100. The Idols of Rome

January 31st, 2015

Idolatry has become a theme of renewed interest in recent theological discussion. It neatly describes what the Bible warns against, and it helps to make sense of the overarching narrative of the Christian message. Idols are the enemies of God and try to replace God as the ultimate source of human life. Here is how Tim Keller identifies the essence of an idol in Augustinian terms: “If you love anything more than God, even though you believe in God, if there is anything in your life that is more important to your significance or security than God, then that is an idol – a kind of pseudo-god, a false god, a covenant master”.[1]

Idols are counterfeit gods that infiltrate personal lives and divert them from searching for God and following Him. It would be utterly simplistic to think of idols only operating in individuals or groups of people. If the presence of idols is so pervasive in the whole of human life, certainly they have a place in cities. Actually, cities are spatial and cultural spaces for idols to shape and destroy what comes under their dominion. Idolatry is therefore an “interpretative key” to come to terms with the spiritual condition of the city. Here I offer my homework as far as the city of Rome is concerned. This is a tentative sketch of what the idols of Rome look like. They are in chronological order, going back to the ancient past of Rome down to its present-day outlook. The idols do not replace one another, but they build on each other.

Idol n. 1 PAX ROMANA (The Roman Peace)

From the second century BC until 476 AD, Rome dominated the ancient world. Its status quo was named pax romana, the Roman peace. Its goal was to have dominion over nations and to exercise political power. Through military conquest this “peace” was taken to the world. But it was hardly a real “peace” for anyone. It was actually based on the use of violence, the imposition of slavery and the oppression of dissenters. The Pax Romana is gone as a political system but its achievements in terms of architecture and ruins are famous throughout the world. Moreover, it influences the culture of the city by way of infusing a kind of spiritual arrogance and the illusion of being at the center of the world. The gospel brings another kind of peace: the shalom of God, the peace of God that gives dignity and reconciliation in Christ.

Idol n. 2 PAPAL CATHOLICA (The Religious Stronghold)

As the Rome Empire faded away, the city was run until 1870 by the Roman Catholic Church with its highest institution, i.e. the Pope. Popes considered themselves to be the true inheritors of the emperors. Of course, they also brought some Christian elements, thus practicing a kind of assimilation between pagan and gospel motives. The main ideology that drove the city was still “imperial” and political at its very heart. The city grew full of magnificent religious buildings, wanting to show greatness and power. As far as the spiritual influence of the Papal “catholica” is concerned, the church has been running people’s lives for centuries, exercising political and economic power. The gospel that Rome needs to hear and see is instead a message based on God’s word alone (sola Scriptura), centered on Christ alone (solus Christus), grounded on grace alone (sola gratia).

Idol n. 3 THE PALAZZO (The Palazzo)

After the unification of Italy (1861), Rome became the capital of the Italian nation (1870). Following the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, now the state ruled the city, adding another layer to its spiritual outlook. Rome is a city where political structures are far from transparent, and its standards of governance are far from just. A general shrewdness of spirit marks public life. Rome is a city of political maneuvering where things can be settled if you are “in” the right circle. As the gospel alternative, the church needs to be the place where a culture of responsibility is promoted, in personal life, family, society, politics, etc.

Idol n. 4  LA DOLCE VITA (Sweet Life)

Finally, Rome is also famous for its “sweet life”, from the title of the movie by Federico Fellini La dolce vita (1960). Good food, easy life, a-moral pleasures, and sex without commitment – all contribute to the shape of the dream of a good life. Of course, there is much emptiness around and its promises are futile. Real life is different, yet the sweet life inspires people and nurtures their expectations. The gospel needs to match the aspiration of a good life, while denouncing the slippery slope of a life without Christ. After all, the Christian life means to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

The church needs to be aware of these idols, as well as to embody viable gospel alternatives. The gospel not only denounces the bankruptcy of idolatry, but also fills life with real meaning, love and hope.

(This is an excerpt of my article “Identifying the Idols of the City” in Tim Keller, Center Church Europe. Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Franeker: Uitgeverij Van Wijnen, 2014, pp. 168-174. The book can be bought at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Center-church-Europe-balanced-gospel-centered/dp/9051944802)

[1] Timothy J. Keller, ‘Getting Out (Exodus 4)’, in: D.A. Carson (ed.), The Scriptures Testify About Me, Nottingham: IVP 2013, p. 41.

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    99. The Fifteen Sicknesses of the Roman Curia Except One

    January 14th, 2015

    During the peak of the crisis that preceded the resignation of Benedict XVI in 2013 the Roman Curia was depicted as a “nest of crows”. This central governing body of the Catholic Church, made up of several departments and lead by high ranking officials (the majority being cardinals), had become a place of fierce personal conflicts and internal struggles. Benedict XVI gave up his pontificate also because he felt unable to find a solution to the chaos that was shedding a sinister light on the Vatican. Pope Francis was chosen “from the end of the world” in the hope that he would deal with the crisis of the Roman Curia as an outsider. Since being elected he has been sending clear signals about his uneasiness towards the Vatican establishment. The latest example of his criticism was his message to the Roman Curia just before Christmas (December 22, 2014) where he diagnosed a spiritually gangrenous reality.

    An Impressive List of Plagues

    The papal analysis of the spiritual condition of the Roman Curia is breathtaking in its denunciation. Here is the devastating list of sicknesses that he identified as he examined its members[1]:

    1. The sickness of feeling oneself “immortal,” “immune” or in fact “indispensable”.

    2. The sickness of “Martha-ism” (which stems from Martha), of excessive busyness.

    3. The sickness of mental and spiritual “petrification”: namely a heart of stone and a “stiff-neck”.

    4. The sickness of excessive planning and functionalism.

    5. The sickness of bad coordination.

    6. The sickness of spiritual Alzheimer’s disease.

    7. The sickness of rivalry and vainglory.

    8. The sickness of existential schizophrenia.

    9. The sickness of gossip, of grumbling and of tittle-tattle.

    10. The sickness of divinizing directors.

    11. The sickness of indifference to others.

    12. The sickness of the mournful face.

    13. The sickness of accumulating.

    14. The sickness of closed circles.

    15. And the last one: the sickness of worldly profit, of exhibitionism.

    What else can be added to this list? Whoever has ears, let them hear. More than a nest of crows the picture is more like a bunch of highly dysfunctional and egocentric clerics. This is the spiritual condition of the Roman Curia not according to a staunch anti-clerical observer but according to the head himself: the Pope!

    The Missing Sickness

    The honesty and courage of Pope Francis in this case is to be commended. The bitter irony of delivering the message on the occasion of the presentation of Christmas greetings when most would only say “nice” things is also noteworthy. One of the immediate follow-ups of the speech was that among the list of the fifteen new cardinals chosen by Francis only one of them belongs to the Curia whereas most of the others come “from the end of the world” like himself. Another interesting feature of these new cardinals is that some of them are outspokenly in favor of a more “pastoral” and open approach towards admitting to the Eucharist those in “irregular” relationships, as the Pope seems to be. This is another hot topic that the Pope is handling with increasing difficulty and that will be a test-case of the stability of his pontificate this year.

    Back to the list of sicknesses. One consideration is worth mentioning. Historically the Roman Curia is a child of the Renaissance courts that surrounded the princes in their various tasks as absolute monarchs. The Pope as a Renaissance prince also had his dignitaries assigned to him and Popes even today continue to have them in the Vatican state. Throughout the centuries the Curia was given a theological status as if it were a small model of the Church itself; indeed the Church at its best on a small scale. The Curia is a product of a monarchial vision of the church and the role of the Pope as absolute monarch of a state is also part of the same breed. Pope Francis criticized the awful spirituality of the Curia, but did not go so far as to question its political and monarchial nature. While denouncing its wrong behaviors, he did not tackle the wrong theology behind it. One reason of his reticence is that the Roman Curia as a form of government goes hand in hand with the Papacy as a form of leadership. The two are inseparable. Questioning one means questioning the other and Francis is not prepared to do either.

    This means that reforming the Curia entails much more than denouncing the poor spiritual conditions of its members or changing personnel in key positions. It involves a radical re-envisioning of the structures of the church according to the supreme apostolic teaching, i.e. the Bible, where the church has no court of dignitaries nor prince at its head, but Jesus Christ alone, who was crucified, rose again and is now exalted. At the beginning of his speech to the Curia, Francis quoted 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks of the Church as one body with many members. This is the biblical blueprint of the Church whereby its most serious plagues can be healed and the dignity of the people of God can be restored.

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