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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thomas Merton & Christian Socratism: Convergence between Pope Francis & Pope John XXIII

Because I'm teaching an undergraduate class on Thomas Merton this semester, I have the happy task of re-reading some Mertonian texts.  I'm wading through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander at the moment, and just came across an interesting passage about the Church's relationship to, and interaction with, the 'world.'  In it, Merton talks about Pope St John XXIII's promotion of a "spirit of openness and dialogue," calling this spirit an embrace of "Christian Socratism."  As I read Merton's description of Pope St John XXIII's Christian Socratism, I was again struck by the tremendous convergence between Pope Francis and Pope St John XXIII on the Church and the world.  I wrote about this convergence in a previous blog post, noting the similarities in their words regarding how the Church should engage the world.  The passage I'm about to quote from Merton, however, fleshes out Pope John's thought more fully, and it seems to me that it finds an echo in the current papacy.
One of the admirable things about Pope John is his simple fidelity to the Socratic principle which is essential to our Western cultural tradition.  This is a very profound element in Pope John's thought, and he has shown in fact that true Christian renewal implies an understanding of and a commitment to Christian Socratism.  This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned.  Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue.  The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.  This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation.  And, after all, that is the spirit of the Gospel also.  We see it everywhere in the New Testament.  Those who were open to Christ and the Apostles, received the truth.  Those who refused dialogue, or who engaged in it only with political intentions, with pragmatic reservations and tactical subtlety, ended by crucifying Christ and slaying the Apostles.
The Socratic principle, as Pope John definitely sees, means not only the willingness to discuss, but the readiness to meet one's adversary as an equal and as a brother.  The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary.
Some seem to fear that in such encounters, meeting the adversary on his own ground, we leave the protection of the Church and Catholic truth.  They forget that if we meet the non-Christian as a brother we meet him on ground that is Christian.  If we fear to meet him on what is really our own ground, is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian? (p. 218).
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