Voices from Russia

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Pope Francisco’s Church of Mercy isn’t a Church of Relativism

00 Pope Francisco Bergoglio. If you can understand it, it isn't God. 22.09


Editor’s Note:

I was looking for a more extensive treatment of Pope Francisco’s remarks. The Catholic right is cherry-picking them like crazy. You see, the pope’s remarks in toto are an unmistakable condemnation of their neocon and libertarian politics. However, watch American Catholics (including bishops) defy this gentle man from Argentina (they’ll find their dalliance with the Republican Party more pleasing than the teachings of Our Lord Christ). As a leftist, I applaud Francisco Bergoglio, and hope that he can combat the god-denying rot brought in by Timothy Dolan and his ilk. The very soul of the Catholic Church in the USA is at stake, and this Orthodox Christian wishes Francisco well. After all, his social stances are virtually identical to those of HH



In an extensive interview with a fellow Jesuit, Fr Antonio Spadaro, in the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, and published simultaneously in many other Jesuit publications, Pope Francisco outlined the Church’s priorities, the importance of mercy, of going out and encountering wounded situations and people. The Church is “a field hospital”, welcoming divorcees, homosexuals, and people who’ve had an abortion. Many applauded a “revolution”, but in reality, it’s all in the purest tradition. He emphasised the importance of women in the Church and collegiality with the Orthodox. He said, “I’m a sinner upon whom the Lord has looked. Sometimes, the church locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the primary proclamation… Jesus Christ saved you. Above all, the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy”.

According to Pope Francisco, the “greatest need of the Church today” is to witness to mercy. He explained that, too often, the Church overly concerns itself with management and morality, and reaches out to the world by presenting a set of rules, “The church’s pastoral ministry can’t be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church aren’t all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry can’t become obsessed with transmitting a disjointed mass of doctrine, imposing it insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on essentials, on necessary things; this is what’s more fascinating and attractive, it’s what makes the heart burn with desire, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise, even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The format of the Gospel must be simple, profound, and radiant. Then, from this proposition, moral consequences flow”.

Thus, the pontiff confirmed what’s become his slogan since his election (indeed, since the conclave)… “Moving out” to “the existential and geographical margins”. He said, “Instead of being a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let’s also try to be a church that finds new paths, that’s able to step outside itself, and to go to those who don’t attend Mass, to those who’ve quit or are indifferent. Sometimes, those who quit do so for reasons that, if we properly understand and assess them, can lead to a return. However, that takes audacity and courage”. Some media outlets presented this statement as a “revolution”; they saw it as an “opening”, almost as a “repudiation” of the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In fact, every missionary and every Christian should know that the proclamation of salvation offered by Jesus Christ comes first, then, catechesis (and doctrine), and, then, morals. It’s an error to emphasise only the moral teachings of the Church.

The real novelty of Pope Francisco, more than his doctrinal stance, is in his attitude. He said, “The first reform must be one’s attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue, and who know how to immerse themselves in their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God yearn for pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. I dream of a church that’s a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people, and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleanses, and cares for his neighbour. This is the pure Gospel. God is greater than sin is. Structural and organisational reforms are secondary… that is, they come afterward”. Anyone wishing to compare this attitude with past Church teaching should remember that John Paul II dedicated an encyclical to mercy (Dives in misericordia), whilst Benedict XVI placed witness to the mercy of God as the basis of human civilisation .

Even what he says about the Church’s attitude to the divorced, homosexuals, and people who’ve had abortions doesn’t present doctrinal novelty… it’s enough to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pope Francisco said as much himself, “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires, I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who’re ‘socially wounded’; they told me that they felt like the church always condemned them. However, the church doesn’t want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro, I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I’m no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation set us free… it isn’t possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person”.

Once again, the Pope emphasised the attitude of openness, acceptance of the person, without first calling into question principles and rules, “We can’t only insist on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and contraceptives. This isn’t possible. I haven’t spoken much about these things, and some criticised me for that. However, when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in context. For that matter, the teaching of the church is clear and I’m a son of the church, but it isn’t necessary to talk about these issues all the time. I see clearly that the thing that the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after a battle. It’s futile to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about his blood sugar levels! You have to heal his wounds. Then, we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… you have to start from the ground up”.

Another interesting aspect of the reform of the Church is what Francisco said about the certainty of faith. He noted, “In the quest to seek and find God in all things there’s still uncertainty. There must be such. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and some uncertainty doesn’t affect them, then, this isn’t good. For me, this is an important factor. If one has the answers to all the questions, then, that’s proof that God isn’t with him. It means that he’s a false prophet using religion for himself”. Some commentators saw this statement as confirmation that the pope is “one of us”, a “relativist”; finally, we can toast the fact that there’s no truth. Yet, Pope Francisco asked, “Is it relativism? Yes, if one misunderstands it as a kind of vague pantheism. It isn’t relativism if one understands it in the biblical sense, that God is always a revelation, so you never know where and how you’ll find Him. You can’t set the time and place of an encounter with Him”. In fact, the pope did nothing but emphasise a very traditional Augustinian doctrine, “If you can understand it, it isn’t God. You can’t box God up into an idea, in rules, in speeches, but you can encounter Him. One can encounter the Truth in history. We must enter into a journey, a quest, to meet God; we must allow God to search for and encounter us”.

Francisco explained the value of silent adoration before the tabernacle each evening to remember “what I’ve done for Christ”, but above all to enliven the consciousness “that the Lord remembers me”. Another point he touched upon was the role of women in the Church. The pontiff advocated a “theology of women in the Church” to give value to their specific contributions, even in places of responsibility, but he warned against “machismo in skirts”, the claims of some feminists who want to make women the same as men (“In reality, women have a different makeup than men do”). Immediately, some modish theologians applauded the possibility that “finally” we might have women priests. Yet, the pope said, “Woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops are. I say this because we mustn’t confuse function with dignity”. Therefore, the point is to find the specific contribution and dignity of the “feminine genius”, as John Paul II termed it, without locking up this discovery into a simple equivalence of functions.

Francisco mentioned a rather innovative point, of collegiality applied to the government of the Church and to ecumenical relations, saying, “I believe that consultation is very important. I don’t want perfunctory consultations, but real deliberations. For example, the consistories [of cardinals], and the synods [of bishops] are important places to make this interchange real and active. However, we must give them a less rigid form. The advisory group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ evaluation group, isn’t only my decision; it’s the will of the cardinals, expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. I want to see that this becomes a real, not a formal discourse. We must walk together… people, bishops, and pope. We should live collegiality at various levels. Maybe, it’s time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops; it seems to me that the current method isn’t vigorous. This would also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them, we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of collegiality {does Pope Francisco mean what we Russians call sobornost and tserkovnost?: editor}. The joint effort of reflection, at looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time”. In this, somehow, Pope Francisco is a debtor to the visits and meetings of John Paul II with a great many Orthodox and the ecumenical work of Pope Benedict XVI, who asked the Orthodox Churches years ago to help him express the Petrine ministry in a manner acceptable to them and true to the tradition of the undivided Church.

It isn’t possible to summarise the vast wealth of this interview… there are issues such as the relationship between younger and older Churches, between theology and the people, between laboratories of thought and churches on the frontiers. For this, we invite the reader to refer to the complete text. However, one aspect is worth a mention… the personal attitude of Pope Francisco, of his heart, when he tries to describe himself, “I’m a sinner upon whom the Lord has looked”.  He spoke of the life of Blessed Peter Faber (1506-46), one of the first companions of St Ignatius of Loyola, so dear to him, “[His] dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté, perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions, but also capable of being gentle and loving.  My choices, including those related to day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, come out of a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing”.

Click here for the full text of the interview.

20 September 2013

Bernardo Cervellera



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