72. Secular Perceptions of Pope Francis

January 6th, 2014

What others understand is an important clue about what we are saying to them. It is true that the filter of the media is highly intoxicated and that it is able to manipulate everything according to its own interests. Interviews and speeches can be arranged by the media in such a way that they become something different than their original intentions and contents. However, what people are taking in is a combination both of what they want to hear and of what we allow them to hear.

In assessing the first months of Francis’ pontificate, the secular media continues to communicate what their perception is concerning what the Pope has said up to this point. On the one hand there is a widespread fascination about his frugal style, charming personality, and engaging language. On the other, there is an appreciation for his “innovative” theology or lack of insistence on traditional tenets of Roman Catholic doctrine. Two recent comments about Francis’ theology deserve some attention.

The Rejection of Church Dogma

Interestngly, on November 20, when Time initially named Francis as a candidate for the “man of the year” award, the website noted that he was nominated for his “rejection of church dogma.” It was only after some pushback from the tweeting world the Time changed the description to read “rejection of luxury.” In truth, Francis has never jettisoned any church dogma, but the perception of the secular media is worth considering. “Rejecting church dogma” is a gross overstatement, but de-emphasizing, marginalizing, and putting doctrine in the background perhaps gets closer to the point. Francis is perceived as a Pope from whom dogma is less important than attitude, mercy more relevant than truth, and generosity of spirit more apt than the affirmation of traditional belief. Some of his statements (e.g. “Proselytism is a solemn non-sense”, “Who am I to judge a homosexual person?”, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”) have become slogans with which secular people resonate well. They hardly represent a Christian view and it is precisely for this reason that secularists find Francis’ “gospel” a message that is far from church dogma. It is not an open rejection of it, but it is understood as being a significant distancing away from it.

After the dogmatic Benedict XVI, Francis is viewed as a less rigid Pope in terms of doctrine. He is seen as being more relaxed on defending the theological identity of his Church and more committed to focusing on non-divisive issues. Roman Catholics should ask themselves whether him being considered for the “man of the year” honor is a real achievement or istead a matter that should raise concern.

The Abolition of Sin

There is yet another comment that reflects the widespead interpretations of Pope Bergoglio. The editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, who had met with Francis and published their conversation a couple of months ago, wrote an articole (December 29) in which he argues that the greatest achievement of the Pope so far is that he has practically abandoned the traditional doctrine of sin. “He has de facto abolished sin”. He is not saying that Francis has openly declared that the official Roman Catholic theology is wrong on its teaching on sin, rather he suggests that Francis sees mercy standing over sin to the point of practically overshadowing it and making it irrelevant. When he speaks about sin, he does so in reference to himself (“I am a sinner”) or to the structural aspects of sin (e.g. the oppression of the poor), but never implying the idea of radical separation from God and divine judgement. He emphasizes that God is present in every person and in so doing he downplays the tragic reality of sin. It is a de facto abolition.

The secularists applaud this development because they generally think that “sin” is the greatest obstacle for the modern conscience in coming to terms with the Christian religion. Whether or not this is a fair assessment of the Pope’s views remains to be seen. It is, however, a matter of fact that his popularity with the media is based on the perception that the Pope is a dogmatically fluid and open-ended Christian leader. Is this an issue entirely dependent on the manipulation of the media or is it also a sign that Francis is actually saying confusing and misleading things? We are now back to where we started, i.e. what others understand is an important clue about what we are saying to them.

 

 

71. Ecumenism of Blood

December 20th, 2013

The fact that Pope Francis gives interviews to both the religious and secular press is no longer a surprise. Time magazine chose him as “man of the year” because of his more relaxed and open approach to the media. This attitude was expressed in an interview that was published in the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa on 15th December. The conversation began with a reflection on Christmas but then proceeded to other topics including interesting comments on the Pope’s views on Christian unity.

Is Christian Unity a Priority for You?

It was this question that was abruptly posed to Pope Francis during his interview with La Stampa. He responded with the following: “Yes, for me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before killing them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come … Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in. We need to take these facts into consideration.”

These are important words that take into account what happens around the world. Christians who are persecuted in different minority situations belong to different churches and traditions, but they are persecuted mainly because their public faith stirs opposition. Their ecclesiastical identity is definitely secondary. More than their attachment to a church (whatever it might be), what comes first is their allegiance to Christ and His Gospel. It is their personal faith as followers of Jesus that incites persecution against them. In the global world, the neat denominational distinctions and ecumenical complexities make very little sense. The heart of the matter is the heart of the Gospel.

What is Unity Based On?

There is still something to be said about what the Pope states concerning the “ecumenism of blood”. It seems that while recognizing the astonishing reality of Christians being persecuted, notwithstanding their secondary labels, the Pope still thinks about unity in terms of the old Roman Catholic and ecumenical categories. When he refers to “baptism” as marking the Christian identity he echoes the mainstream idea in ecumenical circles, i.e. that Christian unity is based on baptism. According to this view, to be baptized means to be Christian and thus to be united with God and with other Christians. This is the standard Roman Catholic doctrine (e.g. Unitatis Redintegratio 3.22) and ecumenical teaching (e.g. the 1982 Lima Report entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry).

The ecumenism of blood is instead based on a personal faith in Jesus Christ. It is not opposed to baptism, of course, but it is not based on it. It is likely that some of these martyrs are not even baptized or do not formally belong to any historic Christian church. Yet they are believers in Jesus Christ and this is what really counts for their salvation and our unity as a whole as a body of believers. On the other hand, many who are baptized and are canonically members of a religious institution are not Christian at all. The phenomenon of nominalism in the West demonstrates that one can be baptized and yet be totally opposed or indifferent to the Gospel and its message. Christian unity is not based on baptism, but on a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Those who are united are those who are Christian believers in the biblical sense.

Re-thinking Ecumenism

The ecumenism of blood should serve as an encouragement in the re-thinking of our theology concerning Christian unity, beyond sentimental accounts of the persecuted Christians and towards a better Biblical grasp of what is means for the Church to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teaching, Christian unity is threefold: professing the same faith, celebrating the same Eucharist, and being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession in submission to the Papal office. Paradoxically, this understanding of unity is one of the greatest obstacles to Christian unity because it derives unity from a sacrament administered by a church and confuses unity with being under a specific religious institution. The martyrs that the Pope refers to do not fit this definition of unity, and yet they are nonetheless considered to be truly unified Christians.

The ecumenism of blood shows that these dimensions are not necessary for real unity to take place. Instead they only serve as additional burdens and add-ons. Pope Francis has, however, rightly emphasized the reality of the ecumenism of blood. But time will tell whether or not his “ecumenical priority” will stop paying lip-service to it or will instead encourage him to think of ecumenism beyond mere ecumenical stereotypes and towards more biblically warranted patterns. The unity of these martyrs with the Roman Catholic Church may be “imperfect”, but their unity with Christ is perfect and this is what really matters.

 

70. Trent, 450 Years Later

December 16th, 2013

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the most important event of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern era. A special commemorative event took place in the city of Trent with the presence of an official representative of Pope Francis.

Trent in a Nutshell

The Council of Trent was the official response of the Catholic Church to the XVI century Protestant Reformation. The issues of the Reformation (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone) were rejected as they were affirmed by the Reformers (mainly Luther) and recast in a sacramental framework that highlighted the contribution of human works and the mediating agency of the church. Actually, Trent declared the incompatibility of the Reformation with what became then the official doctrine of the Church of Rome and the unwillingness of Rome to undertake a process of radical revision in biblical perspective. In order to do that, Trent solidified the theology of the sacraments, hitting with a series of “anathema” those who held Protestant beliefs. Trent intervened in clarifying the Roman position (through decrees and canons) and in launching a series of changes that would impact the life of the Church.

Trent was not an isolated event. The post-Trent phase of the Church was marked by a staunch polemical attitude, first against Protestantism, and then against modernity. If Trent was the Roman response to the Reformation, the season of the Marian dogmas (1854: immaculate conception of Mary; 1950 bodily assumption of Mary), and papal infallibility (1870) were responses to the ideological challenges of Modernity.

Trent’s Heritage

Five centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church has definitely adopted a different pastoral and ecclesial “style” than that of Trent, but it has not substantially changed it, nor denied it in whole or in part. There is no point in which Vatican II moves away from the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent. At Vatican II, Trent was kept in the background and remained within the framework of Roman Catholicism. The “Tridentine paradigm” was put, so to speak, in historical perspective, but not forsaken nor forgotten. Vatican II has metabolized Trent but in no way abandoned it.

With the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, Trent was updated in its language and emphases, but reiterated in its substance. The two positions were juxtaposed and held compatible, thus working with a “both-and” scheme that is quintessentially the Roman Catholic way of developing its doctrinal system. The Tridentine “anathemas” were lifted for those who hold the doctrines of the Reformation if reinterpreted ecumenically, but the theological core of contemporary Catholicism is still steeped in its Tridentine content: it is the institutional church that mediates the grace of God through its sacramental system. Grace alone was and is still rejected. A clear indication of this is the case is that nothing has changed in important areas like indulgences, Purgatory, the sacramental prerogatives of the Church, the cult of the saints, etc.

Pope Francis on Trent

On the occasion of the official celebration in Trent (Dec 1st), Pope Francis sent a special envoy to Trent together with a letter. In it he says that the anniversary “behooves the Church to recall with more prompt and attentive eagerness the most fruitful doctrine which came out of that council. Certainly not without cause, the Church has for a long time already accorded so much care to the Decrees and Canons of that Council that are to be recalled and observed”. “No doubt,” the letter continues, “with the Holy Ghost inspiring and suggesting, it especially concerned the Fathers not only to guard the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine, but also to more clearly enlighten mankind”. The same Spirit, according to the Pope, now guides the Church “to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent”.

Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis ends the letter by saying that (the Church) “is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remains the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God”. It is the Pope that affirms the continuity between Trent and the present-day Roman Catholic Church. It is not a static continuity in that the Church “develops” over time, but is a continuity in which the Church changes, while always remaining the same. Both-and, again!

69. The Joy of the Gospel: A Window into Francis’ Vision

December 2nd, 2013

Five chapters, 288 paragraphs, and more than 220 pages. This is the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis titled The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), the second magisterial document of his Pontificate (the previous being the encyclical Light of Faith). It is the first, however, to come entirely from his own pen (and was originally written in Spanish). In 2010 Benedict XVI launched the idea of the “new evangelization”, and in 2012 convened a Synod of Bishops to discuss it. Now we have Francis’ interpretation of the new evangelization in an authoritative statement which is also a compendium to interpret most of what the Pope has been saying and doing so far. Here are some selected highlights. 

Missionary Conversion

Although Evangelii Gaudium comes one year after the Synod and is quoted 27 times, Francis’ whole approach to the topic is more dependent on the 2007 Latin American document of Aparecida than from it. More than the “new evangelization” this Pope loves to speak about “mission”. The former attempts at reaching the un-practicing Catholics, the latter is a style of the whole Church going in all directions. The former is particularly relevant for the ever more secular West, the latter is a “catholic” agenda for the world. According to the Pope, “missionary outreach is paradigmatic to all the church’s activity” (15). Evangelization is a part of mission, not the other way around. Here we are confronted with a programmatic statement of the Papacy: the Church cannot afford to stay in a “simple maintenance” mode: she needs to be in a “permanent state of mission” (25), going out, being always engaged in involving others and being constantly focused on reaching out. Maintenance culture and self-referential attitudes are the “internal” enemies that Francis is willing to fight. The vision of Pope Francis is an outward one and “mission” (whatever it may mean) is at the center of it. His church will not be on the defensive, but will be proactively engaged in promoting its vision.

A Conversion of the Papacy?

In calling others to change, the Pope is also aware of the need for the Papacy to be converted. At times, some “ecclesial structures” may become a burden and should therefore be open to transformation (26). In a telling passage, he goes as far as to say that the he is willing to see a “conversion of the papacy” (32). For those who may wonder what this expression means, this conversion does not entail a deconstruction of the dogmatic outlook of the Papacy, nor the radical questioning of the Papal claims about the Petrine office. It has to do more with how the Vatican bureaucracy functions than with the doctrinal substance of the Papacy. The document in fact speaks of “decentralization” (16) over against “excessive centralization” (32) or the growing role of the Episcopal Conferences (32). There is no sign of “real” conversion of the Papacy in the Biblical sense. The change that is foreseen is in the realm of internal church governance.

More Joy than Gospel

The word “joy” is repeated 59 times and is the common theme of the document. The Pope wants to give a joyful flavor to mission. The Gospel is also part of the title but has a lesser role in it. The “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel something is missing: while the objective Good news of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (244), Jews don’t need to convert (247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, mission is the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.

Roman Catholicism in Pill Form

The document provides interesting comments by the Pope on preaching (“homily” in Catholic language, 135-159), special consideration for the poor (186-216) and the “evangelizing power of popular piety” (122-126), i.e. the various forms of the cult of the saints and Mary. What is even more noteworthy, however, is the section where Francis refers to various slogans that mark the Roman Catholic worldview as it opens up to the missionary task. Here are just two of them:

–          “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). The Pope encourages Catholics to find ways in which “conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity” (228). This resolution “takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (idem). The “reconciled diversity” (230) is the traditional et-et (both-and) approach that makes a synthesis of opposing views and beliefs, holding them in a “catholic” equilibrium.

–          “The whole is greater than the parts” (234-237). The Pope here encourages Catholics to see the big picture of things. “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts” (235). This “principle of totality” (237) recalls another distinctive aspect of the Roman Catholic vision in that the Church is “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1).

A final question needs to be asked: Is not the mission envisaged by Francis an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to increase its catholicity and to expand its being the ultimate sign of unity for all mankind?

 

66. Towards a Politically Correct Apologetics?

October 3rd, 2013

Secular people and media are praising Pope Francis for being open to “dialogue” with the modern world in a way that is personally engaging and fresh in style. On his side, the Pope is taking more and more pleasure in entertaining editors, journalists and opinion makers with interviews, personal meetings, and direct phone calls. The last instance of such papal strategy for communication is a long interview that was published on 1st October by the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica with its former editor Eugenio Scalfari, an outspoken atheist. The interview follows an exchange of letters and a personal meeting between the two men.

What seems to emerge from all these pieces is a specific apologetic strategy by Francis. Here are three steps that form the apologetic backbone of what the Pope said in the course of the conversation and few biblical remarks about them.

First Step: Disparaging Proselytism to Avoid the Hard Question about Conversion

At the beginning of the conversation, Scalfari says:“My friends think you want to convert me” and here is how Francis replies: “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas”.

As it is well known, proselytism is a “bad” word and has an even worse press. It is associated with fanaticism, unethical methods, and religious extremism. The Pope wants to reaffirm the negative understanding of it and in so doing he wants to build a bridge with his secular interlocutor who has a terrible opinion of it. Notice though that Scalfari had not asked his opinion on proselytism. He wanted to know if the Pope desired his conversion. Instead of answering, Francis speaks of proselytism knowing that Scalfari agrees with him. Is it ethical for a Christian not to give an answer about his conversion? Is not conversion a biblical word? Is not conversion the goal that should inspire all Christian mission? Moreover, Francis’ description of what it means for a Christian to engage in dialogue is a biblically flawed account. He speaks of “knowing, listening, expanding the circle of ideas”, but what about telling, witnessing, preaching, proclaiming the Good News? In Athens, the apostle Paul did the former but also the latter (Acts 17:16ff). Why does Francis affirm the former and omit the latter?

Second Step: Offering a “Lovely” Summary of the Gospel to Soften the Secular Prejudices

In the course of the conversation the Pope provides a summary of the gospel that suits the expectations of the secular intellectual. Here it is: “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God”. A little later he says: “Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes”.

Strangely enough, this language is very similar to the old liberal account of the gospel: a God of love wishing the brotherhood of all men. According to theological liberalism, this is the “essence” of Christianity. But, biblically speaking, it is not. In this summary there is no reference to justice, sin, judgment, atonement, death and resurrection, conversion, … not surprisingly words that are unpalatable to the secular mind. Is not the summary offered by the Pope at best a seriously truncated gospel, at worst another gospel? Is pleasing the dialogue partner and matching his expectations the primary task of apologetics?

Third Step: Reinforcing the Role of the Individual Conscience to Eschew Confrontation

At another point, Scalfari asks: “Is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?” Here is Francis’ reply: “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good”. Scalfari: “You wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope”. Francis:And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”.

The Pope agrees that “the conscience is autonomous” and following its indications is one’s own task. No reference, however, to the lies that subjugate the conscience and to sin that mars it. No reference to the guilty conscience or the misguided one that needs the power of the Gospel to free it from bondage.

Later on, Scalfari asks: “Do you feel touched by grace?” Francis:No one can know that. Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason. Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace”. Scalfari: “Without faith? A non-believer?” Francis:Grace regards the soul”.

Is grace really an experience beyond knowledge, reason and even faith? Are all men, for their being men, already graced even without knowing it and without believing in the biblical God? To this question the Bible would say “no” (e.g. Ephesians 2:1-10).

The dialogue was politically correct and the outcome of the conversation was the following: the secular thinker is no longer nervous about his need to be converted. He is also confirmed in the idea that the gospel is about love and human brotherhood. He is also reinforced in his conviction that his conscience is what really matters. Unfortunately, the Pope seems to agree on all three points. Is this good apologetics?