Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pope Francis: A Poor Church Rich in Humility

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Francis set about implementing the spirit of the letter after the two last popes had concentrated on holding the Roman Catholic Church in check lest it lose itself in accommodating itself too much to the modern world. I submit that the pope's primary objective was to change a problematic clerical attitude rather than to rid the Church of its wealth or drastically change the Church's moral stances.

On the surface, the pope’s “vision of Vatican II has translated into a dramatic shift in priorities, with an emphasis on social justice over controversial moral teachings” such as on abortion and gay marriage.[1] Calling out the clerical obsession on the “social issues,” the pope sought as he assumed the papacy to provide his colleagues with a dose of perspective. To be sure, the pope did not alter the Church’s position on those issues or on whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to take Communion. Nor did he act on his demand for a “poor church for the poor.”[2] Rather, his main concern was directed against the “theological narcissism,” as he put it, that imposes rather than proposes to the larger secular society.[3]

Perhaps then a poor church would be one that is humble, rather than necessarily without wealth. This would dovetail with Clement of Alexandria’s “Sermon on the Rich Man,” in which the early theologian claims that a rich Christian can indeed get into heaven as long as one does not desire more than necessities (and that which is to be given to the poor).[4] What is important, that is, is which master the rich man serves—God or money. Indeed, Hermas and John Chrysostom emphasized the value of charity as a good use of wealth, and the Church could not give what it does not have.

So the poverty that the pope might have had in mind could be that of humility in spirit. As one bishop put it, the pope “is saying, ‘We have the revelation, but we don’t have the application for all times; don’t presume that we know everything and that we have every answer.”[5] Hence the pope called the Synod of Bishops to debate how the Church should regard divorced, remarried, and gay Catholics. From the pope’s point of view, being against divorce, for example, does not preempt being welcoming toward Catholics who have divorced. After all, it is difficult to imagine Jesus slamming the door on them even if he did not approve of divorce. Compassion particularly to those people who are regarded as impure was Jesus’s strong suit. Indeed, this put him on a collision course with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Pope Francis’s agenda can be characterized in such terms, wherein attitude ideally checks ego at the door even among priests and bishops, for nothing is worse for a religious institution than the veneer of hypocrisy.

[1] Francis X. Bocca, “The New Rome,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4-5, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

God's Gold: Beneath Shifting Sands

The book traces the historical shift in Christian attitudes toward profit-seeking and wealth. Through the centuries, the dominant position shifted from anti-wealth to pro-wealth, meaning that the coupling of greed to profiting and accumulating wealth was at first thought to be very tight, but then loosened--eventually to the extent that a camel could get through the eye of the needle. With both anti-wealth Luther and pro-wealth Calvin living in the same economic context, the commercialization of Europe cannot fully explain the shift. As one possibility, a bias in a core theological doctrine may have been subtly tilting the ground in the pro-wealth direction. If so, the implications for Christianity, and for religion more generally as a phenomenon, would be nothing short of earth-shaking.