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Could the Intellectual Periphery Be Closer Than We Think?

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2013)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of Jorge Bergoglio to the assembled cardinals in 2013 that, apparently, played a big role in his subsequent election to the papacy. This was the injunction to “go to the existential peripheries.” There are many kinds of periphery, and some of them are noncontroversial and dear to the heart of Pope Francis. The poor, the hungry, the oppressed, these are the obvious peripheries—the groups that have been named for many years by liberation theologians as “the marginalized.” In the well-known wish of the pope, “I want a church that is poor and for the poor,” these peripheries are to be made central. The missionary disciple who goes out to these peripheries with the message of the preferential love of God is doing exactly what the gospel demands.

But what of the other peripheries he includes? I have been considering, in particular, the peripheries of “ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents.” When we think about outreach to the poor, we know that the grace of God is extended preferentially to them, and the missionary disciple’s task is to make this clear by concretizing it. To see this in action, take a look at Paul Farmer’s work in health care in Haiti, Ecuador and Rwanda—work influenced by the theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. But just as grace is always already present to the poor, it is equally always already present to those who are indifferent to religion and those whose “intellectual currents” are not easily embraced in the Christian vision.

What does “intellectual currents” mean? An obvious example would be atheism, which is certainly more than “indifference to religion,” and 55 years ago the Second Vatican Council adopted an irenic posture towards those whose lives apparently do not need faith in God, even recognizing that the world has much to teach the church. But would I be entirely wrong to imagine that among the intellectual currents Bergoglio had in mind might have been what clerics love to call “radical feminism,” the “ideology of gender,” and neoliberalism? What does it mean to go out to those intellectual peripheries with the message of the gospel, knowing that these and others are always already graced?

Another of Francis’s favorite words is “dialogue,” and evidently the missionary disciple is called into dialogue with those whose intellectual positions not only come into conflict with gospel teaching, but whose grace-filled wisdom might also have something to teach the church that the church would not otherwise know. Upholstered with teachings or mere opinions that we may imagine belong to the heart of the gospel, encountering the grace-filled intellectual other, we might even find that we are, at the periphery, encountering the gospel anew. In his Marianist Lecture at the University of Dayton a couple of decades ago, Charles Taylor said that the church owed its commitments to justice and freedom to the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment. That kind of debt to the secular world was not exhausted in the 19th century. Indeed, the debt was not recognized for a century or so, and such might be the case for the intellectual currents with which the church is struggling today. So, the logic of Francis’s call to go to the intellectual periphery is one of overcoming the unhealthy polarizations of our contemporary world. When we recognize with Georges Bernanos that “grace is everywhere,” we have no other option than that of respect, of radical hospitality to the other who is no more and no less than us a mysterious mixture of sin and grace.

The one dimension of this outreach to the periphery that may not always be attended to is the internal outreach to those whose intellectual currents may be at odds with one or other official stance of the church. If the missionary stance of the church needs to be centrifugal, to move from the faith community out into the world, and if the centripetal opposite is too often a sterile kind of ecclesial navel-gazing, it is also true that no missionary orientation will be effective if the center from which it emerges is not itself sound. Hence the pope’s linking of being “for the poor with being poor.”

But at the same time, a church that can dialogue openly with the secular world, with all the potential relativization of its own positions that this might entail, needs to come to the task with an openness to its own internal differences. A case in point: Pope Francis’s evident lack of real understanding of the objectives of global feminism and of the many challenges of varied gender identities sets up a need for open dialogue with faithful Catholics who do not share his perspective and who may, in many instances, understand better the complex issues he is trying to address. Here, of course, the danger is that internally to the church there lingers the assumption that on ethical issues there is one approved perspective and therefore no need or room for dialogue with difference. This is much clearer when we move from the sensitive struggles of Pope Francis to the ugly power-play of a number of American bishops who seem to think that the gospel calls them to fire good teachers in same-sex relationships, oh, and by the way, to eject their children from the Catholic school system.

What if we recognize that it is increasingly the case that the range of ethical postures that we find in the world as a whole is matched by the variety of convictions of faithful Catholics? For quite some time now, the church has accepted the idea of the development of doctrine. Development implies growth, and growth requires dialogue and argument. But what about the development of ethics, which will be intrinsically connected to our developing understanding of human nature? In one area, that of the relationship between a theology of creation and the kind of concern for the earth expressed in Laudato Si’, we have managed to grow in a healthy direction. In consequence the church in general, and the pope in particular, have become global leaders on environmental issues. Here, we might say, the dialogue has somehow been successful. Can we now imagine the same process occurring in the realm of sexual ethics, biology and the possibilities of medical technology? Only, I think, if the church can manage outreach to the internal periphery. Respect for the external other cannot consistently coexist with the condemnation of the internal voice of dissent.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.


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