145. Mission. Did Pope Francis say Mission?

January 1st, 2018

“Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”(The Joy of the Gospel, 2013, n. 25). These programmatic words epitomize the missionary vision that Pope Francis has been expounding and implementing since becoming Pope in 2013. Without a doubt, mission is central to his thought and action and is a defining mark of his pontificate. Having said that, it is not always clear what he means when he talks about “mission”. Indeed, in today’s religious language “mission” is one of those words which can have multiple “shades of gray”, and discovering its meaning can become a conundrum. Pope Francis adds his own complexities and nuances to the already variegated semantic range of the word “mission”.

The recent papal journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh (28-30 November) provides an entry point into the applied missiology of the Pope. Here Francis was visiting two countries where Christians are minorities and where mission, however definable, is the top priority of the Church. What a great opportunity for him to embody and exemplify the vigorous call to his Church to be permanently “in a state of mission”!

Omitting to speak of Christ?

What took place there – or, should we say, what did not take place? – sheds light on the whole issue. The Pope’s public speeches were about peace and harmony, solidarity and dialogue, and were centered on a generic faith in “God” which could have been understood in all kinds of ways. Any references to Jesus Christ were omitted. As Italian journalist Sandro Magister put it: “There was only one moment in which Jesus was named and his Gospel proclaimed, in the speeches on the first day of Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. Only that the one who spoke these words was not the pope, but the Burmese state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who is of the Buddhist faith”.

This is a strange way of doing mission, one might think. The gospel was vaguely proclaimed by a Buddhist politician rather than by the Pope. As far as Francis is concerned, important omissions of this kind are not new. For example, acute observers like Chris Castaldo have already pointed out the lack of Christ-related language in other public speeches. In 2015, visiting the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the Pope delivered Christ-less speeches, however inter-faith and ecumenically friendly they were. As Castaldo soberly commented: “Sadly, he failed to do so much as mention the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ.’”

This omission looks like a pattern in Francis’ mission. It is true that even the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech at Athens did not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ, though he referred to the “man” (Acts 17:31), which is a clear reference to the Lord Jesus, the risen One and the coming Judge. Paul’s speech, nonetheless, challenged the belief system of his hearers and presented the reality of God’s righteous judgment over all, calling people to repent. All these elements also seem to be missing in the Pope’s missiology. When he is in inter-faith and political contexts, he seems reluctant to boldly and clearly proclaim the name of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Unlike Paul the missionary, who faced pushback and criticism because of his presentation of the gospel, Francis is normally liked by his hearers, who feel affirmed in what they already believe rather than challenged by the message of Jesus Christ. What kind of mission are we talking about then?

Mission without Apologetics?

Is this critical assessment based on reading too much into the Pope’s gospel omissions? One way of answering this question is to allow the Pope to speak for himself in explaining his missionary vision. Luckily, in flying back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis gave a telling comment on what had just happened. Here is the script of the in-flight press conference, during which Francis replied to a question posed by a French journalist. The Q&A is worth quoting at length:

Etienne Loraillere (KTO): Holiness, there is a question from the group of journalists from France. Some are opposed to inter-religious dialogue and evangelization. During this trip you have spoken of dialogue for building peace. But, what is the priority? Evangelizing or dialoguing for peace? Because to evangelize means bringing about conversions that provoke tension and sometimes provoke conflicts between believers. So, what is the priority, evangelizing or dialoguing? Thanks.

Pope FrancisFirst distinction: evangelizing is not making proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction, that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan, forgiving 70 times 7 and in this witness the Holy Spirit works and there are conversions, but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait, you speak, your tradition … seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians. 

During the lunch I had with the young people at World Youth Day in Krakow, 15 or so young people from the entire world, one of them asked me this question: what do I have to say to a classmate at the university, a friend, good, but he is atheist … what do I have to say to change him, to convert him? The answer was this: the last thing you have to do is say something. You live your Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it. And let the Holy Spirit activate him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the vocation. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel. “Testimony” is a Greek word that means martyr. Every day martyrdom, martyrdom also of blood, when it arrives. And your question: What is the priority, peace or conversion? But when you live with testimony and respect, you make peace. Peace starts to break down in this field when proselytism begins and there are so many ways of proselytism and this is not the Gospel. I don’t know if I answered”.

With this answer one is projected into the missiological vision of the Pope. Let’s briefly mention its main points. First, there is a negative reference to proselytism without defining it. As it stands, his words discourage the expectation for conversions and put a stigma on the missionary activity that looks forward to seeing people embracing Christ out of their religious or secular background (see instead Mark 1:15; Acts 2:37-38). Second, there is an unnecessary polarization between good deeds/attitudes and the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is such a polarization between the content of the message and the behavior of the messenger maintained. We are instead called to always join what we say, what we do, and how we do it (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-17). Third, there is a distrust of apologetics in dealing with unbelief. The missionary is not expected to give reasons for what she believes and to challenge the belief system of her friend. In this way, the Pope seems to discourage engaging in meaningful apologetics (evidently against 1 Peter 3:15).

According to Pope Francis then, mission does not look forward to making disciples, refrains from verbally proclaiming the Good News, and is skeptical about apologetics. How different this is to the standard evangelical understanding of evangelization given by the 1974 Lausanne Covenant:

“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (par. 4).

In this evangelical definition, almost everything the Pope warns against is instead strongly affirmed: the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of Christian persuasion in the context of lives marked by integrity. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind when he refers to mission.

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144. What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?

December 1st, 2017

Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.

Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism

There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.

In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of  key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.

At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?

The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components

These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.

It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.

It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.

What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.

Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.

Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.

Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?

As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.

Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.

Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!

What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.

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