As Pope Francis begins to unpack his ideas in Gaudete et Exsultate, echoes of his predecessor St. John Paul emerge throughout the entire second chapter. Not only is there a direct quote from one of John Paul’s apostolic exhortations, but the whole chapter has the feel of the philosophical, something that marked all of the writings of the beloved Polish pontiff.
Anyone who has studied philosophy, especially the history of philosophical thought, knows that the ideas being discussed in the academy become at some point the lifestyles of the people in the streets. It did not take long, for example, for the ideas of the European philosophes of the 18th century, men like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade, to become woven into the fabric of Western culture, yet their writings are – at least to the masses that follow their teachings – almost universally unknown.
For the purposes of Pope Francis the philosophical inquiry in Gaudete et Exsultate goes much further back in time, centuries earlier than the days of the French Revolution. The Holy Father begins chapter two with a discussion of a philosophical view – gnosticism – that dates to the first generations of the Church. Francis, in quoting John Paul, gets to the heart of the problem of seeing one’s Catholic faith through a gnostic lens:
“We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the ‘ignorant masses’. Saint John Paul II warned of the temptation on the part of those in the Church who are more highly educated ‘to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful’.”
The tendency to focus on what one knows (the terms ‘gnostic’ and ‘gnosticism’ come from the Greek gnosis, ‘knowledge’) can be of great spiritual danger and a major impediment to holiness.
Certainly, Francis – especially as a member of a religious order that so highly prizes education – is not denigrating the historically significant work of the Church in the liberal and fine arts, in the natural and social sciences. As a man who taught psychology, literature, and Theology in both a high school and a university setting, Francis knows the value of knowledge gained through formal education.
Yet, and here he invoked his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, there is a concern that the growth in and dependence upon knowledge might “extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.” The fear of both the medieval and the modern Francis is that the Christian experience can turn into “a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel.”
One of the great fears of spiritual writers throughout the centuries has been that a reliance on religious knowledge can distance us from that Gospel freshness by domesticating the mysterious nature of God. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has young Lucy describe Aslan, the Christ-figure, as “good but not safe”, and the fact that Aslan is a lion emphasizes that fact. God is not safe, and no knowledge should ever attempt to make Him so.
Similarly, Fr. Burtchaell, the prof in my Biblical Theology class in college, told us that Theological knowledge is akin to digging for buried treasure. The more we dig, the more we realize that the treasure is deeper and wider than we could have ever imagined. There is a real humility in coming to the realization that, no matter how much we know about God, we can never exhaust the mystery of the Divine.
Holiness is all about humility. As brilliant as were Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and all other scholars with “Saint” in front of their names, they are declared by Mother Church to be in heaven with their Savior not because of their brilliance, but because of their sanctity. And if there are any souls occupying the other place, it is not because they weren’t smart enough to get to heaven: it is because they weren’t humble enough to submit to the mystery of God and the holiness that can only grow out of that submission.
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