As Julian Carron wrote, if you don’t understand Francis, you don’t understand the problem. The problem is the same one seen by Benedict XVI as Joseph Ratzinger after the fall of Communism in 1989. Benedict wrote in “Without Roots” with Marcelo Pera president of the Italian senate: “The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: “The crumbling of man’s original uncertainties about God, himself, and the universe. The decline of moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem today. Left untreated, it could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger – above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.”
In other words, the West won economically in the cold war, but we have not discovered the Absolute without which we do not know who we are. We continue to be turned toward ourselves which continues to trap us in what then-Bergoglio termed “libertine atheism” after the Uruguayan philosopher Alberto Methol Ferre who laid bared the new dominant ideology after the fall of the Marxism-inspired forms of messianic atheism.It was Methol Ferre who called it libertine atheism, and which Bergoglio describes as follows:
“Hedonistic atheism and its neo-Gnostic trappings have become the dominant culture, with global reach and diffusion. They constitute the atmosphere of the time in which we live, the new opium of the people. The ‘sole form of thought,’ in addition to being socially and politically totalitarian, has Gnostic structures: it is not human, it recycles the different forms of absolutist rationalism with which the nihilistic hedonism described by Methol Ferré expresses itself. It dominates the ‘nebulized theism,’ a diffuse theism without historical incarnation; even at its best it produces Masonic ecumenism.”
Sandro Magister writes that (in the the book-length interview that has now been republished) Methol Ferré maintains that the new atheism “has radically changed its face. It is not messianic, but libertine. It is not revolutionary in a social sense, but complicit with the status quo. It has no interest in justice, but in all that permits the cultivation of radical hedonism. It is not aristocratic, but has transformed itself into a mass phenomenon.”
But perhaps the most interesting element of Methol Ferré’s analysis is in the answer that he gives to the challenged posed by the new hegemonic thinking:
“This is what happened with the Protestant Reformation, with Enlightenment secularism, and then with messianic Marxism. An enemy is defeated by taking the best of his intuitions and pushing them further.”
And what is his judgment of libertine atheism?
“The truth of libertine atheism is the perception that existence has an intrinsic destination of enjoyment, that life itself is made for satisfaction. In other words: the deep kernel of libertine atheism is a buried need for beauty.”
Of course, libertine atheism (read: the turn to self) “perverts” beauty, because “it separates it from truth and from goodness, and therefore from justice. But – Methol Ferré warns – “one cannot redeem libertine atheism’s kernel of truth with an argumentative or dialectical procedure; much less can one do so by setting up prohibitions, raising alarms, dictating abstract rules. Libertine atheism is not an ideology, it is a practice. A practice must be opposed with another practice; a self-aware practice, of course, which means one that is equipped intellectually. Historically the Church is the only subject present on the stage of the contemporary world that can confront libertine atheism. To my mind only the Church is truly post-modern.”
There is a stunning harmony between this vision of Methol Ferré and the program of his disciple Bergoglio’s pontificate, with his rejection of “the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be imposed with insistence” and with his insistence on a Church capable of “making the heart burn,” of healing every kind of illness and injury, of restoring happiness.
Here we have the conflict between the two preceding millennia that has evangelized by communicating thought, and the turn of Francis to evangelize by the friendship of personal encounter. Or better, an example was Francis’ articularion of Pope Paul VI’s opposition to artifaicial conctraception in terms of a bravely prophetic stance on behalf of the poor of the world against the powers of the age, driven by neo-Malthusian and eugenic assumptions that poverty is a consequence of overpopulation. Liberals in the North, who both inside and outside the Church have seen this as an issue of personal autonomy rather than an anticolonial defense of the rights of the poor, were taken aback. But so too were conservatives accustomed to defending Humanae Vitae in doctrinal terms.
The depth of this needs translation. Libertine atheism is not an ideology but a practice – a praxis, a personal a encounter with the Lord –, and therefore it cannot be countered by mere ideology. It is the praxis of being turned to the self (”It’s all about me”). The change of era that we are in consists in understanding this: that the Church in its first and second millennium had performed its mission of evangelization by thought and words. Now, however, evangelization must take place by a personal experiential encounter. This is highlighted by the encounter of Luigi Giussani and Hans Urs von Balthasar in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. Giussani congratulated von Balthasar on the heights of his intellectual theological achievement. Von Balthasar responded “Yes, yes, but you have created a people,” namely Communion and Liberation. When asked what was Communion and Liberation, Lorenzo Albacete, without missing a beat, responded: “It’s Opus Dei for lazy Catholics.” It is directed to creating a culture of encounter with Jesus Christ which is the meaning of Christian faith. .
This transition of era does not come easily. It’s not easy to understand where we are supposed to be going until we understand where we are. Karol Wojtyla, Saint John Paul II), was a major protagonist of Vatican II and particularly of “The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes). After the conclusion of the Council and before his election as pope, Wojtyla returned to his diocese of Krakow and wrote for them a catechism of Vatican II that he entitled “Sources of Renewal.” The opening chapter sets the fundamental question that the Church asked of itself and which continues to ask and which, I believe, Francis is answering in the most practical terms, to the consternation of large portions of the Church. Wojtyla was precise in formulating the question and, indeed, the answer to that question can enlighten our understanding of Francis today. The question was formulated in the first chapter that was entitled: “The need for an enrichment of faith,” and took the concrete formulation: “What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic and a member of the Church?” But he immediately distinguished that question from what one would normally think it meant. He wrote: “If we study the Conciliar magisterium as a whole, we find that the Pastors of the Church were not so much concerned to answer questions like ‘What should men believe?,’ ‘What is the real meaning of this or that truth of faith’ and so on, but rather to answer the more complex question: ‘What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic and a member of the Church?'”
And so, what is at stake in Francis’ attack on ““Hedonistic atheism and its neo-Gnostic trappings“? I answer, not only whether God is, but what we mean by God. Is He “A Being” as we understand this or that being, or is He Other as the highest and the most Being?
In the concluding document of Aparecida actually shepherded as whole to concusion by Bergoglio began (7): “Faith in God who is Love …” and shortly went on to say: “A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles in some sacraments, to … conceptual “stuff” is not Christian faith. Faith is a lived knowledge of Ghrist whereby one becomes Christ and therefore known by experience of the depths of self as gift to others in the peripheries.