Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pope Francis On Taking In Refugees In Europe: A Basis For An Alternative Approach To Christianity

As tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East were seeking refuge in the E.U., Pope Francis “called on every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary in Europe to shelter refugees.”[1] It was not enough, he said, to tell them, “have courage, hang in there.”[2] 

Hungarian officials threw bread to the refugees in holding pens like zookeepers feeding animals.  In credibly, the migrants did not fight for food. The "animals" were more civilized than the "zookeepers."  (Michaela Spritzendorfer/Ehrenhauser)

Providing the Christian basis, he said that “the Gospel calls us to be close to the smallest and to those who have been abandoned.”[3] Jesus went to those who had been abandoned by the hegemonic Temple-centric Judaism of his day, and healed them. In the Gospel of Mark, it is the strangers rather than the disciples who understand his message. I submit that this approach to Christianity could serve as an alternative to the dominant one that applies Christianity to every issue.

Pope Francis making the appeal. (Riccardo De Luca/AP)

In the Gospels, Jesus says nothing about abortion or gay marriage. Fittingly, Pope Francis chastised the bishops who obsess over these two ideological issues, trying to get them to focus on the core religious area of the religion. To be sure, those bishops could find a basis in the Church’s magisterium, or continuing teaching authority, which, unlike the Gospels themselves, can potentially touch on any issue. Opposing ideology, such as that which goes against action on climate change, may be the only pushback constraining the overreaching. Australian Cardinal George Pell, whose “lavish personal tastes” had only months earlier been leaked, said in July 2015, “The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”[4] Too late for Galileo, but significant nonetheless as a potential precedent for constraining the reach of the magisterium.

One problem with applying the Gospels to every issue is that the leaps of inference required can result in positions at odds with Jesus' example and teachings in the Gospels. For example, the pastor of largest Catholic Church in my hometown fired the music director because he was gay. Whereas Jesus is mute on homosexuality in the Gospels, he does preach on reaching out to people who are marginalized in society as well as by a religion! For a religion presumably based on Jesus Christ to abandon the marginalized bears the sting of hypocrisy. That the pastor moved on to become the bishop of North Dakota when Joe Ratzinger was the pope suggests that acting antithetically to the Jesus in the Gospels was laudatory “all the way up,” in terms of the human chain of command. Perhaps the leaps of inference involved in coming up with a Christian position on virtually any issue are antithetical to the leaps of faith required for the courage to embrace the abandoned as Jesus does in the Gospels.

Moreover, the presupposition that Christianity should be applied to any issue may be ripe for critique. Jesus did not have a position on every issue of his day, and if he did, the writers of the Gospels chose not to include Jesus’ various stances. Rather, Jesus of the Gospels focuses on a theme, or particular approach, as a way into the kingdom of God. Healing the sick, feeding the poor, loving those who are marginalized or abandoned by society—these coalesce into a distinctive approach. The pope’s call for Christians to take in the refugees resonates. In fact, we can take the call as a potential new direction for Christianity. In place of being “all over the map” on issues, Christian clergy and laity could try to limit themselves to what Jesus exemplifies and preaches in the Gospels. Such an approach would not only be in line with following Jesus; it would also avoid unintended hypocrisy.

[1] Alison Smale, “Pope Calls on All of Europe’s Catholics to Shelter Refugees,” The New York Times, September 6, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Anthony Faiola, “Conservative Dissent Is Brewing Inside the Vatican,” The Washington Post, September 7, 2015.