The Desert Shall Bloom

By Maria del Carmen Izquierdo

Back in December, as we concluded 2020 and many in the US were elated by the results of the presidential elections, an article appearing in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on December 3, 2020 provided a fitting metaphor of the past four years as well as of our future hope: “Centuries old cacti blooming out of season in Arizona desert.” This curious bit of news recalled the Scriptural verses from Isaiah: “The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Since Pope Francis, in his third encyclical Fratelli tutti speaks both of a wilderness of “shattered dreams” (Fratelli tutti, 10) and of “abundant seeds of goodness in our human family” announcing “new paths of hope” (Fratelli tutti, 54), I thought it suitable for this metaphor of the blooming desert to frame my brief reflection. In the following paragraphs I will review some aspects of the wasteland of the past four years and the hopeful expectations of what lies ahead by drawing parallels between our national landscape and the relevance of Pope Francis’ considerations pertaining to these.  

Fratelli tutti is seen by some as addressing the divisions within our country and within the U.S. Catholic Church (Michael Sean Winters, NCR, Oct 4, 2020). The encyclical not only speaks to pressing concerns, but also offers hope and guidance for the future. It is not within the scope of this article to consider the divisions within the Catholic Church in the U.S., I will only touch briefly upon the subject; I will focus instead on the national polarization of the past four years and the nascent hopes of the future. 

Over 80 million Americans rejoiced with hope on November 7, when the results of the 2020 elections were called and Joe Biden was announced as having the required 270 electoral votes. However fraught our social, racial and political divides leave us as yet to struggle within a deeply fractious nation, there is hope that some healing will come during the Biden presidency. In less than a month (as of the date of writing) his approach to some national and international issues has been balanced and yet determined, the incendiary rhetoric is gone, the devastation of the pandemic is being met with the urgency it requires. But while Francis reminds us that “true wisdom demands an encounter with reality” (Fratelli tutti, 47) we haven’t fully emerged from four years of a government issued alternative reality (to paraphrase the “alternative facts” defense of Kellyann Conway) that have seduced many and have defied our assumptions about American democracy, justice and values. The upheavals of our recent past reflect a nation still haunted by the ghosts of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, conjuring an image of recent reports about culled minks in Denmark rising from their graves. Though not solely directed at former president Trump - for other current populist leaders use such tactics - it is important to note Francis’ prophetic denunciation of schemes employed by the past president, such as the barrage of mockery and insults he proffered upon the handicapped, Hispanics, immigrants, and anyone who either disagreed with him, fell from his favor or was deemed “lesser than” on the basis of otherness. The shock is not so much that a demagogue was prolific in his use of verbal violence, but that the denigration of minorities and the unprivileged was approved and applauded by so many (See Fratelli tutti, 44 referring to “social aggression” that “tears us apart”). The words of Francis follow: “Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion… In this craven exchange of charges and counter –charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation” (Fratelli tutti, 15) 

Our collective sigh of relief when President Biden was first elected was soon put to the test by the cycle of disinformation promoted by ex-president Trump and his sycophants coupled with futile lawsuits attempting to subvert the results of an election that was judged repeatedly in the courts and by election officials to be the rightful choice of the majority. While the spectacle provided fodder for late night comics (a blessing of our democracy!) let us not underestimate Trump’s political strategy: in subverting confidence in our democratic electoral process, he along with those who contributed to his delusional claims may make it harder for us to vote in the future (Jane C. Timm, NBC, Dec 2020). And as we watched in disbelief on January 6, barely a month ago as of the date of this writing, we witnessed the tragedy of an extremism incited by those lies: a mob uprising that left death and destruction in its wake.

Holding up these mindsets and events against Pope Francis’ statements that “politics is intended for the common good” (Fratelli tutti 54) and that “politics is one of the highest forms of charity” (Fratelli tutti 180) I ask myself two questions: who or what was the pied piper that led us into this wasteland and the second is, who or what can lead us out of this wilderness. While not proposing what follows as the sole answer, I believe it casts some light on our present.  I was intrigued by a section of Gaudete et exsultate, Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. In an article appearing in America Magazine on April 08, 2018, Kevin Ahern elaborates on Francis’ contextualization in this document regarding two ancient heresies present in new forms in our day: Pelagianism and Gnosticism. The latter is defined by Francis as “an intellect without flesh” and is at times found in spiritual and ecclesiastical circles, manifesting a purity of doctrine that becomes “incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others.” (Gaudete et exsultate, 35-37) Francis identifies theologians and philosophers as being particularly vulnerable to its charms, for those of us who love knowledge can too easily fall prey to the delights of the intellect and be drawn to live unconcerned about the needs of our neighbor. As such, I take notice and remind myself amidst the graced trudgery of human burdens of Tertullian’s principle: Caro salutis cardo (The flesh is the hinge of salvation). The former heresy, Pelagianism, evidences the other side of the coin of exclusion.  Francis points out that Pelagianism is often found in civil society. Pelagianism is the original temptation: wanting to become like gods, manifesting itself in the excessive autonomy of individualism, in “an absorption with social and political advantages” (Gaudete et exultate 57) and in an authoritarian ideology of power and control that wills and bends a society according to the pattern of narcissistic ambitions and prejudices. To this “society of exclusion” promoted by the two above ancient heresies, Pope Francis proposes the “antidote” of a “society of inclusion”, a “culture of encounter” (Fratelli tutti 30) shown most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Fratelli tutti, chapter 3). Francis is clear in pointing to the paths that lead to life and his statement includes every aspect of society and everyone: “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” (Fratelli tutti, 69).  Thus, as the pied piper of the above two heresies have seduced us toward the wasteland, Francis reminds us that the challenge of the Gospel continues to call and lead us out of the wilderness of elitism and exclusion.  

Signs all around remind me of the fragility of that hope toward which Francis exhorts us, for we are still a polarized and divided nation and a polarized and divided Church. Last week I heard from people who should know better that “Francis is not the true Pope” and that “he is not a theologian; he is a humanist” (remember Gnosticism?!). And I received a text from friends who should also know not to include me in their conspiracy theories, stating with a certainty adorned with pictures, that the Biden administration will turn the U.S. into another Venezuela, another Cuba. I thought that, like Gnosticism and Pelagianism, both statements reflect two sides of the same coin. As I maneuver through the sometimes daily minefields of fringed dissents, I hold on to Francis’ invitation to persevere in “the new paths of hope… despite these dark clouds” (Fratelli tutti, 54-55) and draw inspiration from an unlikely source: the opening words of the Godfather trilogy, spoken by Bonasera, an immigrant like myself: “I believe in America.”  And the profession of faith anchors me when the moorings offered by a shared faith are sundered: “I believe in … the Holy Catholic Church.” Just as in the Old and New Testament the desert is the place of reckoning, in Fratelli tutti and in his recent book Let us dream, Francis presents a vision of the desert of our present ills as an opportunity for purification, as the place for our hopes in a renewed justice and peace to bloom.