‘The acceptance of life as it is must teach us trust and humility,” the late Roman Catholic author Caryll Houselander once wrote. “This is because every real experience of life is an experience of God.” Al Kresta quotes her in his book Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents. A year after Pope Francis’s first days as pope, Kresta talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the pope, the Church, and skeptics.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Are “danger” and “opponents” very Pope Francis words?
AL KRESTA: They aren’t his first words but they are words of his. In fact, the second paragraph of Pope Francis’s The Joy of the Gospel begins: “The great danger in today’s world . . .” His target is consumerism. Throughout The Joy of the Gospel, however, he identifies many “dangers”: relativism, radical individual autonomy, scientism, amoral use of biotechnology, abuse of wealth, the new gnosticism, and the confusion of image, rhetoric, and ideologies with reality.
Like most of the popes, Francis knows there are “enemies of the gospel” (the language is St. Paul’s) and opponents like Nazism, Communism, socialism, and consumerism, which try to undermine the Catholic way of life. During the political battle in Argentina over the legalization of same-sex so-called marriage, he identified its originator as our enemy the devil. If people think that Francis is merely the kinder, gentler Benedict, they don’t know either man. Both knew error was our enemy but that people are our mission field.
Our aim is not to make or keep opponents or enemies but to reconcile them. Error can’t be reconciled to truth. People can. We try to understand why people believe what they believe not to acquiesce in the face of falsehoods but to contend against falsehood. We try to meet people where they are in order to help them find where God is. Too many Catholics — and I have been guilty of this — expect people to somehow make themselves ready to hear the gospel. We find ourselves a little peeved at their ignorance, their flippancy, their spiritual indifference and apathy, their crude and poor taste, their apparent incapacity to experience awe and wonder. We write them off because they prefer Fifty Shades of Grey to Brideshead Revisited or Lord of the Rings. This smug attitude is what Francis is trying to correct. We meet people where they are and let the Holy Spirit deal with those inner resistances to the gospel. For our part, we present the gospel and enjoy our mission. We don’t take the credit for people’s conversion, and, if we carry out our responsibilities, we don’t take the blame if they remain outside the faith.
LOPEZ: You are firm on the importance of “thanksgiving.” You write: “If our lives are absent thanksgiving, then our lives are absent Christ.” What makes you so sure of this? And if it’s true, what does a life of thanksgiving look like practically speaking?
KRESTA: The giving of thanks runs deep in human nature. “Selfish gene” evolutionary psychologists continue to puzzle over how traits like altruism and thanksgiving serve the individual’s evolutionary survival. Other theorists recognize that these cooperative traits are as much a part of our evolutionary story as competitive traits. This latter is what one would expect if we are ultimately made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. These traits, including the impulse to give thanks or express gratitude, bear witness that we are, at root, social creatures. Thanksgiving builds communion and cooperation. Humans are soft-wired to thank their Creator and experience some communion with God. We know that we didn’t make ourselves. We owe our life to an “other.” Catholics know that the human person is not a product of impersonal matter in motion but an intelligent creation of the infinite, personal God who within Himself is a society of persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On those beautiful spring days, when one is healthy, and love is in the air, how easy it is to just slip into an ejaculatory prayer of thanks. It is almost instinctive. Even unbelievers sometimes catch themselves doing it. We might not even know to whom it is directed. We are just glad to be alive and that joy is directed outward to whomever or whatever so blessed us. This is the problem with atheism: there is ultimately no one to thank. That impulse remains futile and unfulfilled. No one is there. No one hears your praise. When all is said and done, we are locked up in our individual selves with no communion, just infinite isolation. Just as the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving is the source and summit of our faith, so too, the little daily acts of thanksgiving are the source and summit of our common life together. Grace perfects nature.
LOPEZ: You haven’t always been Catholic. What makes you such a confident evangelist now?
KRESTA: I was baptized as a Catholic. During my elementary years, I was sacramentalized but not evangelized or catechized. After confirmation, “adolescent doom,” as Melville called it, swallowed me up. My parents’ generation had extolled the virtues of wine, women, and song. My generation, however, wanted those pleasures with greater intensity so my life became the stereotypical drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. At the close of high school, I had a moral/spiritual epiphany in which I perceived two diverging paths. One was a way of life associated with spirit and virtue. There was also the one I had been traveling — the way of death created by self-indulgence, a passion for pride of place, and a mongering for wealth, comfort, and power. I wanted to change paths and live. I became a metaphysical vagabond traipsing all over the country and settling in what we know call “New Age” or “New Consciousness” spirituality. By the grace of God, my associates were a very disciplined, mature, industrious group, and they helped me grow out of my adolescent self-absorption.
But a few years later, while reading the Bible for the first time as a student at Michigan State University, I realized that the Jesus of the New Age was not the Jesus of the New Testament. I was a humanities major and Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the bodily resurrection became the hinge of history for me. I started telling people about it. Over the years, by the grace of God, I saw a number of people repent and believe the gospel. For years I propagated the faith through operating Christian bookstores until an evangelical Protestant church asked me to serve as its pastor. It’s funny. While Sally and I had always attended various churches, we had never signed up to be formal members until I was asked to pastor one. My ecclesiology was pretty low. I loved pastoring and the church was growing, but, in time, the questions forced upon me as a pastor required that I reconsider the claims of the Catholic Church.
Maybe it had gotten some things wrong, but at least nobody denied that, historically speaking, it preserved a link with the very first Christian communities. I needed to check this out. Among many things, I was troubled by the disunity of Christians and began to wonder why I was perpetuating our own ecclesiastical independence. So often the Catholic Church answered questions and displayed wisdom in dealing with the Christian life that, in time, I had no good reason not to return to Catholicism. I resigned my pastorate and, in 1992, was reconciled with the Church. My wife and children became Catholic at the same time. I am confident about the gospel, because I have found it true to the way things are. It deals most profoundly with the unchangeable features of our common humanity. It affirms the goodness of the material world and respects the importance of history and the value of eyewitnesses to redemptive events. Also, my life has been changed by the gospel. I have often fallen short and am not all I can be but, by the grace of God, I’m not what I used to be.