89. Is Unity Like a Sphere or a Polyhedron?

September 18th, 2014

Pope Francis does not like spheres: he likes polyhedrons. In various recent speeches and in different contexts he used the image of the polyhedron to illustrate what he has in mind when he thinks of unity, i.e. Christian unity and the unity of mankind. In elementary geometry, a polyhedron is a solid of three dimensions with flat faces, straight edges and sharp corners or vertices. Without going into too many technical details, the basic idea is that a polyhedron lacks the harmony and proportions of a sphere but retains the unity of a solid. Not only that, it has variable distances from its center and not a single way of being related to it. It may be an awkward type of unity, but it still holds the solid together.

Unity in the Global World

Francis first began talking about the polyhedron in the context of globalization.  In a message to a festival on the Social Doctrine of the Church, which addressed the issue, he said: “I would like to translate the theme into an image: the sphere and the polyhedron. Take the sphere to represent homologation, as a kind of globalization: it is smooth, without facets, and equal to itself in all its parts. The polyhedron has a form similar to the sphere, but it is multifaceted. I like to imagine humanity as a polyhedron, in which the multiple forms, in expressing themselves, constitute the elements that compose the one human family in a plurality. And this is true globalization. The other globalization — that of the sphere — is an homologation” (Dec 6th, 2013).

According to this vision, globalization as a sphere can lead to cultural uniformity and social homologation whereby one model of development and one way of life become the center of what it means to be human and the whole world must conform to it. Globalization as a polyhedron, on the other hand, allows for multiple solutions that are all different from one another while still maintaining vital relationships between its components. In the latter, homogeneity is not imposed and multiplicity is encouraged. In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis elaborated on the dangers of reducing the world to a single economic pattern and a monolithic cultural paradigm. This globalization brings “an economy of exclusion”, “the new idolatry of money”, “a financial system which rules rather than serves”, and “inequality which spawns violence”. Globalization, by desiring to mould the world into a single pattern, kills it. Conversely, if it celebrates the world’s diversity it causes it to flourish. The center of this polyhedron is the common humanity that all human beings share while the different faces represent the cultural particulars that cannot be squeezed nor overlooked by globalization.

Christian Unity

What is interesting in Francis’ use of these geometric images is how he applies them to the realm of ecumenism. Christian unity has its own biblical metaphors, such as that of a single body with a head and many organs and parts (1 Corinthians 12). In his visit to the Italian Pentecostal church (August 28th, 2014), Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron: “We are in the age of globalization, and we wonder what globalization is and what the unity of the Church would be: perhaps a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the center, all are equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy Spirit does not create uniformity! What figure can we find? We think of the polyhedron: the polyhedron is a unity, but with all different parts; each one has its peculiarity, its charism. This is unity in diversity”.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that unity as a sphere is pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic ecumenism whereby other Christians were drastically invited to “come back” into the Catholic fold and to conform to its doctrines and practices under the rule of the Pope. With Vatican II, Roman Catholicism updated its ecumenical project and embraced a concentric circle type of unity in which the one and only Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic church and other churches and communities gravitate around this center according to their degree of nearness or distance from it. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teachings, Christian unity is threefold: 1. professing the same faith, 2. celebrating the same Eucharist (i.e. the Roman Catholic way), and 3. being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession (i.e. under the Pope).

How does a polyhedron kind of unity as advocated by Pope Francis fit this view of unity? For example: as far as the second mark of unity is concerned, is the Pope saying that the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation belong at the center of Christian unity or are they particulars that can accommodate differences? Or is the Pope saying that apostolic succession, which is the basis of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, is still part of the center or is it a variable that is secondary to Christian unity?

Polyhedrons are fascinating solids and Francis’ use of the image of a polyhedron is thought-provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity does not primarily lie in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. If the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic sacramental system are part of the center of Christian unity, one can make reference to spheres or polyhedrons all he likes, but the substance of the problem is that unity still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

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    88. Is Scripture True Only in a “Limited” Way? The Truth of the Bible According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission

    August 28th, 2014

    The “Biblical Renewal” is one of the most significant movements that has both preceded and followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). After centuries of prohibiting the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular languages and forbidding access to it, the Roman Catholic Church has been working hard to reconnect with the Scriptures. Leo XIII’s encyclical Provvidentissum Deus (1893) defended a high view of the inspiration of the Bible while Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) welcomed historical-critical methods into Catholic exegesis. These two magisterial statements are the tracks within which the present-day Roman Catholic approach to the Bible can be found. A traditional appreciation of the Bible as an inspired book, on the one hand, and a critical reading of it which questions the clarity and finality of Scripture, on the other, are the two poles that open the door for the intervention of the Magisterium for the interpretation of Scripture.

    Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (1965) is the highest authoritative statement on the Bible which combines the two emphases within the framework of a triangular dialectics between Tradition, Scripture and the Magisterium. A summary of Dei Verbum was offered by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter Verbum Domini (2010) in which he writes that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). Here we find the classic reference to inspiration, but also the preceding existence of Tradition that envelops the Bible and speaks through the church’s Magisterium. According to Catholic teaching the Bible only “contains” the Word and this difference between Scripture and the Word allows for both critical readings of the Bible and the need for a human authority to discern what it contains and what it doesn’t.

    The most recent pronouncement on this doctrine is an extended document released by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (February 22, 2014), which is the Vatican’s official study group on biblical issues. The title well captures the discussed topic: “The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture”. This 250-page text is basically an elaboration of what Dei Verbum had argued as far as the scope of biblical inerrancy is concerned, i.e. that the Bible “teaches, without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (11). What, though, is the significance of relating inerrancy to “the sake of our salvation?” Is it then a kind of inerrancy that is limited only to the message of salvation? What about the rest of the Bible? Is it without error? And how can that which is related to salvation be distinguished from the rest? And who can discern what is without error and what is instead disputable? Roman Catholic theology has been discussing these issues since Vatican II and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has now entered this very important debate.

    The document attempts to reaffirm and expand on what Dei Verbum highlights. The truth of the Bible is affirmed but is related to the “project of salvation” (3), the “salvific plan” (4), and “our salvation” (63). The detailed biblical overview on the truth of Scripture is understood as limiting the inerrancy of the text to its soteriological purpose. As for the rest, “in the Bible we encounter contradictions, historical inaccuracies, unlikely accounts, and in the Old Testament there are precepts and commands that are in conflict with the teaching of Jesus” (104). More specifically, the Abrahamic narratives are considered more as interpretations than historical facts (107), the crossing the Red Sea is more interested in actualizing the Exodus than reporting its original events (108), most of the book of Joshua has little historical value (127), and Jonah’s story is an imaginary account (110). In the New Testament, the reference to the earthquake in the passion’s narratives is a “literary motif” rather than a historical report (120). More generally, the Gospels have a normative value in affirming Jesus’ identity but their historical references have a “subordinate function” (123): in other words, the theology of the Gospels is valid, but their historical reliability is less important. How the two aspects can be neatly distinguished is not explained. In the end the truth of the Bible is “restricted” to what it says about salvation (105).

    Another section of the document deals with the “ethical and social issues” raised by the alleged truth of the Bible, e.g. the theme of violence and the place of women. The hard and “offensive” texts of Scripture (e.g. the conquest narratives and the imprecatory Psalms) are not read in Catholic services due to “pastoral sensitivity” (125). According to the document, how can they be the Word of God is difficult to say. Again, the standard criterion to discern the inerrancy of the text is to “look at what it says about God and men’s salvation” (136) leaving the rest to the historical-critical readings and cultural sensibilities of the time. In a telling final statement, the document says that “the goal of the truth of Scripture is the salvation of believers” (144). The implication is that the Bible says beyond salvation (however defined) is not to be taken as necessarily true in the same sense.

    What about the role of the Church in this matter? Since the truth of the Bible is not plenary but needs to be discerned according to its salvific purpose, it is the Church that mediates the acceptance and the proclamation of the truth of Sacred Scripture (149). It is the Church (the Roman Catholic Church) that selects and limits what is the truth of Scripture. According to the document then the Bible is true as far as its message of salvation is concerned and as far as higher criticism dictates. Ultimately, it is the Church that defines the truth of Scripture and rules over it.

    The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Inspiration and the truth of Sacred Scripture” argues for a “limited inerrancy” of Scripture (limited to the message of salvation) and reiterates historical-critical views about the un-reliability of the historical accounts of both the Old and the New Testament. It is a Roman Catholic blend of traditional and critical views of the Bible which finally exalts the role of the Church. While rejoicing for some fruits of the “biblical renewal” that is taking place in Roman Catholicism, especially as far as the encouragement to all to read the Scriptures is concerned, the battle for the truth of Scripture still rages. In no way has Rome come closer to Sola Scriptura, i.e. the obedience to the self-attesting Word of God written that truly witnesses to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism has nuanced its position and has relaxed the sharp edges of its opposition, but it still maintains the prominence of the Church over the Bible.

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