On October 14, 2017, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote, “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World,” at our Capstone Conference. We’re reprinting the text in two parts; Part 1 was posted yesterday. To watch the video and learn more about the conference, click here.
Pathways and Priorities
In this final section I want to suggest some concrete pathways and priorities for creating a greater sense of solidarity in practice which would be in line with your goals of building the common good in a way that fosters virtue, happiness and the meaning of life.
The first is dialogue. Dialogue is essential for building solidarity, but it also demands self-transcendence. Avery Dulles, the son of John Foster Dulles, who served as secretary of State, became a Jesuit priest and then was named a cardinal in his later years. He once wrote that it takes great strength, virtue, to give permission to another person to sit across from you and tell you why they think you are wrong. Pope Francis put it this way: “We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person’s truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively.”[i] Dialogue only comes with patience and respect for the other. It takes into account that people, men and women, youth and adults, those from different cultures and economic backgrounds, communicate differently. They speak different “languages” and they act in different ways. They ask and respond to questions differently and vary in their tone, timing, conditioned by so many factors. So dialogue requires discipline, the kind that refrains from speaking until it is time, and making sure that we have heard the other person out.[ii] It takes the kind of self-transcendence that cultivates an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without prejudgments or the distractions of worries, fears or one’s agenda. All of this creates a fresh environment in which real authentic human communication takes place, not just an exchange of ideas but an exchange of lives, aspirations, values, histories in a way that creates bridges between others where there only existed walls. We need to take all of this into consideration if we are going to encourage authentic dialogue that offers an effective alternative to the technological communications paradigm that promises much but delivers little when it comes to human flourishing and the common good.
Collective self- examination of conscience
In a his 2016 article in America Magazine, James Keenan, SJ, the Canisius Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College, notes that following the Second World War, European theologians, shocked by the complicity of believers in the Holocaust, “began a process of understanding their capacity for evil by examining the history of their own actions.” In effect, they called for a collective examination of conscience, inspiring them to take corporate responsibility. “That understanding continues to be visible today when one visits Germany, for instance, and sees public, social reminders of the nation’s own atrocities. From the Concentration Camp Memorial in Dachau to the Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, we can literally enter and see the pangs of the European conscience evident in its enduring testimonials,” as Keenan observes.
He goes on to say that we suffer in this country from an arrested development of conscience, which is rooted to some extent in “the longstanding American incapacity to recognize its own wrongdoing. Indeed, historians comment on the practice of American exceptionalism, in which we excuse many of our actions by presuming that our nation has a manifest destiny that exempts us from the standards that others must follow.” As an example, he points to slavery in this country, noting that “Despite the nation’s own history of enslaving millions of people and of enjoying the benefit of slavery even without owning slaves, America has never collectively faced itself in conscience. As M. Shawn Copeland reminds us, the American conscience is haunted, profoundly damaged by the complex history of slavery in the United States and by its national willfulness to accommodate to and profit from racism.”
It seems to me that such a collective self-examination is the ultimate form of transcendence called for in your virtue project and is also an instance of radical solidarity with those who have been and are excluded from the common good. An examination of what this means for your project could make an important contribution in bringing healing to a gaping wound that continues to affect not only the body politic of our nation but the streets of our city.
Investing in Friendships
My final suggestion is less dramatic, but no less important and that is recovering the importance of friendship. Friendships develop naturally; they are relationships that grow organically. They take time, discipline, mutual respect, dialogue and discipline. They don’t just happen. They take work and they grow in ordered sequence. We meet someone. We see something in them that we like and they see something they like about us. In friendships we reveal something about ourselves that we may not have appreciated.
Friendships involve self-transcendence, allowing us to transcend differences of opinion and conflicts, bring comfort in trial and they grow in moments of forgiveness and failing. All human communities, and society at large understand the value of friendships for society. In fact, centuries ago, Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, noted that friendships are needed for the growth of civilization. He remarked that while friendships, like justice, are not found in tyrannies, they are proper to democracies, “because the citizens, being equal, have much in common.” St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps relying on Aristotle speaks of friendship as bene velle alicui – wishing well to another.
We seem to have lost the value of friendship in our social relationships. Our nation seems to have lost a sense of the importance of cultivating friendships as fellow citizens who, being equal, share much in common. Instead, our politics and public discourse are often marked by enmity and animosity. There is an overly competitive character that defines how we relate to one another, emphasizing what divides us rather than what we share in common. And because we as the body politic do not value growing together, just as it is with any organism, cancers easily develop which can threaten to harm us all. Positions harden, progress is stalled, and it soon becomes clear that the body politic has only so much capacity to endure the suffering. Your turn to the classics as resource, I believe, offers you much on the topic of friendship, which I would encourage you to explore as you build out your understanding of the importance of self-transcendence for cultivating a virtuous life.
I hope that my words tonight leave you with a sense not only that the Church values the virtue project, but is a willing partner in furthering its aspirations. In fact, it is worth recalling the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council, which provided a new paradigm for the Church’s mission, declared that the Church embraces her role in the modern age of being “at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.” Gaudium et Spes 76.
Pope Francis witnessed to this approach in his 2015 Address to the U.S. Congress. He began by observing that his visit to our country coincided with anniversaries of several great Americans who demonstrated through their hard work and sacrifice the virtue of building a better future for all. He cited four in particular, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” but who throughout our history have helped us “to live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women,” he continued, “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”
The pope’s words seem to be a good way to conclude my remarks for they remind us of two important things I want to leave with you tonight. First, the importance of the word “self” in self-transcendence. The pursuit of virtue, as these four Americans show, begins with each of us, taking personal responsibility for the way we live, our own human development and formation in a way that forces us to be real and honest about the world we live in and the circumstances of our personal lives. In a word, virtue begins with us.
But, the words of Francis also highlight a key ingredient of social cohesion, we often underplay. I am talking about the value of giving good example. Good example, as Francis observes, has an enduring power to embolden, inspire and encourage others to live through crises and challenges as they tap into the deepest culture reserves that hold these good examples in trust throughout the ages.
Therein lies the two-fold value your project aims to achieve: rekindling in us a fresh resolve to take personal responsibility for our lives, joining with others in solidarity for the building up the common good, and at the same time as we live in a world weighed down by so many thorny challenges, to ever remain attentive to how much good there is in the world, in people around us who give us good example and who share these same aspirations. In speaking to you tonight, to a group that has gathered over these past 28 months for a very worthy project, you have done both for me, strengthen my resolve and opened my eyes in a fresh way to recognize that there is so much good around us. Thank you.
[i] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 138
[ii] Ibid, 136-141.