[Go here for a follow-up to this piece.]
This evening a friend mentioned some comments in the Holy Father’s recent Epiphany homily, which he found very unsettling:
“One aspect of the light which guides us on the journey of faith is holy ‘cunning’. This holy ‘cunning’ is also a virtue. It consists of a spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognize danger and avoid it. The Magi used this light of ‘cunning’ when, on the way back, they decided not to pass by the gloomy palace of Herod [!], but to take another route. These wise men from the East teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life. By this holy ‘cunning’, the Magi guarded the faith.”
While I admit that this gave me an initial chill as I recalled the pope’s claim that Jesus was “pretending” about his anger, I reassured my friend that the “cunning” statements didn’t bother me. I get the pope’s point, see a certain wisdom in it, and on the whole I think it’s one of his better homilies. (He must have been reading the script!)
Viewing the video of the homily confirms that he was reading a transcript, but–I think he knew that he was deploying a very risky term in “holy cunning”. If you begin watching at about 1:00, you’ll notice how the Holy Father rolls along with the transcript in front of him, but then (1:18) pauses for several moments, looking up from the transcript to discuss “holy cunning” (la santa “furbizia”).
Pope Francis’s mind works on multiple levels at once, which I think accounts for many of the malapapalisms that we’ve witnessed in the past several months. He thinks he’s saying all he needs to say to his audience, since his larger, reticulated point makes sense “in his own head”. This bit about “holy cunning” is a perfect example.
The term (“sancta quadam vafricie” –> “la santa furbizie”) has a legitimate and somewhat respectable pedigree that apparently begins with Erasmus, though I believe Erasmus says he got the idea from St. Jerome. Erasmus explained “sancta vafricie” as a tactic for winning converts by concealing some harsher realities until the audience is won over by softer appeals, and he alluded to St. Paul’s method of “becoming all things to all people” as mentioned in I Corinthians 9:19ff. (The ol’ missionary bait-and-switch, if you’re not careful.) Another facet of the term’s pedigree is almost certainly its place in that manual of social persuasion and winsome Jesuit cavils, The Art of Worldly Wisdom by the Jesuit Baltasar Gracián y Morales.
And yet there’s another layer.
In the video you may notice the very faint grin that lightens the pope’s face when he looks up from the transcript (off-the-cuff time!). Given how passionate a fan he is of soccer, I am positive that he is alluding to the Italian “furbizia” style of bending the rules in order to rattle opponents on the field.
So, there you have it.
I am not a dogmatic Francis-hater.
I think he hits some real home runs sometimes, such as his Epiphany homily, but I also think his wordplay with “la santa furbizie” highlights a recurring problem with his sense of pastoral diligence. Recall his recent interaction with Cdl. Meisner. Pope Francis all too easily assumes–expects–that everyone “gets” the layers and layers of nuance behind his otherwise very volatile and frankly vulgar terms. He doesn’t “get his audience” as often as we like to give him credit for. Worse, when controversy starts, he can rarely be bothered to elucidate his own convoluted layers of meaning. Hence the meme, “What Did The Pope Really Say?”
I mean, even though I loved the sermon, and gained a stellar new favorite quotation from it, I’ve been in the trenches of “discerning Pope Francis” too long not to notice some trademark ironies and shibboleths in the closing section of the homily:
“[The Magi] teach us not to be content with a life of mediocrity, of ‘playing it safe’, [cue typical jab at doctrinal security and traditional humility; clerical mediocrity and doctrinal safety were also derided in the Spadaro interview] but to let ourselves be attracted always by what is good, true and beautiful… by God, who is all of this, and so much more! And they teach us not to be deceived by appearances, by what the world considers great, wise and powerful [said Esquire’s Best Dressed Man in 2013 and Man of the Year twice over]. We must not stop at that. It is necessary to guard the faith. [From doctrinal and catechetical confusion, perhaps?] Today [?] this is of vital importance: to keep the faith. We must press on further [another trope from the Spadaro Manifesto], beyond the darkness, beyond the voices that raise alarm [i.e. those expressing concern–instead of keeping total silence–about theological half-truths and pastoral recklessness], beyond worldliness, beyond so many forms of modernity that exist today. We must press on [once again] towards Bethlehem, where, in the simplicity of a dwelling on the outskirts [BEHOLD THE PERIPHERY!], beside a mother and father full of love and of faith…”
As someone with a missionary heart, and a multilingual background, I’ve always treasured I Corinthians 9, which is perhaps why hearing Erasmus’s notion of “holy cunning” in the pope’s homily did not really bother me. What I will grant, though, is that it would have been an even better sermon without the provocative valorization of cunning–which is, at bottom, a form of deceit–and I think Erasmus is a pretty thin reed upon which to mount a “virtue” of cunning. But hey, I’ll just chalk it up to “Bergy being Bergy” and call it a night.