Category Archives: Vatican Files

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.

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.

134. The “Uncertain Teaching” of Pope Francis

March 1st, 2017

Yes or No. This is the only way a Pope (or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for Catholic doctrine) can answer a question posed by a cardinal or group of cardinals if and when they inquire about the correct interpretation or application of Catholic teaching. Yes or No was the expected answer that never came to a letter written to the Pope by four cardinals in September 2016 pleading with him for clarity regarding the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The letter asked the Pope five short questions about the exact meaning of some statements contained in the document on whether or not divorced individuals living in new relationships can have access to the Eucharist. Given that different bishops around the world are giving different answers (some saying Yes, others No), the four cardinals addressed the Pope himself hoping to receive an authoritative and univocal interpretation of the matter.

So far no answer has come, and the Pope has made it known that no answer will ever come. The Pope’s silence is causing perplexity and some worries in many Catholic circles. Is Catholic teaching becoming subject to many shades of grey? The incident also gives an opportunity to reflect on the Pope’s whole approach to the stability of doctrine. Is this absence of Yes or No only to be limited to this specific case, or is it a feature of an overall theological vision that lacks rigid reference points?

Magisterium on the Move

This is not an obnoxious issue. One of the most respected Roman Catholic theologians in Italy, Severino Dianich, asked the very question in his recent book Magistero in movimento (Magisterium on the Move). There are times in the Catholic Church that its teaching seems to be moving from well-established traditional patterns. The last season of movement was Vatican II when, for example, the church changed its mind on religious freedom (which had previously been strongly opposed) and the non-Christian religions (which had previously been given only negative assessments). Now, under the reign of Francis, Dianich argues that we are witnessing another phase of doctrinal movement. Moreover, echoing the title of a book published in the 1980s, Dianich asks whether we are witnessing an “uncertain magisterium”?

To answer the question, Dianich examines the “classical” theological structure based on the argumentative patterns and thought-forms derived from the Graeco-Roman culture. This theological model was based on univocal and fixed meanings, and conveyed in juridical language. This structure has been paramount and unchallenged for centuries. Now, more than 50 years after Vatican II (1962-1965), the theological structure that Francis is giving voice to appears to be the result of multiple different languages ​​and contaminations of various genres. Dianich identifies a number of reasons that have accelerated the change: (1) the outgoing church that Francis has in mind needs to use simple language and popular media; (2) the attention given by him to people’s hearts rather than their minds or reason makes communication more “emotional” than “cognitive”; (3) his interest in the “theology of the people” makes him interested in the feelings and aspirations of the ordinary faithful rather than the intellectuals. All this makes his teaching less definitive, more evocative, less permanent, more hospitable, less rigid and more dynamic.

Evolving Teaching in Terms of Both-And

Together with other observers, Dianich also argues that Francis’ teaching is more “pastoral” than “doctrinal”. He is not interested in questioning traditional doctrine as such, although the style and content of his ministry are very different from the “doctrinal magisterium” of his predecessors, i.e. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He seems to be interested in moving in terms of making it become more “merciful” and open-ended. Programmatically, Francis said at the Conference of the Italian Catholic Church in 2015 that Christian doctrine “has no hard face; its body moves and grows, it has tender meat: Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ”. Tender rather than hard meat. A person rather than a body of beliefs. This appears to be the meaning of doctrine according to the Pope. In light of these remarks, it is possible to argue that Amoris Laetitia applied this “pastoral” model to the issue of admission of the Eucharist to divorced persons. The Pope here does not formally deny any traditional teachings of the church (how could he possibly do so?), but makes them evolve pastorally towards more inclusive forms of access to the sacraments.

According to Dianich the Pope is implementing “the most decisive consequences of the teaching of Vatican II”. The “pastoral” pope is applying the “pastoral” council. The outcome is that the teaching is moving on towards more embracing and “catholic” outlooks. The traditional theological structure was geared to give Yes or No answers. The post-Vatican II structure is more inclined to suggest Both-And types of answer on all kinds of issues. Pope Francis is embodying this new “pastoral” approach and this is the reason why he will not answer the five questions that were asked of him. The Roman Catholic Church used to be thought of as a bulwark of clear and definitive teaching, thus attracting many people looking for a safe haven in the turmoil of the modern world. Vatican II “updated” all this. Pope Francis is now showing what it means for the present-day Roman Church to live with a teaching that is “tender” and elusive.

133. What Kind of “Reformation” Does Pope Francis Have in Mind?

February 1st, 2017

“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?

The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.

Not a New Word

In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.

Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.

Two Axises

Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.

The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.

Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?

Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.

 

132. “The Only Creature Without Sin” – Pope Francis on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

January 1st, 2017

On December 8th  each year, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated. On this occasion the Roman Catholic Church contemplates the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin. This view had been part of Roman Catholic teaching and devotional practices for centuries, but it was not until 1854 that the Immaculate Conception was officially  promulgated by Pope Pius as a dogma, i.e. a binding and un-reformable belief of the Church. Here is the precise wording of this dogma:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”.

In spite of the bold and conclusive language (declaring, defining, asserting), Protestants find it difficult to come to terms with this Marian dogma. This is due to not finding even a hint of evidence for this belief in the Bible. “How can such a view be elevated to dogmatic status if the Word of God is at best silent on it?” they ask. So it is always interesting to listen to the way in which Roman Catholic theology argues for the Immaculate Conception of Mary by trying to relate it to Scriptural teaching.

Marian Solemnity

The last occasion for this was given by Pope Francis on December 8th. He spoke twice on the topic. The first was to a public audience in St. Peter’s square. He later spoke at a Marian prayer gathering in Piazza di Spagna, where a lofty statue of Mary towers above the space and where at the climax of the ceremony it is crowned with flowers. The Papal invocations to Mary appealed to her “immaculate heart” to learn how to love, to her “immaculate hands” to learn how to caress, to her “immaculate feet” to learn how to take the first step.

The special Marian day of the Pope also included a visit to the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the ancient “Salus Popoli Romani” (health or salvation of the Roman people) icon of Mary. The Pope travels to the basilica before and after every international trip he takes in order to entrust the voyage to the care and intercession of Mary, typically with flowers in hand. This is to say that we are not confronted with a marginal belief, nor with a peripheral practice. Both the dogma and the devotions attached to it are encapsulated at the very core of the Pope’s spirituality.

No Space For Sin?

In his speech, the Pope argued that “Jesus didn’t come as an adult, already strong and full grown, but decided to follow the exact same path of the human being, doing everything in exactly the same way “except for one thing: sin.” Because of this, “he chose Mary, the only creature without sin, immaculate,” he said, noting that when the angel refers to Mary with the title “Full of Grace,” it means that from the beginning there was “no space for sin” inside of her. “Also we, when we turn to her, we recognize this beauty: we invoke her as ‘full of grace,’ without the shadow of evil.”

It appears that the biblical reference the Pope recalls is Luke 1:28, where Mary is addressed by the angel Gabriel as a “favored” one. The Vulgate, the late fourth-century Latin version of the Bible, translates this expression as “gratia plena” (full of grace), thus opening up all sorts of misconceptions, as if Mary possessed the fullness of grace in herself. This translation has been taken as implying that she was so full of grace that she must have been conceived without original sin. However, there is no hint in the text about the fact that Mary is “full” of grace and therefore “void” of sin. Being “favored” indicates that she is an unworthy recipient of God’s grace, just as the rest of us. This is further reinforced by the fact that Mary calls God her “Savior” (Luke 1:47), indicating that she thinks of herself as needing God’s salvation, just as the rest of us. There is nothing intrinsic in her apart from the divine favor and His presence with her. It seems, therefore, that a strong argument for the Immaculate Conception of Mary is based on a faulty translation of the passage, leading to an implausible doctrine impinging on anthropology and soteriology, i.e. something belonging to the core of the biblical Gospel.

The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is fully committed to the Immaculate Conception of Mary still represents a serious question mark for all those who want to ground their faith in what the Bible teaches. Evidently Rome is not based on Scripture alone but is on a trajectory in which devotions and traditions can have the final say above (and contrary to) the Bible.