Friday, October 9, 2015

The Pope's Theology

Arthur Brooks summarizes the theology that Pope Francis was preaching on his recent visit to the Americas:
The central theme of Francis’ visit was a call for unity. He has frequently urged us “to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.” With respect to the church, Francis has exhorted priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep” and to avoid setting themselves apart from the laity.

But the unity the pope has in mind goes far deeper. The unity that he is challenging us to embrace has no limits, natural or supernatural.

In Cuba, Francis touched on this theme while gently exposing a central error of Communism — the conflation of unity with shallow sameness. “Unity is often confused with uniformity; with actions, feelings and words which are all identical,” he said. “This is not unity, it is conformity.”

Everyone — not just the Cubans — should take this lesson to heart. . . .

For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.

Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.

Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”

Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.
I find this fascinating but actually a little creepy. How much cosmic unity can we stand, without losing ourselves? Or is losing ourselves the point? I sometimes think that death means losing separation and re-entering the unity, but as long as I am alive I prefer to keep my separateness intact. Does that make me a foolish egotist, a typical citizen of the hyper-individualistic modern age?

I do think that politically, the most fundamental barrier to a more unified and equal society is lack of trust. People worry about being taken advantage of. Left-wing populists think the rich are taking advantage of us, and right-wing populists think the poor are taking advantage of us, but the basic psychic model seems to be the same lack of trust in other people. Maybe that is simple wisdom. But the Pope, from his spiritual, theological perspective, thinks it is a terrible mistake.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Francis seems like a good man who honestly wants to help drag Catholicism out of the past and help it remain relevant in the modern age. But I honestly believe that when he speaks, even when he addresses others outside the faith, he's always speaking first and foremost to Catholics, in a special language designed chiefly to be understood by, and to appeal to, them.

It's very hard to get religious people to change bad habits. It's particularly difficult to criticize negative behaviors from the outside - no matter how logical and demonstrably true your arguments may be, they will fall on deaf ears, because they have such powerful beliefs in their own righteousness.

So to get the faithful to question their assumptions about the world, to help promote a healthier culture within the overall religion, you need a figure like Francis speaking to his flock from the inside. And it needs to be in a language which they can identify with and accept as not being a challenge to their beliefs, but as a reinterpretation of what they -think- they know. It's reframing somewhat new concepts for the religion as hidden truths which people have accidentally overlooked or misunderstood - an honest mistake, as it were.

Francis recognizes that the Catholic church won't survive in the modern age if it remains isolated and inflexible. And he knows that the biggest problem is Catholics themselves being unwilling to work with others fairly and in good faith. It's not just an issue with the Church, but with the overall culture of Catholicism itself, particularly among the laity.

And so he talks to them about the need to be more modern, liberal, and globalistic in their values and behaviors, but he pitches the notion in the context of things they already understand (or at least think they do).

He invokes "brotherhood" not just to bring together Catholics with other Catholics, but also to try to promote interfaith dialogue. He invokes "unity" to criticize a culture that values conformity too highly, and promotes globalism by telling his flock to be more accepting of differences between people. He invokes "faith" to talk about the need for rationality, trying to persuade devout Catholics that despite their beliefs, they too have a need to embrace logic and reason. He invokes "eternity" to emphasize the importance of helping the poor and suffering in the present. He invokes "evil", and its Christian personification of "The Devil", to suggest that the worst thing Catholics can do is distrust and attack others, even when they disagree with each other.

It's really quite brilliant, in my mind. I just wish I had a better notion of what kind of an impact it's ultimately having.