The Discernment Of Continence, The Continence Of Discernment

The Pope said in his recent interview that one eventually gets tired of dogmatism and authoritarianism. He said that he learned philosophy in his youth from “decadent Thomistic commentaries,” which, he implied, became tiresome and unproductive. Francis remarked that true discernment is not facilitated by reliance on epitomes–spiritual Cliff’s Notes, that is. One needs to come to terms with the whole of what Ignatius said, the entire “constitution”–the Jesuit constitution, he meant, but we could apply the injunction to grappling with other classic works.

This is very much consonant with his insistence at several points in the interview that the church should not become imprisoned in “small-minded rules.” Francis is very much a Jesuit in circling back over and over to the theme of “discernment,” which is at the heart of the Ignatian spiritual exercises. And those exercises are, in turn, very much connected to an even more antique Greco-Roman tradition of philosophy as a way of life (hat tip to the work of the late Pierre Hadot on, for example, Stoic and Epicurean spiritual exercises).

Francis cautions that “in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be: if a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions–that is the proof that God is not with him…Uncertainty is in every true discernment.” This Pope is a subtle and dialectical fellow who also seems to be enjoying speaking what is on his mind. I might wish for acknowledgment of more than an “area” or “margin” of uncertainty when it comes to discernments about God’s will for our world, but this pope has taken such pains to distance himself from a monarchical style that perhaps I should be slower to judge! I do not think he is leaving much room at all for reactionary bishops or cardinals to find fault as yet. While he portrays them as obsessively focused on law rather than gospel, they are reduced to saying his words are being misconstrued and need to be read in full. I do agree, though, with Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter that regardless of the warmth of the welcome to gay Catholics “the wounds will not heal if the teachings remain the same.” And despite Francis’s utterly remarkable comment that “what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo,” his notion that “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops” would become more impressive if this “Mary” person had a last name, was alive today, and the Pope appointed her to be a Cardinal.

Next week will likely be a leading indicator of what institutional changes this Pope has in mind, with the “G-8” group of cardinals meeting with him in Rome. I think that in Rome, as in Washington, the battle for the high ground this fall may be framed in terms of discernment and continence–as in, to put it pugnaciously, I discern that I am standing on the high ground of moral and spiritual continence, and those others are flat-out out of control and incontinent, and lacking any discernment to boot.

P.S. For further reading I am pleased to recommend a non-decadent commentary. I know that it is not decadent because it was written by Thomas Aquinas himself! To wit, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, by Thomas Aquinas (Dumb Ox Books:Notre Dame, Indiana, 1993), particularly Book 7, Continence and Incontinence, pp. 407-474.


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