in the most recent Tablet points out that the church has customarily pretty well restricted its views of women to maternal and service functions. But surely in that the church was no different from the rest of the world, and not just in the West (neither the Confucian nor the mainstream Buddhist views of women were particularly flattering, for example). Perhaps it's time for us to ask ourselves how much our official views of women have really been really theologically based? and how far they simply ape the  easy "relativistic" common views of our societies, western and otherwise, secular and otherwise?


Pope Francis uses the term "human sacrifices" in the same address as "adolescent progressivism"  and "desire to be progressive".  

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Charles, do you mean that Pope Francis is lamenting the fact that teenagers who desire to be progressive have casual sex and, if unprotected, may find themselves pregnant without being ready or mature enough to be parents and are led to having an abortion?


I have to admit that the pronouncements of our already beloved Pope Francis are sometimes obscure, if not baffling, not to mention sometimes downright contradictory.  Sometimes his off-the-cuff statements seem to be a report of his stream-of-consciousness, one thought following quickly after another without always being weighed one against each other.  His honesty is so winning we forgive him, but remain perplexed.


Maybe that's a good thing for the Church.  If the Pope comes to realize that he seems to be defending some opposing views at times (and I'm sure his new communications director must realize that that's sometimes a problem), maybe he'll review his thinking on those subjects.  For instance, his apparent criticism of "progressivism" conflicts with some of his other teachings, e.g., his teaching that the poor come first.  That latter position is one more likely to be held by liberals/progressives than super-conservatives or libertarians.  The whole subject needs to be rethought by the whole Church and put into some contemporary language that isn't so ambiguous.


Taking care of the poor is not only a liberal position. It is a conservative one also. The reason for this is it is the central teaching of Jesus. One just has to look at the annointing of Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,"

More accurately distinctions might be made as to conservative and liberal with reference to  strictness of rubrics, of children. on marriage, sex before marriage, etc. 

What makes Francis so effective is that he stresses this essential fact of the gospel. His efforts for peace etc. 


as a foreigner I assure you that the US division in liberals/progressives vs. conservative/libertarian is completely.... foreign to people in other countries. In Latin countries the 'left' has traditionally been Marxist or post-Marxist and the 'right' Christian-democratic. Neither of them fits in the American scheme.


It is true that now many countries are being influenced by American culture and are adopting the US  division in left-libertarians and right-libertarians, where in fact neither side really cares about the poor, except as potential voters to be manipulated with government hand-outs. That is exactly the progressivism Francis is concerned about.

Carlo --

Alasdair MacIntyre has shown that that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have a common root in the Enlightenment sort of "liberalism" which emphasized individual rights and in particular property rights.  Later the "liberal" Democrats came to champion rights (see the Civil Rights movement here which was led mainly by Democrats) while the "conservative" Republicans came to emphasize property rights, with some conservatives over-valuing all individual rights.  We've never had a Communist party of any size here, but though it is called "leftist" it could as easily be boxed with the totalitarians forms which included the old monarchies, whose supporters came to be called "conservatives" in Europe.

In other words, the inadequacy of the terminology reflects the highly complex history of Western political values, and use of the terms has become very problematic in many instances -- e.g., Francis' complaint about "progressives".  In the 18the century Enlightenment it was generally assumed that social progress was going to be inevitable as reason/science more and more guided the peoples, but that, of ocurse, proved wrong.  This is probably the sort of "progressivism" that Francis was condemning, but I don't think the word has the same meaning any more, at least not in the U. S.

Daily homilies are not encyclicals that mount (or attempt to mount) a sustained argumentation, nor even interviews where the interlocutor could ask a question for clarification. That said, it strikes me that there is a notable consistency in the Pope's homilies.

From his first to the Cardinals: "without Christ and his cross at the Center, the Church is just a charitable NGO," to his sermon to the Jesuits on the Feast of St. Ignatius to put Christ at the Center, he is proclaiming the person of Christ, not some abstract appeal to "Gospel values," much less our favorite cause, as the identifying loyalty of the Christian.

Hence the above-referenced homily is set within the context of the apostasy depicted in the Book of Maccabees. The fullest summary in English is here.

Thus, Francis's oft-repeated warnings against the reduction of the faith to ideologies (whether of left or right), against causes or positions that preempt our primary loyalty to Christ and risk making us Christians "della pasticceria" as he said in Assisi.

But to ascertain whether we are disciples of our preferred cause or disciples of Christ requires the arduous labor of discernment – on a daily basis.


a) what you describe never applied to Argentine or Italy. And even in the US it changed radically at the end of the 1960 when the Left embraced a technocratic mindset and the sexual revolution. So much so that in this country the Democratic party has largely lost the working class (except for ethnic minorities) and has become the party of Hollywood and Wall Street.

b) In the context of his preaching, I personally I am sure that when the Pope spoke of  progressivism the Pope had in mind what in this country for some strange reason are called "social issues" (although they are not "social" at all, since they mostly cather to the liberal bourgeoisie, not to the poor)


Fr. Imbelli --

Yes, Pope Francis does emphasize certain themes, and he's quite consistent about them.  But some of us find that he says some very strange things at atimes, things that are inconsistent with some of the other teachings of the Church.  For instance, La Stampa quotes Francis' talk about Confession at his General Audience today.  If he is quoted accurately, some of it is clearly inconsistent with what I was taught about the necessity to go to Confession.  He says we have a right to confess, not a duty.


All news - Vatican Insider - La Stampa




Thank you for your always sedulous research! I do not find the words you quote from "Vartican Insider" on the Vatican website. Here is what they give as the Pope's sentence:

I fedeli penitenti hanno il diritto, tutti i fedeli hanno il diritto di trovare nei sacerdoti dei servitori del perdono di Dio.

The faithful seeking the sacrament of penance have the right, all the faithful have the right to find in priests the servants of God's pardon.

In any case, even in the "Vatican Insider" version, the focus is on the obligation for the confessor to be a servant of Christ's mercy, and the pentitent's "right" to encounter such a priest, not on our "duty" to go to confession.

Fr. Imbelli --


Thanks for the Vatican version of the speech.  You are no doubt right that what Pope Francis intended to emphasize , as always, was mercy.   But that is not a problem.  


The problem I'm bringing up is that the Pope seems to have denied a basic Church rule concerning confessing all serious sins.  It is possible, of course, that  I was taught the wrong thing -- the rule is that we don't have to confess them.  Was I taught wrongly?


Another possibility is that the La Stampa reporter misquoted the Pope.   La Stampa's English translation says: “Do faithful who go to confession have the duty? No, they have the right to find God’s forgiveness in priests.” The La Stampa Italian original quote reads:  «I fedeli penitenti hanno il dovere? - ha chiesto il Papa - No, hanno il diritto di trovare nei sacerdoti dei servitori del perdono di Dio»." 


It's possible, I suppose, that the La Stampa reporter misheard the "No" part about the duty to confess.  But it is my understanding that La Stampa is a rich and respected newspaper that can afford competent  reporters, plus La Stampa doesn't seem to have any sort of ax to grind with the Vatican.  Given that fact that the Vatican just  withdrew that whole interview of the Pope by the editor of LaRepublica,  it looks as though it is more likely that the Vatican took out part of what the Pope actually said  And I say that is very serious business -- it's as if they think they can erase history.  In the old days the Curia buried things in its Archives.  Now it seems to be trying to destroy facts.  But in the immortal words of Jase Robertson "Once a thing is seen it can never be unseen".


even if one accepts that the "quote" given by La Stampa is correct (the Pope often departs from his prepared text and "ad libs" in an Italian that is fluent, but not always accurate), how you derive from it that he is quesioning the obligation for all (including himself!) to confess "all serious sins" is a puzzle.

Clearly, his point is the need for confessors to embody the mercy of Christ; and he says, according to the La Stampa version, that it is not the penitent's duty to find such a confessor, but the penitent's right to have such a confessor. The responsibility of finding such a confessor is not the penitent's; he or she has the "right" to such a confessor. The responsibility to embody the mercy of Christ is the confessor's; the penitent has the right to find in the priest the embodiment of God's forgiveness.

Contrary to your reading, a main thrust of his remarks is to stress the gift and importance of the sacrament to which he himself has recourse "every fifteen days."

As for your remark concerning the Scalfari "interview," I had on an earlier post here questioned the propriety of its placement on the Vatican website under "Speeches." The misplacement became even more egregious (in the English, not Italian sense of the word) when it was revealed that the text was based not on a recording or even notes, but on a reconstruction by the founder of La Repubblica.

" how you derive from it that he is quesioning the obligation for all (including himself!) to confess "all serious sins" is a puzzle."

Fr. Imbelli --


We'll just have to disagree about what Francis meant when he said (according to LaStampa), “Do faithful who go to confession have the duty? No, they have the right to find God’s forgiveness in priests.”  («I fedeli penitenti hanno il dovere? - ha chiesto il Papa - No, hanno il diritto di trovare nei sacerdoti dei servitori del perdono di Dio».) 


I think he's saying that if the only priest available is, say, a curmudgeon who is going to yell at you in the confessional, then you have no duty to confess to him.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment