136. The Gospel of Solidarity: The Future of Roman Catholic Mission?

April 12th, 2017

 by Reid Karr

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Reid Karr for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Reid is co-pastor of the church Breccia di Roma, Associate director of the Reformanda Initiative (www.reformandainitiative.org) and a Ph.D. candidate working on the theology of evangelization in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

Here’s a loaded question for you: What is the state of missiology today? Of course the answer to this question depends on any number of variables, such as geography, culture and religion. No doubt it is a difficult and complicated question to answer, and undertaking such a task requires courage and determination. Charles E. Van Engen has accepted this challenge and attempts to respond to this question with his aptly titled work The State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness. The book represents a collection of papers presented at Fuller Theological Seminary in commemoration of the School of Intercultural Studies’ 50th anniversary. The contributions focus on the School’s fifty years of innovation in mission, and look to the next fifty years, thus presenting a general state of missiology today.

One of the presentations delivered for the anniversary celebration is the focus of our attention here. It is a contribution by Mary Motte, who is a sister of the Franciscan Missionary of Mary and director of the Mission Resource Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. Her article is titled “Emergence of New Paths: The Future of Mission in Roman Catholicism.” Her thoughts are examined here because from an Evangelical, gospel-centered point of view, they are alarming and disconcerting. While it is true that Motte’s is only one voice among many, she accurately captures a very Franciscan (in reference to the Pope) approach to mission and Roman Catholic theology, post Vatican II. Hers is a voice that has been molded by the current Pope and is a clear indication of the direction the Catholic Church is heading in. With that said, we can now ask ourselves, “So what exactly is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?” The following is a Franciscan answer to this important question.

Missing Vocabulary

When considering a biblical understanding of mission, there are certain words that come to mind as being essential if one hopes to remain faithful to Scripture. For example, it would be impossible to talk about the mission and purpose of God’s people in the world – past, present and future – without considering sin and its devastating effects on mankind. If we avoid sin, then we might as well avoid the cross as well, for it was at the cross where Christ paid the price for our sin. In her article Mary Motte avoids both. The word “sin” is not found once. The closest word she incorporates is “sinfulness,” and is in reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he is a sinner. The word “cross” is completely absent, and so too is the good news of what Christ accomplished there on our behalf. Not surprisingly then, the word “salvation” is also entirely absent. What about forgiveness? It is used only once, and again is a passing reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he needs forgiveness. The death and resurrection of Christ are central to the gospel and therefore to the church’s mission. This gospel essential, however, is absent from Motte’s writing, and the word resurrection is never used. Furthermore there is no concept of biblical redemption at all, and the word “redemption” is also nowhere to be found.

The word “grace” is used three times by Motte. With each use, however, there is no attempt to articulate how grace is meant to contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, nor what role it plays or how it should be understood. The reader encounters the word “gospel” several times, however it is never defined. Despite the lack of definition the reader can easily determine what Motte has in mind when she references the gospel, and perhaps this is why it is never clearly expounded. Whereas a biblical attempt to define the gospel would most certainly include the words discussed above, Motte’s understanding of the gospel does not, so this begs this question: What exactly is the gospel according to Motte, and how does it contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?

An All-Encompassing Solidarity?

Instead of saturating her articulation of mission and the gospel with words such as sin, forgiveness, the cross, grace, salvation, resurrection, redemption, etc., Motte frequently employs the word “solidarity” to characterize her Franciscan concept of the gospel and the way forward for Roman Catholic mission. In short, the future of mission in Roman Catholicism is to be found in seeking solidarity. Solidarity is the “new path” that has emerged, and represents the road that ought to be followed if the Church’s mission is to succeed. Whereas the words mentioned above (sin, forgiveness, etc.) are virtually absent from Motte’s work, the word “solidarity” is used seven times. The following quotation provides insight into Motte’s gospel of solidarity and how it relates to mission in Roman Catholicism. “Mission,” she suggests, “has gradually been transformed into fidelity to the people and involves walking with them in solidarity bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus” (location 4016, Kindle version).

Mission, therefore, is fidelity to the people (people in general) and walking with them in solidarity. How, then, does one walk with another in solidarity? This is accomplished by working together on behalf of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. It is also accomplished by being with the poor and marginalized, along with the refugees and by praying and working together with others (see location 3933). It must be noted, however, that in praying and working together Motte states that proselytism must be avoided! In her own words she says, “The enormous significance of praying and working together and of avoiding proselytism continue to be sources of energy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (locations 3933-3943). Motte suggests, therefore, that attempting to convert another to one’s own faith or set of beliefs must be avoided, and that this is inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit.

For Motte, synonymous to walking in solidarity is advocating for a “global spiritual community.” Citing Ewert Cousins, Motte notes that “Forces, which have been at work for centuries have in our day reached a crescendo that has the power to draw the human race into a global network and the religions of the world into a global spiritual community” (locations 3824-3834). Again, this is accomplished by confronting the “terrible suffering and losses of children, women and men in their excruciating experiences of migration, natural disasters, hunger, illness and death” (location 3834). In so doing, a “sharp awareness of the global leads us beyond boundaries to growing consciousness about human suffering” (location 3834). This represents Motte’s gospel of solidarity. It is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism. This is the gospel and is, in Motte’s words, “a revolution of mercy” (location 4085). What a fitting epithet to Pope Francis and his papacy.

Motte is of course right to advocate for the poor and the marginalized. She is correct that the church must confront the terrible suffering unjustly endured by so many. Justice and peace define the God of the Bible, and therefore must define His church as well. Walking in solidarity with others, even those of different religious beliefs, is to be encouraged and pursued in order to promote justice and peace and to ease the suffering of the poor and to help the countless refugees and migrants who have been displaced. These are important tasks that require solidarity and collaboration. They do not, however, ultimately define the mission of the biblical church.

The Heart of Mission

The mission of the church is to preach Christ crucified. The church’s mission is to proclaim the good news that Christ defeated death and rose from the grave, thus securing salvation and the forgiveness of sins for those who place their faith in his atoning sacrifice. The mission of the church is to spread the good news that because of God’s tremendous grace we can receive this salvation as a gift. The mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that we are all dead in our sins, but because of what God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ, and through him alone, we can be made alive again and can have eternal life. The mission of the church is to preach this message to everyone in all places, seeking to communicate the gospel in a culturally relevant and effective manner that speaks directly to the heart of the recipient.

For this mission solidarity is indeed essential, but it is a solidarity that is defined by the confession: “Christ is Lord!” Because in Christ alone our salvation is found, proselytism (i.e. preaching the gospel while being respectful of other religious views, but expecting people to turn to Christ without coercion) must never be avoided. How can it be if there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)? If Motte’s gospel of solidarity represents the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, then contrary to what she believes it is a mission that lacks the energy of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is neither present nor active in a mission in which sin and the cross of Christ are absent. The gospel is about forgiveness and salvation, it is about death and life, it is about grace and redemption. Proclaiming this good news is the mission of the church. It always has been, and it always will be.

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    135. The Decentralization of Catholic Bioethics in the Time of Francis

    April 1st, 2017

    Since the beginnings of modern bioethics in the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the hard line of defending human life from conception to natural death, protecting the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, and guarding the limits of scientific research within the parameters of human dignity. Not only did the Catholic Church strongly argue for traditional moral convictions over secular redefinitions of life and reproductive “rights”, but it also put such issues at the forefront of its action in the public arena. Those days are over. With Pope Francis we are witnessing a shift in the posture of the Catholic Church as far as public debates on bioethics are concerned.

    A recent study by Luca Lo Sapio (Bioetica cattolica e bioetica laica nell’era di papa Francesco, Catholic Bioethics and Secular Bioethics in Pope Francis’ Era) documents the transition we are witnessing in the attempt by Pope Francis to invest the public voice of his church away from bioethical controversies, which clash with secular culture, and toward a number of social issues (e.g. immigration, poverty, the environment), which seem to resonate with the secular world.

    What Happened to the Non-Negotiable Principles?

    The differences  between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the one hand, and Pope Francis, on the other, are becoming apparent. When dealing with bioethics, the two former Popes often spoke of “non-negotiable principles” in staunchly defending the Catholic positions on life issues. Moreover, they wanted these principles to be at the heart of the Church’s agenda in the modern world no matter how much controversy they generated in public opinion.

    The official teaching of the Church on bioethical issues supported the strong stance taken by these Popes. Encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), exhortations like Familiaris Consortio (The Family, 1981), documents like Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life, 1987) and Dignitatis Personae (The Dignity of a Person, 2008) all univocally pointed to the clear-cut teaching of the Church in dealing with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and the like, and showed the willingness of the Church to relentlessly advocate for it.

    Francis’ Detente Strategy

    The outcome of such a posture was an ongoing and intense “culture war” against secular bioethics. The Roman Catholic Church has been considered a “militant” army fighting for the sacredness of life on the battlefield of bioethics. With Pope Francis, Rome has significantly changed strategy. The over-arching narrative of the relationship with the world has been modified. One of his preferred metaphors for the Church is that of a “field hospital for the wounded”. The time of “culture wars” against the West is over and the task of the Church is to convey forgiveness and mercy. The secular world is not to be fought against but cared for. From being the bulwark of the defense of life, the Church is now a place where the wounds can be healed.

    How does this narrative work in his pontificate in relation to bioethics? Lo Sapio convincingly argues that Francis has little interest for “doctrinal bioethics” and is more concerned with concrete and individual life situations. His approach is existentialist, rather than theological (or content/truth-driven). He wants to be close to people, even at the cost of appearing to be less faithful to principles. He focuses on the primacy of conscience rather than the prescriptive nature of law. He wants to be a warm and welcoming pastor and has reservations over the dangers of being a cerebral and judgmental theologian. The center of gravity of his pontificate is forgiveness and mercy rather than truth and deontological ethics. His preference goes with the messiness of life rather than the neatness of systems. Rather than talking about embryos and stem cells, Francis often speaks of poor children, displaced people, and abandoned old people. Rather than condemning wrong actions, he looks for ways to go alongside people, notwithstanding the morality or immorality of their lives.

    Francis is not outspokenly changing the traditional Roman Catholic positions on bioethics. The official teaching is still there. What he is doing is decentralizing its role, de-emphasizing its importance, and displacing its centrality. His overall strategy looks for ways to engage the secular West on grounds that are more palatable to it, while leaving the controversial issues to the side. Where this strategy will lead the Roman Church is difficult to know. Certainly, all those who looked to Rome for clarity, vigor, and proactive actions on bioethical issues may find it necessary to look elsewhere. Pope Francis has little time for them.

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