“[T]he Church, knew that the season which precedes Easter is a time of metanoia; that is, of a change of heart, of repentance; it is the season that identifies our human life and the whole of history as a process of conversion that starts now, to encounter the Lord at the end of time.”
— Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, Ash Wednesday, Feb 22nd, 2012
We have now entered Lent, one of the most important and intense times of our liturgy. Several words are associated with it: fasting, almsgiving, penitence… but today I would like to focus on “metanoia.”
Metanoia has been traditionally understood (and rightfully so) in Christian theology as conversion, repentance, turning our backs on an old life of sin. But this word was engendered before Christianity, in ancient Greece: etymologically and originally it means “to change one’s mind” (“meta” = go beyond; “noein” = mind).
Why has Christianity “changed” its meaning? Well, because as Christians, the greatest change of mind we can experience is our conversion to a greater communion with God’s will. However, just as the “new” connotation developed the word into a greater and deeper fulfilment of its meaning, returning to its original roots may help us rediscover this word with a new Christian perspective.
As Pope Benedict XVI has remarked, there can be no “orthopraxy” (i.e. correct conduct) without “orthodoxy” (correct thought). Of course, someone may accidentally do the right thing even when he has a defective moral compass, but in the end, our thoughts, values, prejudices and perceptions shape and structure the way we act. If we wish to start a path of conversion, and be consistent with it, we need to reexamine the way we think.
In this sense, I would like to focus on metanoia as change of mind. This is especially important for a certain sector of the Church with an above-average knowledge of theology and Church affairs: I’m talking about the apologetics community. It is my firm belief that this community, just like the rest of the Church, is in deep need of metanoia, for some of their thinking has gone astray and needs to be corrected for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls.
Given its particular charism, the apologetics community is prone to over-intellectualizing the faith. They spend most of their time engaging in debates and polishing arguments, overestimating the effectiveness of purely intellectual preaching. Sometimes, this may result in an alienation from the average Catholic in the pews, with a more pietist and meek approach to the faith. And it can even end up in what Pope Francis calls a kind of “neognosticism,”: the more one knows about the faith, the more holy one thinks he is.
So, it could be argued that urging metanoia as a “change of mind” for these people might actually exacerbate the problem. After all, the hurdle lies precisely in an over-emphasis on the intellect. However, I think it is not so for two reasons. First of all, it will be very hard for them to let go of their intellectualized approach to the faith–and thank God for that! That is my approach too and I would not be truly me if I would be forced to act my faith in a way that is foreign to my own being. The Church, thankfully so, is not and never was anti-intellectual, contrary to widespread atheist propaganda… rather the Church nurtures and develops everything that is truly human in us and that includes our God-given minds. Catholicism needs as much intellectuals as prayer-warriors or activists.
Secondly, because this over-intellectualization actually goes against true orthodoxy. If we are focused on the teachings of the Church, we must know that the Church teachings themselves caution us about a purely exclusive intellectual approach to the faith, to the detriment of other aspects of our life that also need engaging. It is part of our orthodoxy that everything that is good may become an idol if it’s importance is so exaggerated that it is put in a pedestal above God: this includes reason. As Pope Benedict too says in Deus Caritas Est, #2:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. “
This is orthodoxy. This is doctrine. A proper understanding of Christianity must acknowledge this: We can’t box Christianity into a set of ideas, dogmas and checklists. Ultimately, Christianity is a metanoia permeating our whole life. But for that to happen, we need to set our mind to accommodate this fact. Hence, metanoia of the mind.
Most of the apologetics community recognizes the need for a metanoia of the mind, otherwise its whole existence would be absurd. After all, apologetics is predicated on changing other people’s minds. The problem is, they recognize this need for others while many times failing to recognize the need to apply it to themselves. They may become so dazzled with their own apologetics that they start to confuse it with actual Church doctrine.
So, when a Pope or Ecumenical Council or any authoritative source teaches something that contradicts an idea that certain apologists have held for years, their first reaction is not to conform to the Church, but to find ways to justify themselves so as to remain un-changed. In short, apologists who have for years lectured people on how they should change their deeply held beliefs to accommodate Church teaching find themselves completely unable to follow their own advice. Jesus’ parable of the splinter and the beam bears reminding here.
Those who have, for years, sought political alliances to advance their ideal of Christianity, ideologizing it, may find themselves divided between religion and party. Unfortunately, all too often party seems to take precedence over religion, and metanoia is avoided by recourse to “primacy of conscience” on the left and “prudential judgment” on the right.
Sometimes, the rationalization is done by taking a very clear and straightforward Church document (if we take into account the manifest will of the magisterial writer) and deconstructing it into meaninglessness, claiming that it is vague or confusing when in fact it is not. On one hand, this can be done in order to claim that the document does not say what it actually says, which is something we should be wary of if we disagree with the plain reading of the document, for we may be introducing our own bias into the mix. On the other hand, this can be done to try to undermine the magisterial source that issued the document, claiming that it is confusing and therefore, unreliable.
Finally, one may prooftext Church documents, excising them from the magisterial context that confers them authority, and select that which validates our prejudices all the while rejecting that which does not fit, and then hold on to a private interpretation of Tradition and insisting that all Catholics are bound to hold their interpretation.
When someone acts like this, he becomes an apologist: not of the Church’s actual teaching, but an apologist for himself and his own opinions. If the Church contradicts the apologist, the Church is the one that must yield. All these strategies serve one sole purpose: to prevent one from changing his mind. In other words, to avoid metanoia.
Pope St. Pius X dubbed Modernism “the synthesis of all heresies.” I believe he is correct, but not for the reason people of a traditionalist bent usually interpret it. Modernism is usually defined as the idea that the Catholic Church must adapt its teachings to modern society’s expectations and values, no matter how antithetical they are to Catholic doctrine.
But Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies, not because modernity has within it some kind of malignant potential that corrupts everything it touches. Rather, Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies because at its heart lies the sin of pride: the idea that when we disagree with the Church teaching, it’s the Church that is wrong, not us.
And it’s true that many liberal Catholics are applauding Pope Francis, not because they think he is expounding correct doctrine (in fact, they are utterly unconvinced and unimpressed by doctrinal statements), but because they think he is a kind of Trojan horse that will be used to change the Church into the mold they want it to be. But should Pope Francis say something against their progressive ideals, their support wanes, for their fidelity lies not with the Pope, but elsewhere.
However, it remains perfectly ironic that conservative Catholics who dissent from Pope Francis seem to fall on the same error (and in fact, though not as noticeably, they were already falling into it during the pontificates of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.) Francis makes them uneasy, but they view it as Francis’ fault, not as a call for their own conversion from their own misguided ideas. They think they have everything figured out, so the pontiff can’t ask them to change their mind. They go around social media boasting of knowing what the Church should be doing to reverse its dwindling numbers. Seemingly by coincidence, they think the way to save the Church is to create a Church adjusted to their previous opinions.
They want to change the Church, not change themselves. The only difference between them and the modernists is that the former want to change the Church to what (they think) it once was, while the latter want to change the Church to what (they think) it will be.
While the externals are diametrically opposite, the heart remains the same. An unmovable heart with an unmovable mind. A metanoia is sorely needed.
Now there are some objections to what I’ve said, in which the individual claims to be undergoing metanoia while in fact fossilized in his status quo. I’ve come across two of such objections.
One may say: “What do you mean that I need to convert? Everyday I try to convert! I go to confession and keep myself from sinning, so as to get holier! I try to change myself whenever I resist sin. That has nothing to do with this Church teaching I have problems with and that should be changed!“
To whom I reply: It is good and holy to keep oneself from sinning, but one must also be on guard against that which one does not believe to be a sin, but actually is. If you only try to convert yourself away from the sins you already understand as sinful, if you only try to change that which you already want to change, then that is not a real metanoia, because you already have your mind set on changing that sinful part of yours. But true metanoia means change of mind. The true value lies in changing those parts that you think need no changing. True conversion means a complete inner transformation, a perfect alignment with God’s truth and will. You can’t do that if you only transform according to your own perceptions of what must change and not beyond that. You must bear in mind that God is an Other, not Yourself. If, regarding conversion, you see Him always validating you and not unsettling you, then it’s your own voice you’re hearing, not His, for He wishes to free us from our sinful nature.
Also, one may say: “I have given Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt until a certain point, but found it impossible. Now I have taken the red pill and can see clearly.”
This implies one tried a metanoia, but found it impossible on its face. Again, this is a false metanoia, not a true one. When this person says he gave Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, what he means is that he tried to square Francis’ pontificate into his preexistent ideas and found he could not. He was unsuccessful, and it is not surprising. It is true that Amoris Laetitia does indeed change the discipline regarding access of sacraments to the divorced and remarried. It is true that the Catechism revision doesn’t allow a Catholic nowadays to support the death penalty, while the previous version hadn’t closed that possibility altogether (even though people exploited that loophole to prevent their metanoia and, therefore, resisted the popes’ constant appeals for abolition.)
To deny that Pope Francis has done these changes is indeed to deny reason. The problem is, when faced with this realization, the person came to the conclusion that the problem was with Francis and not with himself. He struggled to convince himself that Amoris Laetitia didn’t change sacramental discipline, but couldn’t, because that’s not true. He then conceded that Amoris Laetitia does indeed change discipline, but he didn’t concede that this change of discipline is orthodox.
In this sense, he came close to metanoia, but didn’t undergo the final step. Rather, he saw the leap of faith and turned back. But the end result is just the same as if he didn’t try. There was no metanoia in his mind and he joined the company of those who dissented from day one.
So, should we just accept uncritically whatever it is the Church teaches? Isn’t this anti-intellectualism foreign to Catholic tradition and thought? Of course. But, as G.K. Chesterton once remarked: When we go to Church, “we take off our hats, but not our heads“; And again: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.“
Catholic philosophy does not think that mind is in the brain, but in the heart. Metanoia as a change of mind is, above all, a change of attitude. It demands humility, acknowledging that one does not possess all the answers, that one’s understanding is always deficient to encompass all truth.
This is not anti-intellectualism, it’s actually the root of intellectualism. Only by knowing this can we go forth in search of the truth instead of keeping ourselves stagnant in our own opinions.
Let us take science, for example, one of the greatest intellectual endeavors of the human mind. There is a difference between science per se and scientism. Scientism (or scientific positivism) is the notion that we can know everything through science. Those who adhere to this philosophy usually disregard sound theology, because theology is not a natural science. In doing so, they are actually despising a very interesting body of thought and intellectuality. We usually hear their voices dripping with arrogance, pride, lack of humility.
On the other hand, if we look at actual scientific publications, we see that scientists usually do not overplay their hand (or rather, their mind.) Taking definitive conclusions is frowned upon. Rather, they usually temper their articles with things like “more studies are needed.” They are prudent and humble, they acknowledge the limitations of their studies, their methodologies, their circumstances, their minds.
We do not know how a subatomic particle can behave as a wave and as a particle at the same time. But yet, rejecting quantum physics is anti-intellectualism and accepting it is intellectualism. We do not know how this is possible, but we see the evidence and just admit that reality is greater than what we can conceive. We do not try to force reality into our minds, but humbly own up our limits and do our best.
If we do this with Nature, how much more should we do this with the ineffable mystery that is at the foundation of our religion: God, the Most High, the Unknowable? Especially since we also know that sin darkens the intellect? If we see ourselves rallying against the Magisterium, we should take it as our default position that we are in the wrong and the Magisterium in the right. But for this, we must have a different attitude. We must undergo a metanoia: try to change ourselves into the image and likeness of God, as the Church urges us to do in Her guidance, not to try to change the Church into our own image and likeness. That is killing any prospect of conversion.
The Book of Genesis says that our first fathers’ sin was eating from the Tree of Knowledge. There is a very good lesson in this, just like it happens in all of the Bible. This does not mean that knowledge is bad; rather, if we read the passage in full, we will understand that the problem was that Adam and Eve ate the fruit with the intent of being like God. In other words, they wanted a reality and a life in their own terms, with God having nothing with it.
This is our first sin, the sin of having everything our own way. It is also one of the easiest sins to encounter in the Church, the sin of thinking we know better what the Church should teach and not conforming to the teachings we disagree with. It’s the sin of the progressives and the conservatives, the sin of the modernists and ultratraditionalists, the sin of the apologists and the common folk.
But if the Church is to be the salt of the earth, then it can’t lose its flavor. If it is to help men convert, it can’t be subject to popular vote. If it is meant to proclaim eternal truths, it can’t just change according to the inconstant winds of worldly politics or the whims of passing opinion. In short, as G.K. Chesterton once more says: “We do not want (…) a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.”
Lent is a time of metanoia. Let us take this golden opportunity to identify this temptation in our hearts and change accordingly. The time is ripe. This is by no means meant to be an instantaneous process, successful at first try. But, as Pope Francis teaches us, conversion begins with taking a first step. This first step should be a change of mind, through a change of the heart. A humble and contrite heart, God does not refuse. Let us repent of putting obstacles into our own conversion and let ourselves be guided by the Church, instead of seeing the Church as an ideological battlefield where we must fight and lobby for a Church more in conformity with our own immovable ideas. Let us open our minds and hearts to metanoia of the mind, so that metanoia of our whole being may naturally follow. This is one of the highest purposes of Lent. And I propose this to you today.
[Image: “The Return of the Prodigal Son“, Rembrandt, ca. 1661-1669 AD]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.