The central theme of Francis’ visit was a call for unity. He has frequently urged us “to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.” With respect to the church, Francis has exhorted priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep” and to avoid setting themselves apart from the laity.I find this fascinating but actually a little creepy. How much cosmic unity can we stand, without losing ourselves? Or is losing ourselves the point? I sometimes think that death means losing separation and re-entering the unity, but as long as I am alive I prefer to keep my separateness intact. Does that make me a foolish egotist, a typical citizen of the hyper-individualistic modern age?
But the unity the pope has in mind goes far deeper. The unity that he is challenging us to embrace has no limits, natural or supernatural.
In Cuba, Francis touched on this theme while gently exposing a central error of Communism — the conflation of unity with shallow sameness. “Unity is often confused with uniformity; with actions, feelings and words which are all identical,” he said. “This is not unity, it is conformity.”
Everyone — not just the Cubans — should take this lesson to heart. . . .
For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.
Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.
Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”
Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.
I do think that politically, the most fundamental barrier to a more unified and equal society is lack of trust. People worry about being taken advantage of. Left-wing populists think the rich are taking advantage of us, and right-wing populists think the poor are taking advantage of us, but the basic psychic model seems to be the same lack of trust in other people. Maybe that is simple wisdom. But the Pope, from his spiritual, theological perspective, thinks it is a terrible mistake.