‘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.
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.
LOPEZ: We are to model lives that make the consumerist model look “immature, weak, trifling, and shallow.” How do we do that?
KRESTA: On the demolition side, we need to mock the silly uses of branding. This is an old problem pointed out first, I think, by Vance Packard beginning in the late 1950s and repeated endlessly since. Take a look at Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary, The Persuaders. But we remain willingly seduced by the sirens of Madison Avenue. I use the old but still classic image of the Marlboro man only because almost all my readers remember him and younger folks seem to get it well enough and at least one of them has sued Marlboro for the lung or throat cancer he developed. Robust, resourceful, frontier-like, Marlboro, the man, is pictured in the great outdoors, often without a cigarette, inhaling all that fresh air apparently offsetting the cancerous vapors he was urging us to inhale. Or those extraordinarily sculpted young women and buff guys in Budweiser commercials. No serious beer drinker can maintain a figure like that. Almost all modern ad campaigns try to associate their brand with some transcendent value. Nike promises superhuman, godlike abilities. Subaru promises love. Starbucks sells community as much as coffee. Benetton was, of course, selling multiculturalism and racial diversity. We should mock these irrational attempts at pairing perceived virtues with mere products. The truth is that these large multinational corporations are spending vast amounts of money trying to brand your heart so you will be a lifelong consumer of their brand. Mock it in front of your children. Mock it from the pulpit. Mock it around the water cooler.
On the edification side, we combat consumerism by living a life characterized by thanksgiving. Practically speaking, the Catholic way of life is a life of thanksgiving. Supernaturally speaking, of course, the Eucharist, the great Thanksgiving, is the source and summit of our faith. But this is the perfection that grace has wrought upon the primitive human impulse to give thanks to any “other.” Thanksgiving can perfect our lives. For instance, St. Paul prescribes the single virtue of “thanksgiving” as the antidote to a wide variety of sins: anxiety, gluttony, lust, double crossing, carousing, etc. Gratitude functions as a type of existential fluid keeping life well lubricated as long as it flows through our inner life. We can face all circumstances if we have learned to give thanks in all things.
A life of thanksgiving is ultimately a life focused on Eucharist. This is the antidote to consumerism. We model sacrificial giving rather than consuming and acquiring. St. Paul urges us to enjoy God’s good creation as long as we give thanks. This is spiritually transformative. To avoid gluttony, wellness experts tell us to savor each mouthful of food. Chew slowly, enjoy the food, don’t deprive yourself of it. The very slowing of our lives down to give thanks, to savor what we possess, will free us from the tyranny of immoderation or even keeping up the Joneses. I don’t know how many technological devices I own that I either can’t use or only use in their most rudimentary tasks. Better to savor what I have and learn to use it properly than to lust after the newest. My status as an executive or a communicator will not be diminished if I don’t have the latest gizmo.
Sabbath rest is also a life marker for those fighting consumerism. In the history of Israel, the Sabbath was about work stoppage as well as worship. The Sabbath was a day to withdraw from the anxiety and the economic demands of Pharaoh and refuse to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption, buying and selling. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Herschel said that “he who wants to enter the holiness of the Sabbath must first lay down the profanity of chattering commerce . . . and the fury of acquisitiveness.” Benedict XVI similarly urged us to recover “the astonishing experience of gift. Man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life, and society.” Sabbath rest frees us to enter into those truths. We must heed the wisdom of Pope John Paul II in Dies Domini. Let’s resurrect our sanctifying of Sunday. We can use our freedom from obligation and labor to re-experience grace and recall that we are defined by being not having.
LOPEZ: What is the so-called “Francis effect”?
KRESTA: The “Francis effect” is driven in large measure by some of the worst media reporting in history. It’s been complicated by the Holy Father’s affability and willingness to chat with reporters with all the imprecision, incompleteness, and asides that normally accompany mere chatter.
People do love him. I love him. I was at the CNN studios in Washington two months ago. The CNN escort and makeup artist and I were chatting about why I was there. I told them I was a Catholic and both of them jumped right in affirming that they were Catholic, too. Apparently Catholic was cool. Time was short, but in the next minute it was clear that one of them, at least, knew nothing about Francis except his style. He even worried that dark embedded forces at the Vatican might get to him and shut him up. What I found surprising was that, at the very least, these Catholics who gave no evidence of being especially engaged with doctrinal, moral, or liturgical matters had hearts open to hear what Francis had to say. They may become disillusioned when they realize that he won’t be changing doctrines, but for now I’m glad he is getting the “star” treatment. We don’t have a cult of personality surrounding the pope, but in a celebrity-saturated world it doesn’t hurt to have a Mother Teresa, John Paul II, or Francis who somehow captures the moral and spiritual imagination of the non-Catholic public.
LOPEZ: What’s the invitation you’d extend to a skeptic?
KRESTA: Take your skepticism seriously enough to be skeptical of it. Much skepticism is the result of cynicism and dashed expectations rather than serious intellectual assessment. Jesus invites skeptics to prove his teaching when he says “If anyone chooses to do God’s will he will find out whether my teaching comes from God.” Simply opening one’s mind to God is the easiest way to comply with the divine will. Just ask God, even if you aren’t convinced of his existence, if Jesus’ teaching is from God. Simply be open. As clichéd as it might sound: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. You were his idea. He will fulfill all your aspirations for love, joy, meaning, significance, mercy. He created you to flourish and have eternal life. The crosses we bear, the surgeries we undergo, the mortifications we may undertake are all done, not for some masochistic motive or to display ostentatious piety, but for the joy set before us. To the skeptic, God says, through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together.”
LOPEZ: You didn’t write chapters on abortion and gay marriage in your book. You must get what Pope Francis is trying to do then? What is it and how do we better follow the lead? Why is it important to?
KRESTA: The truth is that I finished the book months before Benedict resigned and Francis was elected. I believe abortion is the morally defining issue of this generation as race was of the last generation. It has been central to the evangelical/Catholic coalition that is often misidentified as the “religious right.” I didn’t pursue abortion and homosexuality only because there are already great books that have been produced over the last generation. I didn’t think I had anything special to contribute or to improve upon. But you do raise an important point. What is it that we need to emphasize and what do we need to let recede into the background? This is a concern for Francis.
Francis is committed to the Church’s teaching in these areas every bit as much as John Paul II and Benedict XVI. However, he is willing to admit and state the distressing fact that the world doesn’t connect the gospel of life with our anti-abortion stance or “cause.” We have failed and he is willing to tell us. He believes that we have failed to demonstrate to the world that Christ welcomes the company of all fornicators, both heterosexual and homosexual.
He has tried a “reset.” He wants to make sure that the world understands the primacy of the gospel. He doesn’t want them confusing the moral consequences that flow from the gospel with the gospel itself. The gospel is a very specific message. God has acted in history through Christ to reconcile the world to himself. The gospel is good news, not just good views. It rests on particular historical acts and the need for us to receive those acts as part of our personal history. Christ died for my sins. He rose again for my justification. The world often thinks that the gospel is “God hates divorce” or “mothers shouldn’t kill their offspring” or “homosexuality is perverse.” These are all true but they are not the gospel. The gospel is in the indicative, not the imperative. It is about what God has done, not what we have to do.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to hear the mercy of God in our message. They hear a demand, none too compassionate apparently, to clean up their lives and become more like those preachers they see on television. This is false but perception, sadly, is reality for them.
Many people think the gospel is about a divine lifeguard standing on the side of a river shouting to us flailing swimmers, “Try harder, try harder. Dig deeper. What’s wrong with you?” Rather the gospel is that God himself has entered the current with us and is swimming alongside us training us, at times carrying us, and always directing us to the safe, distant shore. He is with us to the close of the age. That is good news. That’s what Francis wants people to know us for.
LOPEZ: What is the most important point you’d hope people take from your book?
KRESTA: That the Catholic faith is deeply personal but not private. That the faith is profoundly relational but also propositional. That Christianity is true to the way things are. It’s not about “religion”; it’s about reality. The Catholic faith has tremendous explanatory power as well as personal appeal. It is pastoral malpractice that we have a generation of Catholics that think that Catholicism is merely a private matter of personal faith rather than a profoundly public display of the unity of faith and reason. Catholicism is not privately engaging but socially irrelevant. The Church is in the world as a public witness to the Kingdom. We are not a club of religiously minded souls who need some sort of pious hobby. We have been called to bear witness to the most important events in history: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and the Final Consummation (yet to come).
Nevertheless, as important as reason is, the most important argument on behalf of the faith is the lifestyle of the saint. We are all called to be such saints. False humility sometimes keeps us from acknowledging our responsibility. We are responsible to develop sanctity sooner not later. When my arguments fail, when my words fall short, when my prayers seem unanswered, I begin by examining myself and asking where I have failed to be what Christ has asked of me. Oftentimes those who I thought farthest from the Kingdom have surprised me proving once again that the Spirit blows where he wills. We need to discern how best to cooperate.
LOPEZ: What is the most important lesson you’d hope people take from a year with Pope Francis?
KRESTA: The absolute centrality of the gospel in the affairs of mankind. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul” is as provocative a question as when Jesus uttered it in the first century. Always keep the gospel foremost. It has the power to influence the arts and sciences, the family and community life, economics and politics, media and entertainment. It transforms our personal lives. Don’t sell it short and don’t let it be displaced by personal ambition or public crusading or private pleasures. Remember the joy of the gospel and demonstrate the reality of eternal life now.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.