Love in action

by Mary Ann McGivern

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One of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotations was from Dostoyevsky​'s* The Brothers Karamazov. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It’s great food for meditation and timely, given Pope Francis’ reference to Dorothy Day to Congress.

First, I look at Francis’ love in action coming to the U.S. to address Congress, the U.N. and the World Meeting of Families. While he is obviously enjoying himself, he nonetheless grasps the sorrows of the world and the ways that we who are rich are making things worse. Because he loves us, he is driven to speak the truth to us and call us away from our sin. But how to do that?

Telling truth to power from the motivation of love – as opposed to motivations of narcissism or meanness – is not the satisfying experience one might imagine. It is painful, even harsh and dreadful. Even Francis’ small actions of embracing people who have severe disabilities, actions that express love and give joy to families, are harsh and dreadful in their stark singling out of human suffering.

Further, Francis must be hearing the steady barrage of criticism, some of it venomous, about his daring to speak on the environment, the economy, the family, the poor. I think he poured his heart out both to the bishops and to the survivors of clerical sex abuse. The words of rejection of his message must be painful. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea wrote a strong criticism here in NCR about Francis causing further pain to those people who were abused by priests.

This is not the stuff of dreams. It is indeed harsh and dreadful.

Francis’ gentle words to the bishops congratulating their actions to prevent abuse of children were roundly dismissed as insufficient. But how do you deliver a public reprimand so that it will change behavior? Sugar works better than vinegar. Yet we know he heard the criticism because he returned to the subject with stronger language, and yet perhaps still not strong enough.

Francis’ words to Congress and to the United Nations were words of invitation, calibrated to encourage cooperation and hope in the future. But, in my opinion, by seeing the Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who refuses to sign marriage certificates, the pope has further confounded our ongoing debate in the U.S. about how we practice our faith in the public sector. The effect on the political sphere will no doubt be harsh and dreadful.

It is love we are talking about, love in practice. And along with being harsh and dreadful, love in practice yields joy. It’s a paradox. Pope Francis was here to evangelize and his words and his actions may have been harsh and dreadful, but they fully expressed his own joy.

*An earlier version of this post attributed the incorrect author.

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