82. A Mini-Assisi for the Holy Land?

June 17th, 2014

Assisi is the small town where Francis of Assisi (1181- 1226) lived most of his life and is now a destination for thousands of pilgrims every year. Assisi is also the place where in 1986 Pope John Paul II convened a prayer meeting for peace where different religious leaders came together to pray, each one in his own way and to his own G/god(s). This inter-religious prayer initiative raised some concerns within the Catholic Church as well as outside of it. Was it an endorsement of religious universalism? Was it a way to downplay the exclusive claims of the Gospel? Did it give the impression that all religions are equal? What kind of theology supported that inter-faith and multi-religious prayer? Although Pope Benedict tried to address some of these issues, this debate continues.   

Now Pope Francis has entered the debate in a most unpredictable way. During his recent visit to the Holy Land he invited the Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace in the region (June 8th). In a way this was a mini-Assisi type of event.

The Power of Symbols and the Inherent Confusion

The prayer took place in the Vatican, but the scene was very similar to what happened in Assisi. The Pope (dressed in his usual white robes) sat at the center of a semi-circle, with the Israeli and Palestinian delegations (all dressed in dark black suits) at his right and left hand sides. St. Peter’s cupola overshadowed them all. It was the same setting of Assisi with the Pope being recognized as the “center” of inter-faith dialogue and presiding over inter-religious prayers. In their short speeches both Peres and Abbas readily praised the strategic leadership of the Pope in bringing reconciliation. All the symbols present strongly supported the view that the Papacy is a key institution in bringing the whole of humanity together.

The main difference is that in Assisi John Paul II had invited religious leaders whereas Francis brought political leaders together to pray. No matter what one thinks of inter-faith prayer, the 1986 event was at least coherent in that it called religious leaders to take part. Now, Francis wanted presidents to pray with him instead. The significance of this can be hardly overestimated. The Pope is also head of a state (i.e. the Vatican City) and therefore wears two hats, so to speak. He is a peer of both religious and political leaders. In asking the Israeli President to pray a Jewish prayer and the Palestinian President to pray a Muslim prayer, however, he wrongly attributed to them the role of being representatives of the majority religions of their countries. He exchanged their responsibilities of representing all citizens (e.g. Israeli Christians and Palestinian Christians included) by giving them the hat of Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.

The confusion lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Because the Pope is both a religious leader and a head of state the distinction between what belongs in the realms of both religion and state is significantly blurred. Francis invited his fellow heads of state and asked them to perform a religious duty as if they were religious leaders. He projected his own dual-identity (religious and political) onto his guests. This in no way represents a healthy relationship between the two spheres.

Standing Perplexities

The 2014 mini-Assisi gathering also used similar language that was used in 1986. In his prayer Francis invoked God as “God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love” who calls us to live “as brothers and sisters”. He strongly advocated the idea that we have to “acknowledge one another as children of one Father”. “Brother” was the most frequently used word in his speech and the universal Fatherhood of God was the theological framework of the event.

Now this whole language is ambiguous at best. It can be used to indicate the need for peoples of different backgrounds and religions to live together in peace as if they were brothers and sisters. Or it can mean that they are already brothers and sisters, children of the same Father, no matter what their religious convictions are. The stress on the “same God” idea strongly suggests that the latter interpretation is what Francis really meant. The fact that a Christian prayer (with a final invocation to Mary, “the daughter of the Holy Land and our Mother”), a Jewish prayer, and a Muslim prayer were offered one after the other, all containing references to the “same God-same humanity”, points to the idea that all religions are in the end good in themselves, provided that they restore and maintain peace. This is actually what most people took from the mini-Assisi of Pope Francis. After the cautious reservations of Pope Benedict, the “spirit of Assisi” still breathes in the Vatican.

81. “Not a School of Samba”. Francis and the Catholic Charismatic Movement

June 9th, 2014

It was an impressive picture. During the first week-end of June 50.000 people gathered together in the Olympic Stadium of Rome not for a football match but instead to see Pope Francis as he joined the Catholic Charismatic movements for their annual celebration. In his speech the Pope gave a bit of an auto-biographical story of his encounter with these Renewal movements. Today, one Catholic out of ten claims to be charismatic (120 million people on the whole) and most of non-Western Roman Catholicism is heavily influenced by Charismatic spirituality.


From Skepticism to Full Endorsement

In his speech, Francis candidly recalled that his first impressions of the movement were rather mixed. The charismatic way of singing and worshipping seemed to him more of a “school of samba” than a properly defined Catholic liturgy. His reservations, however, were overcome as he better understood the movement. From a skeptical observer, Bergoglio became a staunch supporter of it.


Bergoglio’s personal change of mind over time reflects the journey that the Catholic Church as a whole made in its evaluation of the movement. From an initial puzzlement over what appeared to resemble the manners of Evangelical Pentecostalism, the Catholic Church worked hard to create a space for Charismatics within the wide fold of Roman Catholicism. The attempt went in a twofold direction. First, it made sure that the Charismatic experience was grafted into the sacramental system of the Catholic Church. Speaking in tongues and the other supernatural events were then considered as subsequent realizations of the already received sacraments administered by the Church. It was not something different or new or disruptive, but something that was grounded in the traditional sacramental theology and actually reinforced it, although in its own unique way.


Once the theology was safeguarded a second move was necessary, i.e. strictly connecting the movement to the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. Pentecostalism was a child of the “free church” or even “para-church” mentality, based on the spontaneity of the group and the prominence of the experience of the individual, which is far from the ordinary Catholic sense of belonging to the mother Church. Paul VI and John Paul II suggested an institutional framework for the Catholic Charismatics whereby the first article of their statutes would insist that the movement was part of the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishops and ultimately under the authority of the Roman Pontiff.


In so doing, both the theology and the institution of the Church were preserved and the Charismatic movement became all in all a “child” of the Catholic Church. From being a potential threat, it became a powerful arm of the present-day Roman Church and one its main hopes for the future. In the early Seventies the initial turning point of the Catholic approach occurred at the Gregorian University of Rome (the flagship Jesuit academic institution), and now the Jesuit Pope fully confirms the extremely positive attitude of the Church as a whole toward the Catholic Charismatics.


The Role of Renewal Movements Within the System

The Catholic Charismatic movement is just of the many contemporary renewal movements that operate within the Roman Catholic Church. This institution, beside its hierarchical apparatus, is innervated by different movements, each one bringing its own “gift” (singular) to the Church which in turn holds all the “gifts” (plural). Renewal movements have always been in and around the church with their specific vocation. The Roman Church as a system has fought those movements that would not integrate themselves into the sacramental theology and hierarchical structure of the Church, but has welcomed those that were willing to become an organic part of it. The Protestant Reformation is an example of the former, the Franciscan movement an example of the latter. These integrated renewal movements have become means to stretch the catholicity of the system without changing its core.


The same thing happened with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Once appeased by the Roman sacraments and the Papal structure, the system has been able to fully metabolize it. As other renewal movements in the course of history, the Charismatic Renewal is a means for the expansion of the system that adds to it and solidifies it, without purifying and changing it.

80. “Without Mary the Heart is an Orphan”. Another Instance of Francis’ Marianism

May 16th, 2014

Francis’ Marian devotion is one of the defining marks of his spirituality. From his very first acts as Pope to his daily speeches and practices, traditional Marian theology is basic to his Catholic worldview. To evangelical ears his language may at times seem Christ-centered and mission-oriented, but these apparent gospel emphases are always organically related to a strong Marianism that envelops the Pope’s religious narrative and experience. The latest example of his profound Marianism occurred in a meeting with the seminarians in Rome on May 13th. In answering their questions on various topics, the Pope made some interesting comments on the Marian framework that undergirds his theology of the Christian life.

Under the Mantle of the Holy Mother of God

Commenting on the need for vigilance in times of personal turmoil, Francis evokes the counsel of the Russian Fathers to run “under the mantle of the Holy Mother of God”. This Marian protection – the Pope recalls – is also part of the liturgy whereby the faithful declare to find refuge under the “presidium” (haven) of Mary: “sub tuum presidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genitrix”. So, for a priest not to pray to Mary in times of difficulty is for him to be like an “orphan”. When in trouble the first thing a child does is look for his mother, so too should it happen in the spiritual realm. The mediatorial work of Jesus Christ and his total understanding of our needs (the whole point of Hebrews 1-2 and 4:14-16) is here totally overlooked and is instead subsumed under the protection of Mary who is the caring mother of those seeking help. Whereas the Psalmist can cry “For God alone, o my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him” (Psalm 62:8), Francis’ advice is to seek the “mantle” of Mary.

The Pope then goes on to underline the link between the motherhood of Mary and the motherhood of the Church. According to him, those who have a “good relationship” with Mary will be helped to have a “good relationship” with the Church and even with their own souls. All three have a “feminine element” which connects them in a transitive and motherly way. Again there is strong emphasis on motherhood that runs through the Mariological worldview. Those who do not have a good relationship with Mary (assuming that this means praying to her, trusting her and seeking her help) are like “orphans”. The Bible, however, teaches that a good relationship with the Church is made possible only through the head of the Church, that is Jesus Christ, and this comes through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Francis, on the other hand, has a “motherly” way of getting that relationship right.

Either Mother or Mother-in-Law!

At this point the Pope recalls an episode that happened to him while visiting a family in Northern Europe thirty years ago. The members of the family were practicing Catholics and full of enthusiasm for Christ (perhaps influenced by the Protestant culture of their region?). In a conversation they said: “We have discovered Christ and – thank God – we have passed the stage of Madonna. We don’t need her any longer”. “No”, replied the saddened Bergoglio: “This is not a mature faith. Forgetting the mother is always a bad thing, not a sign of maturity”. Again, the question arises: is finding Christ and him alone a step towards or away from Christian maturity?

The last comment concerning this question seems more like a humorous joke. In wrapping up his Marian reflection, Francis concludes by saying “If you don’t want Mary as a mother, she will become your mother-in-law!” An intriguing way of further expanding the motherhood metaphor in non biblical directions.  

The point is that pope Francis believes that a Mariologically-free or even Mariologically-light faith is an orphan-like and immature faith. The real question is whether or not a Christ-centered and mission-oriented faith should focus on Christ instead of intermingling the Gospel with various motherhood ideas that obscure it.

76. The Catholicity of Pope Francis

March 10th, 2013

One year ago (March 13th) Cardinal Bergoglio was elected as pope Francis. Different evaluations of the first year are mushrooming everywhere in the form of books and editorials. They suggest various interpretations of what the Pope has been doing, saying and implementing thus far. As his first anniversary approaches several questions seem appropriate to ask, and all of them assume that something significant has been happening. What has been the “Francis effect” on the church? The simplest answer is that he is envisaging a different kind of catholicity.

Roman Catholic Catholicity

In the Roman Catholic understanding catholicity has to do simultaneously with unity and totality. The basic premise is that multiplicity should be brought into a unity. The Church is seen as an expression, a guarantor and a promoter of true unity between God and humanity and within humanity itself. In Vatican II terms, the Church is a “sacrament of unity”. As long as the institutional structure which preserves this unity remains intact (i.e. the Roman element), everything can and must find its home somewhere within its realm (i.e. the catholic element).

The catholic mindset is characterized by an attitude of overall openness without losing touch with its Roman center. It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of holding together doctrines, ideas and practices that in other Christian traditions are thought of as being mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et (both-and) epistemology, in a catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entail both. In principle, the system is wide enough to welcome everything and everyone. The defining term is not the Word of God written (sola Scriptura) but the Roman Church itself. From a catholic point of view then, affirming something does not necessarily mean denying something else, but simply means enlarging one’s own perspective of the whole truth. In this respect, what is perceived as being important is the integration of the part into the catholic whole by way of relating the thing newly affirmed with what is already existing.

Catholicity allows doctrinal development without a radical breach from the past and also allows different kinds of catholicity to co-exist. Each Pope has his own catholicity project. John Paul II pushed for the church to become a global player, thus expanding the geographical catholicity and its profile with the media. Benedict XVI tried to define catholicity in terms of its adherence to universal “reason”, thus trying to reconnect the chasm between faith and reason that Western Enlightenment had introduced. These catholicity projects are not mutually exclusive, but they all contribute to the overall dynamic catholicity of the Church. They were all organically related to the Roman element that safeguards the continuity of the system.

Mapping Francis’ Catholicity

After one year of his pontificate it is becoming apparent what kind of catholicity Francis has in mind. He wants to build on John Paul II’s global catholicity while shifting emphases from Wojtyła’s doctrinal rigidity to more inclusive patterns. He pays lip service to Ratzinger’s rational catholicity, but wants to move the agenda from Western ideological battles to “human” issues which find appeal across the global spectrum. If Ratzinger wanted to mark the difference between the Church and the world, Francis tries to make them overlap. In shaping the new catholicity he seems closer to the “pastoral” tone of John XXIII, who will be canonized (i.e. declared a “saint”) next April. So there is continuity and development. This is the gist of catholicity. 

Francis has little time for “non-negotiable” truths, and gives more attention to the variety of people’s conscience. He is more interested in warmth than light, more in empathy than judgment. He focuses on attitude rather than identity, and on embracing rather than teaching. He underlines the relational over the doctrinal. For him proximity is more important than integrity. Belonging together has priority over believing differently. Reaching out to people comes before calling them back. Of course all these marks are not pitted against each other, but their relationship is worked out within a new balance whereby the first one determines the overall orientation. Roman catholicity works this way: never abandoning the past, always enlarging the synthesis by repositioning the elements around the Roman center.

Francis calls this catholicity “mission”. The word is familiar and intriguing for Bible-believing Christians, yet one needs to understand what he means by it beyond what it appears to mean on the surface.


75. Liberation Theology, the Prodigal Daughter

February 28th, 2014

There was a time, only a few years ago, when the simple reference to “Liberation Theology” would cause many eyebrows to raise in the Vatican. Those times are now over. What was perceived and even publicly denounced as one of the most dangerous threats confronting the Roman Catholic Church is now seen as a legitimate, if not necessary, stream of its ever expanding life.

Liberation Theology As It Was Then

Liberation Theology was the title of a seminal book published in 1973 by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez in which he advocated the idea that theology should be at the service of “integral” liberation, i.e. spiritual and economic freedom resulting in social justice. It was a new way of doing theology that would prioritize the people’s cries “from below” rather than the expectations of the ecclesiastical intellectual hierarchy “from above.” It would work its way bottom-up rather than top-down, and would consider the poor as the major theological player rather than the receiving end of decisions made by the rich, and would denounce as oppressive the capitalistic status quo that the Catholic Church would have instead assumed in Latin America. Other noted exponents are Leonardo and Clodoveo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of Spain, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.

Its critics associated Liberation Theology with Marxist ideology, materialistic anthropology, and revolutionary politics that would turn the traditional teaching and practice of the Church upside down. The Catholic Church strongly reacted against it. John Paul II, while paying lip service to some of the concerns expressed by Liberation Theology, was active in trying to silence it as much as he could. In the mid-Eighties his theological watchdog, Cardinal Ratzinger, then heading the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine, worked hard to limit its influence. Those days are now over. Why? Mutatis mutandis, has Liberation Theology changed its basic message or has the Church modified its stance? The latter seems to be the case.

Liberation Theology As It Is Now

Two substantial changes have made this shift possible. One, of course, is that since 2013 the Pope is Latin American. While it is not possible to classify Francis as a liberationist, he nonetheless shares a concern for the poor, an interest in the margins of the world and an appreciation of folk Catholicism. He simply does not seem to see Marxist categories working in and through what Liberation Theology tried to articulate. The “soft Gospel” of the Pope puts less emphasis on theological and ideological issues and in so doing he has significantly softened the controversy. The other change is that the present head of the Congregation for Sacred Docrine is Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller (since 2012), a German like Ratzinger, but, unlike his predecessor, a disciple and admirer of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Rome is now in the position of reassessing Liberation Theology even beyond past critical evaluations and disciplinary measures

Two recent books by Müller illustrate how the Vatican now views Liberation Theology from a completely different perspective. An der Seite der Armen: Theologie der Befreiung (On the Side of the Poor: Liberation Theology) is a 2004 German title that the Cardinal wrote with Gutiérrez himself. Povera per i poveri: La missione della chiesa (Poor for the poor: The mission of the Church) is a 2014 title that has just been published by the Vatican Press.

In these highly sophisticated books, Müller argues that Liberation Theology is a “regional” theology that finds her home in the “catholicity” of the Roman Church and stands in continuity with the classical theology of the church. It was preceded by the Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) which predated Vatican II and was subsequently prepared by the theology of Karl Rahner. From Henri De Lubac Liberation Theology learned that grace works within nature and not from outside of it. From Rahner it embraced the idea that grace is already in nature and not something foreign to it. In Müller’s view, Liberation Theology is a regional application of what mainstream Catholic theology had already affirmed before and after Vatican II.

Liberation Theology is no longer viewed as being a pseudo-theology soaked in Marxist ideology, but is instead a fully recognized daughter of the Church which took seriously the re-orientation that Vatican II gave to Catholic theology and implemented it into the particular context of Latin America. This is the latest exercise of Roman catholicity whereby something that is in apparent conflict is instead seen as a part of the whole, i.e. the Roman Catholic synthesis.

73. Restoring Full and Visible Unity?

January 29th, 2014

“Has Christ been divided?” This is the question that Paul rhetorically asks to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:13), and this is also the question that Pope Francis commented upon in his homily at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. His brief meditation shows the passion that is a defining mark of the present pontificate, but it also restates important aspects of the traditional Roman Catholic view of unity that has been expounded since Vatican II.

A Given and a Goal

The first remark has to do with the understanding of unity as a “goal”. In commenting on the developments of the ecumenical movement, he speaks of “journeying together on the road towards unity,” implying the idea that unity stands ahead of us as if it were a goal to be eventually reached. Unity is therefore in the future tense. What does exactly unity mean here and why is it in the future tense? Later on, the Pope makes a comment that sheds light on these issues. He refers to the prospect of “restoration of full visible unity among all Christians” as the future climax of the ecumenical path. There is need, however, to unpack such a statement.

Firstly there is the idea of “restoration.” According to this view, there was a time in the life of the church when full and visible unity existed. It is not explicitly stated here, but what is perhaps referred to is the “undivided” First Millennium of the church before the East-West Schism (1054 AD) and the Protestant Reformation of the XVI century. This view is common in ecumenical circles but highly problematic from both historical and theological points of view. From its very early years and on, the church has constantly been dealing with inner divisions and conflicts, as the Pauline text testifies to. Before there was a Pope and even after the papacy came into existence, a “golden age” of Christian unity never existed, even within the Roman Catholic Church itself! Unity always stands in tension and under attack. Rather than restoring unity, the Bible urges us to “maintain” the already given unity (Ephesians 4:3) and to equip the body of Christ in order to “attain” the unity of faith (4:13). In other words, from the beginning of the church, unity is both a given and a goal. It is a gift and a task. The restoration model wrongly implies that unity was full in the first stages of the church and was then lost along the way, and now needs to be recovered. Christian unity is instead a given reality amongst those whom the Father has given to the Son (John 17:9) that must be protected and lived out.

Secondly, the Pope makes reference to a “full” and “visible” unity as the goal of ecumenism. According to the Roman Catholic view, “full” means sacramentally full, i.e. same baptism, same eucharist, same ministry. Given the self-understanding of the Roman Church, it means adhering and submitting to the sacramental theology of Rome and the hierarchical nature of its priesthood. “Visible” means that unity needs to accept the visible Papal structure of the Roman Catholic Church as the divinely appointed way for the One Church of Christ. The ecumenical price for full and visible unity is the acceptance of the Roman Catholic view of the Church. All other views are defective and, in the end, partial and invisible.

Prayer to Paul?

In closing his homily, Pope Francis reports that he had previously visited Paul’s tomb in the Basilica with other Christian leaders and they exhorted one another with these words: “Let us pray that he (Paul) will help us on this path as we advance towards unity”. Is Paul really the one to pray to for the advance of unity? Is he really in the position to help? Here again, another fundamental obstacle towards unity arises. According to the Pope, Paul can be prayed to, but the same Paul that taught us about unity was the one that wrote: “I bow my knees before the Father” (Ephesians 3:15). The restoration of Gospel purity and the keeping of Christian unity (as a gift and a task) belong together. Paul was the great apostle of the Gentiles and pointed out the Triune God as the model for our unity (Ephesians 4). We should not seek Paul’s help beyond what God inspired him to write in his letters.

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?