Pope Francis: encouraging happiness at a higher level

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/29/getting-to-a-higher-level-with-pope-francis/

Last week I saw Pope Francis on the West Lawn of the US Capitol. Francis’ visit to the US was something to behold – he single-handedly shut down Washington, New York, and Philadelphia in turn because so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, wanted to be part of the experience, hoping, just maybe, that by listening or even merely by proximity alone, to receive some of the grace, wisdom, and joy that Francis exudes.

As a Catholic, I was heartened by the joy and hope of the Pope’s message and by the overwhelmingly positive coverage that Francis and the Church received over the past week. As someone with more than a passing interest in politics, however, I was disappointed at how politicians, interest groups, media, and individuals of all political perspectives couldn’t leave politics alone, even for a moment, to try to really listen to what Francis was saying.

Liberal media outlets (meaning, most media outlets) celebrated every statement made by the Pope regarding compassion, forgiveness, the environment, and immigration, and simply ignored the portions of the Pope’s messages (on abortion or marriage) that are considered countercultural in today’s America. As we watched CNN’s gushing coverage of the Pope’s celebration of the family in Philadelphia, my wife wondered out loud “is CNN even aware of what the Pope is talking about when he talks about celebrating the family? I’m not sure they are.”

Conservatives, for their part, expressed disappointment that the Pope’s statements on the environment and on economics could be used as ammunition by liberal activists seeking particular policy changes with which conservatives disagree. Others bemoaned the fact that Francis did not “call out” Catholic politicians who defy Church teaching by supporting gay marriage or abortion.

Even lay people who came out to be part of the spectacle seemed unable to control their political impulses. As we watched Speaker Boehner introduce the Pope on one of the screens set up outside the Capitol, a woman standing behind us began to loudly “boo” the Speaker (how Christian is that?). At other times, different portions of the crowd clapped more or less intensely depending on whether they thought Francis’ words supported their politics. The conservatives reacted more positively, and more intensely, when Francis mentioned the need to respect life “at all stages” — an unmistakable reference to abortion. But these same folks quieted, while the liberals roared, as the Pope then called for a world-wide ban on the death penalty based on that same respect for life.

As I observed the various reactions to the Pope, I was reminded of a talk given by Father Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest and former President of Gonzaga University, about the four levels of happiness. According to Father Spitzer, the first level of happiness is achieved through immediate physical satisfaction: food, shelter, even a cool swim on a hot day. The second level is reached by personal achievement and ego-comparative satisfaction: achievement relative to others. If I’m smarter, richer, or more attractive than most, then I’m happy. Level 2 happiness can be achieved by lifting oneself up, but also by putting others down. Level 3 happiness is derived from doing good for others: It is superior to level 2 happiness because it is based on the common good and does not threaten to divide people in the way that level 2 happiness does. Level 3 happiness is the ability to look for the good in others and see life as an opportunity to serve, rather than as an invitation to judge. Level 4 happiness is the ultimate, perfect happiness, which is transcendent. Humans are imperfect, so we will always fall short of our goals and the hopes of those around us. We long for transcendence and perfection — some seek this through religious faith and worship, others through a sense of connection with a larger universe, others through music, art, or science. Each of us seeks perfection and transcendence in his or her own way, but we will never achieve it in this life.

What does this have to do with the Pope? Most of us, unfortunately, spend too much time seeking level 2 happiness, looking for shallow validation that we are superior to others. And so we view the Pope’s words through this lens. “Look, the Pope agrees with me! He disagrees with my political adversaries! Score one for the home team!” But, as the world’s pastor, Francis is worried about happiness at levels 3 and 4. He is concerned with transcendence — what is the good, the perfect, the reason we are all here? His ultimate respect for all life in God’s creation compels him to reject the notion that we can kill the unborn, or euthanize the elderly, or put others to death for their crimes simply to make our lives easier, even though he recognizes the complexity and difficulty of life that can make these choices superficially appealing. (As he humorously recognized in his extemporaneous talk about the family — “plates may fly” in a marriage from time to time, but that does not mean it is worth quitting.)

Pope Francis is guided, not by his own ego, but by a desire to help all of humanity obtain level 3 and 4 happiness. He, therefore, sees in life’s complexity and sinfulness the opportunity not to scold but to serve — to serve even those who have sinned against life itself, as he did when visiting prisoners outside of Philadelphia. Francis does not seek to hold himself out as “better,” or to score political points. Although the Pope’s statements may have political implications, they are not themselves political. They are just part of a larger truth. And Pope Francis asks for our prayers as he seeks to articulate that truth, rather than putting down those who have not accepted it.

Because Pope Francis seeks the perfect and the transcendent, it is impossible for any of us, imperfect, sinful humans, to ever be fully aligned with his message. All of us can do more. We can all respect life more, we can all treat those around us better, we can all better recognize the humanity in those that our society has cast off for whatever reason.  The Pope’s joyful message to believers is that, even knowing our faults, God still loves us all. Our shortcomings and sins can be forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Unfortunately, many people use snippets of the Pope’s language as a cudgel in their battle to feel superior to others. In failing to reflect on his message and to understand where they, too, have fallen short, they similarly fail to recognize the immense generosity of God’s love and the call to a journey towards personal transcendence. Sadly, they have missed the point entirely.

Robert N. Driscoll is a native of the Boston area who currently practices law in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his firm. Nor are they the views of his wife, daughters, or greyhounds. 

Also by Robert N. Driscoll:

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The new Puritans