The Personalist Project

Do you cringe when you hear the word compassion? How about pastoral? Or dialogue?

I do--or I used to. 

When I first started writing regularly, I didn't realize there was anything in particular I was longing to say. But over and over I found myself honing in on the same theme: reclaiming buzzwords, salvaging grains of truth, rescuing babies being tossed out with their bathwater. 

Here's what I mean:

When you reduce some noble reality--say, compassion--to a red-flag buzzword, then of course you've done a disservice to the reality itself. If you can get people to think it's compassionate to do away with your cancer patient's suffering by doing away with him, or to address poverty by interfering with the conception or gestation of babies in Detroit or Nicaragua, then you've reduced compassion to a caricature of itself. People who don't know any better believe that that's all compassion means.

And that's a shame.

But look what else happens. People who do know better get so weary of watching the conniving, the sleight of hand that swaps out the real thing for the caricature--that we end up turning against the real thing too. The red-flag word sets off a reaction, and pretty soon we become not only circumspect when it's mentioned--not only cynical--but we start to acknowledge only the buzzword meaning. Confronted with a question calling for genuine empathy, our first instinct is to sneer, "Don't talk to me about your 'compassion!'" No one can say a word about the real thing without drawing our attention towards the counterfeit. Real compassion gets abandoned, eclipsed. We get so we can no longer admire it or even recognize it when it's under our noses.

One persistent objection to Pope Francis is that he naively embraces reductionist baloney, the buzzword-caricatures of realities like compassion, diversity, encounter, and, most especially, dialogue. You don't dialogue with evil, people object. You attack it; you defend yourself against it. You call it by its name.   

And they have a point. You can't just take at face value everything that slaps a pleasant-sounding label on itself. You don't just declare that because dialogue is a good thing it must be engaged in incessantly and indiscriminately. 

But how to make wise distinctions? How to avoid falling for the counterfeit without dismissing what's genuine? I found some help from, of all people, Pope Francis in Chapter One of his book Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on following JesusIt addresses how to know whether and when to engage in dialogue, but it also nudges you to ask whether you yourself are acting like a person worth entering into dialogue with.

Incidentally, too, it lays to rest the caricature of the Holy Father as a simpleton who can't tell propaganda from reality.

There are three kinds of people who seek dialogue, he points out, and Christ responds to each in a particular way.

The first are those who engage in "devious dialogue": the Pharisees, for instance, asking about whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.  {"But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"). Or the Sadducees, with their hypothetical seven-times-married woman. These He instructs, or He asks them a question in turn: He doesn't simply let them set the terms of the debate: 

This ploy is so shameful that the Lord doesn't even bother to argue with the tricksters; he responds simply by asserting the sublimity of the glorified life.

Then there are those who "want to lay down conditions." They want to learn from Him or follow Him, but only in secret (Nicodemas), or only if they can be the conversation-managers:

The Samaritan woman ...attempts to deflect her dialogue with Jesus because she wants to avoid what is crucial; she prefers to speak of theology rather than explain about her husbands.

He keeps dialogue going, but that doesn't mean He lets her get away with changing the subject.

Others agree to follow Him, but only after attending to other seemingly more urgent matters. Again, He doesn't refuse dialogue, He just declines to water things down one iota.

Finally, there are the open-hearted ones. They're not just trying to snatch something else under the guise of dialogue; they're not trying to negotiate a deal for eternal life at a reduced cost.

They put everything on the table. When people draw close to Jesus in this way, his heart overflows with joy.

Entering into dialogue, just like "having compassion" or "taking a pastoral approach," turns out not to be such a simple, all-or-nothing affair. By all means, let's dump the bathwater of reductionism and caricature. 

But let's make sure to save all the babies.

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