Episode 1: Rear vision

CRA: This is Vocaris Media, and you are listening to Thinking with the Church! I am your host, Chris Altieri, and I’ll be with you over the next hour of this official premiere episode of our podcast, laying the course for this first season, which will focus on the title theme: we’ll be asking, over the course of the first dozen episodes or so, “What does it mean to think with the Church?”

We’ll be aided along the way by officials of the Roman Curia, professors at Rome’s Pontifical universities, and the many “thought leaders” – as I’ve recently learned they’re called – from  every area of Catholic life, who make their way through Rome – and we’ll have more on just who they are as we schedule and conduct our conversations with them – so watch the blog-space with religion.

That’s at: thinkingwiththechurch.wordpress.com

Today, though, we’ll be exploring the medium of podcasting: what it is, where it came from, and how it can serve the mission of the Church – or serve us in our part of that mission, which is essentially to think publicly about the Faith, and about the world in which our Faith has been revealed.

In this inaugural episode, we’ll be helped by a few voices from beyond the grave: Professor Marshall McLuhan will be one of them; Professor Eric Voegelin will be another; one will be the voice of a saint, John Paul II.

Before them, however, we will hear from the Servant of God, Pope Pius XI, the founder of Vatican Radio, who, on March 12th, 1931, delivered the first radiophonic address by a reigning Pontiff: he addressed his remarks, in Latin, to “all nations” and “to every creature”:

Qui arcano Dei consilio succedimus in loco Principis Apostolorum, eorum nempe quorum doctrina et praedicatio iussu divino ad omnes gentes et ad omnem creaturam destinata est, et qui primi in loco ipso mira sane ope Marconiana uti frui possumus, ad omnia et ad omnes primo Nos convertimus atque, hic et infra Sacro Textu iuvante, dicimus: Audite caeli quae loquor, audiat terra verba oris mei. Audite haec omnes gentes, auribus percipite omnes qui habitatis orbem, simul in unum dives et pauper. Audite insulae et attendite populi de longe.

Since by the arcane counsel of God, we succeed [we have fallen into] in the place of the Prince of the Apostles, whose doctrine and preaching by God’s command is destined to all nations and to every creature (Mt, 28, 19; Mk. 16, 15), and being able for the first time to avail ourselves in this very place of the use of the marvelous Marconian work [invention], we turn in first place to all things and all people, telling them, here and below, helped by the text of Sacred Scripture: Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar. (Is. 49:1)

Thus began Vatican Radio’s more than 85 years of broadcast radio service: bringing the voice of the Holy Father into dialogue with the universal Church and with the world.

Now Vatican Radio – where I had the honor of serving as one of the members of the news team for a dozen years – is no more: it is absorbed into the Secretariat for Communications, charged with the reform of the media structures of the Holy See.

The future of the mission is very much in doubt: what role, if any, broadcasting will continue to have remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: we have seen the end of an era.

I’m still on the news desk at what used to be Vatican Radio, but this podcast, and the whole Vocaris Media venture, have nothing to do with that. Thinking with the Church is very much my own – I own it and I answer for it.

I grew up on Radio: listening to CBS, and 1010 WINS, and in my home town of Stamford, Ct., to 1400 WSTC (they carried Paul Harvey), and the classic rock station 95.9, and of course, Sports Radio 66, WFAN, which began life as WNBC and was home to the Imus in the Morning program, which was hilariously funny until it wasn’t.

And I need to say a word about A Prairie Home Companion and Garisson Keillor’s edifying, delightful homespun that was always crackling with incident, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and All Things Considered, and Ira Glass’s This American Life.

Those are all programmes that began on the radio and have found a way to inhabit the digital space that permeates reality in the early 21st century, without, however, losing their essentially radiophonic character and mission. I hope to do the same thing, in reverse.

Why radio?

I suppose I’ve always been awestruck by the cosmic power of radiophony: there are energy waves, within the power of man to manipulate, which communicate sound at the speed of light.

Radio waves carry the sound of human breath – the voice that is the one unmistakable sign of that intelligence, by which we know that man is made in the image and likeness of his Creator (who, giving sound to His breath, spoke the very being of the world): they carry the human voice, alone among all effects of creatures capable of naming the Creator, not only to the ends of the earth, but into the empyrean and even to the utmost bounds of God’s creation.

Radio waves are nearly as ancient as the creature, Time, itself.

They have reached us on earth from the basement of Time, and given us insight into the earliest nano-portions of nanoseconds of the life of the cosmos.

From here on earth, they stretch out, ever farther, ever farther, ever farther, and shall not cease to bear the sign and sound of thought until the breaking of the world.

This is not hyperbole, nor is it a poet’s fancy, but the mere prosaic statement of what is, what has been, and what shall be.

Who, possessed of such a gift of power, beauty, grace, would put it off?

But I digress – and I forget myself.

I was saying – or I was trying to say – that this podcasting medium is nothing to shake a stick at.

It is not the same thing, but it is a beautiful thing – a good and worthy thing – and one I am happy to get to know.

Why audio, though? Don’t we live in a world of images?

Well, for one thing: faith comes by hearing, we are told – and God exercises His creative power – we are told – by His voice: He gives sound to His breath, and speaks the being of the world.

Our ability to say things to one another – to give our word and to keep it – is what makes us human: and our ability to have words with each other is at present much attenuated, and this means we are at risk of losing the ground on which we stake our claim to moral agency, tout court.

I noted in my doctoral dissertation that “to have words with somebody” means, in English usage, to quarrel with him. In such a situation of querulousness the conditions of discourse are precarious, for the slightest misunderstanding, any misstatement of a disagreement could lead to an interruption of the communicative flow.

This is a dangerous potential in, or power of human speech, and it has been a question for philosophy at least since the writing of the Euthyphro, wherein Socrates names his interlocutor, “friend,” and asks him what kind of disagreement causes hatred and anger — though this kind of case illustrates only one particular way in which words may fail, or one particular mode of our failing our words. This power is but one intimation of the infinite responsibility we have for our words, taken together with the endless ways in which our words, let us say our language, might fail to convey or to achieve our meaning, our purpose.

Words establish our relations to people, and place us, and do many other things, as well, though how well they do the things we want them to do is not always, perhaps never, in our power to tell.

If it helps, the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has described the issue as one of, “Word[ing] the world.” The expression is awkward, perhaps, though by no means is it arcane. It recalls our sense of the world’s being given by language, and so at the same time our giving words to the world, or a world to words. If we allow “Word” to translate the Greek logos, then to word the world is to make it, to make the world (intelligible). In an old story, God gives sound to His breath, and speaks the being of the world: He gives us the power of speech, through which we can participate in (the intelligibility of) creation. Either we keep faith with the power that is bequeathed us, or we do not. To lose faith in the power is to despair of (knowing) the world.When words fail, there can be parting, an end to friendship, say, or to marriage, which Milton calls a “meet and happy conversation” — an institution that is for him a symbol and metaphor of polity.

When words have failed, and parting is not an option, there is war.

And it you think that the loss of language is a trifling matter, listen to what the great German-born American political philosopher – in my opinion the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century – Eric Voegelin has to say about it – and about its recovery:

IN: “If anything is characteristic…”

OUT: “lostness in relation to it.”

Those pericopes were taken from the audio recordings of the sessions that became Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections: he was still trying to work his way through what had happened to his beloved Germany and Austria three decades and more after the allies declared victory, and he believed that similar processes were underway in western societies generally, even and especially in those that prided themselves on having “free institutions”.

But we won – didn’t we? We made a decision and we left that behind, right? Why continue to look in the rear-view mirror?

Don’t ask me, ask the great oracle of the media age, Marshall McLuhan:

IN: “I discovered…”

OUT: “past at all…”

That was from a Q&A session McLuhan did on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1977.

The rear-view mirror shows you what’s coming. Yup.

McLuhan died a Catholic, you know. I thought I’d toss that out there.

A while back, a friend asked me why I am Catholic – or why, after all, I am still Catholic?

I answered:

I am Catholic because the Catholic Church is true. The Catholic Church is the One Church founded by our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, as the vehicle by which humanity is redeemed from sin and death, and restored to friendship with God. The Church is the efficacious sign of that friendship. I am Catholic because I would be reconciled to God, and to all my fellows, and at peace with all and every one, and the Catholic Church promises this. For now, I see this through a glass, darkly, in a darkness the brightest spots of which are often but the dimmest glimmers of hope – though I am told this is a hope, which does not disappoint. Why am I Catholic? Let me answer with Peter: where else shall I go?

Words of eternal life: that’s everything, sure – but it is also all there is to go on. So, if you’re looking for easy answers, or idle platitudes, or pat solutions, this just isn’t going to be the place for you. We’re playing for keeps, here:

But I’ve said elsewhere, that I am not interested in intellectual agonism for its own sake, and that debate as blood sport is to be avoided – and I stand by that.

The point is that intellectual life in the service of the Church is dangerous business, in which we are constantly playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death – and there are no minor characters: each of us is protagonist, each of us is expendable and supremely consequential – and there are no breaks in the action.

The Editor-in-Chief of Crux, John Allen, recently published an analysis piece on Pope Francis’ remarks to Polish bishops, which the Holy Father offered in a private session with the prelates during the course of his visit to Poland for the 2016 edition of World Youth Day. In his piece, Allen seized upon what he described as a largely overlooked element of the program Pope Francis outlined to the hierarchical leadership of the Church in Poland: radical Christian discipleship.

In one sense – and indeed a very important sense, this is neither a complicated nor a nuanced call – it is not rocket surgery:

“What becomes clear listening to Francis speak to the Polish bishops,” writes Allen, “is that seen through his eyes, the aim isn’t giving in to secularization – it’s staging the battle on a different field, away from abstract debates towards hands-on pastoral proximity – what Francis likes to call vicinanza, ‘closeness’ – especially to people in greatest difficulty.” This element places Pope Francis squarely in the way of his two predecessors when it comes to his vision and understanding of the response the Church owes the world, to the ills and discontents of contemporary society. It amounts to a renewed call to precisely that radical Christian discipleship, which was the clarion of Pope St. John Paul II’s entire reign – we just heard him proclaim it to the faithful in Boston – that was in 1979, at the beginning of his pontificate – and the true keystone to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI’s lived witness to the Gospel (a witness that continues quietly today and shall continue, we hope, into eternity).

This should come as no surprise, and indeed sound quite plausible, to anyone who knows that the Holy Father’s favorite confrère, St. Peter Faber SJ (whom he canonized in 2013, as much as a birthday present to himself as to the whole Church), was a man who eschewed theological disputation in favor of lived witness and exhortation to personal moral reform.

Allen goes on to say, “Though [Francis] doesn’t quite put it like this, the idea seems to be that the right way to resist secularism and to win souls isn’t to prevail in intellectual arguments, but to ‘out-love’ the opponents of the faith and thereby draw people to the Church.”

This construction of the thing raises the question: what are we to do for the intellectual enemies of the faith? The answer to the question is to be found, in part, in St. Peter Faber, himself.

Faber was neither a rube, nor a shrinking violet, who preferred not to engage in intellectual agonism either because he lacked the wherewithal or the stomach for it. Quite the contrary: he was a powerful orator in an age that admired and expected erudition of its public speakers; he studied at the University of Paris; he had a prodigious memory. In short: St. Peter Faber SJ made a conscious, deliberate, and informed decision in favor of a specific mode of evangelization.

More to this, he did so in an environment and at a time in which Europe was not wanting for great intellects. Indeed, he counted some of them among his copains and confrères in the fledgling Society of Jesus. Simply put, he worked his work, they theirs – and it was all for the greater glory of God.

In other words, while Francis is calling Christians to pour resources into a specific front in the war for souls, I am not convinced he is suggesting we ought to abandon the intellectual front.

He is, however, reminding those of us who are engaged on the intellectual front, of the stakes in the game: we, too, are playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death; the souls of our interlocutors are at stake, and so are our own.

Francis, I think, is calling us all to a renewed sense of the “serious play” that has always characterized Christianity, and a recovery of the sense of adventure that is always characteristic of the Christian life well and truly lived.

One of the things at which Catholicism has excelled through the centuries is story-telling: the story we told was – is – true, and it is the story of each and every one of us; an epic adventure in which each of us is at war with the forces of hell – forces that are at once “inside” us, and in the world – invisible, preternatural, unspeakably powerful.

In this story, each of us is playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death in every moment, waking or sleeping: there are no minor characters and there are no breaks in the action; all of us, each second of each day, are in the fight.

That is a great story, and one in which “the rules” not only make sense, but themselves make the story make sense.

The rules we had (along with many of those we kept and still have) – rules the nature and purpose of which the ideological critics of Christianity impugned and continue with increasing vehemence to impugn as unbecoming a truly free and self-ruling humanity – were (are) in truth a field manual of sorts, based on lived and living wisdom from beyond the world, some of which we found recorded in our ancient books of right, history, and wisdom.

If we are honest with ourselves and with our interlocutors, we must admit that, in the decades before the II Vatican Council that Catholics either love or hate for its having changed and dispensed with so many of those old rules, we had – to a significant degree – lost the sense of adventure. The Council, however, can be read as an attempt to recover the sense of adventure that makes the rules make sense, and so gives us the necessary framework within which we can decide which rules we need at this stage in the game.

As long as we are being honest, we must acknowledge that powerful players in the post-Conciliar Church have abandoned the narrative entirely, believing – or treating, which is practically the same thing – the enterprise of narrative recovery as one not worth the effort.

The sense of adventure, of danger, of fun (as only children who have played dangerous games with eyes wide open to the danger of them can understand): that is what we all want.

As Christian – and especially as Catholic – intellectuals, we would do well to recover an awareness of the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has always inspired those living it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension.

Our tradition teaches us to think all the good we can of those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. It teaches us to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it.  Our tradition teaches us to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives: the salvation of souls.

For us, in other words, the Holy Father’s exhortation is not to abandon our enterprise, but to be our best selves as we are about it.

3 thoughts on “Episode 1: Rear vision

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