Thoughts on Some Papal Sayings

We have a different sort of pope today, one more interested in raising issues than settling them. He speaks informally, in ways that are often puzzling to those looking for a voice of steady authority rather than one of exhortation, dialogue, and immediate personal response. What he says is strongly grounded in his experience as an Argentine and cleric of his generation, and he seems more inclined to speak of himself as Bishop of Rome, the pastor of a particular locality, than ruler of the universal Church.

With that in mind, it seems that the faithful should respond to the Holy Father’s wish for dialogue with their own thoughts, which will inevitably reflect their own concerns and experiences, in hopes that the process he has initiated will best clarify the needs of the Church. Those thoughts may relate to something other than his specific intentions, which can be hard to determine in any case, since the dialogue he wants to promote evidently extends to issues his reported comments raise in the minds of others. Otherwise, why would the Vatican publishing house publish an atheist journalist’s recollections of discussions with him? 

With that in mind, here are some random thoughts on themes the Pope’s words and actions have brought into discussion:

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The Church must be a field hospital.” Indeed. And the wounded people she deals with need more than morphine and assurances. They are human beings who deserve to be set on the road to full recovery. So in addition to assuring them of God’s love and telling them a new life is available, the Church should tell them what they need to do and how to turn to God.

I’d add that the Church deals with every aspect of life and all sorts and conditions of men, so she must also be a kindergarten, basic training camp, sanitarium, fat farm, rest home, judicial system, treasure house, research institute, and much more besides. That is part of what makes her Catholic.

Go to the peripheries.” A striking call, and one that has many possible meanings. Jesus was noted for his outreach to publicans, brutal oppressors allied with the Romans who got rich by extortion. People hated and despised them, so they were marginal characters at the time. A modern equivalent might be outreach to loan sharks and political cronies with underworld connections. He also reached out to people who didn’t achieve that level of notorious corruption, but were morally questionable in other ways. The woman taken in adultery was perhaps an example, as were those who wanted to stone her. So love of God and neighbor will bring us to plenty of peripheries in the next room, or even closer to home.

There are lots of peripheries, our neighbor is wherever we run into him, and God is always at the center. Each to his calling though: Mother Teresa and Father Damien of Molokai were rightly canonized, and they rightly have many followers. Even so, the Church is not primarily about peripheries, but about supreme goods we all fall short of, and ways through which we can all hope to attain them. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to offer people at the peripheries anything but more peripheries.

One problem with making the peripheries rhetorically central is that it tells most people that what the Church is concerned with is somewhere else and has little to do with them directly. It seems to say that the life of comfortable well-off people is A-OK except that they don’t think enough about the problems of people they don’t have much connection to. It’s true of course that there are people with big problems who mostly remain out of sight and out of mind, and they should be remembered, but for most people putting such things at the center of religion tends to make it a lifestyle accessory that doesn’t much affect how they live themselves. It turns it into a sort of yuppie moral spirituality that has to do with correct political and social positions and observances such as buying organic fair trade coffee.

And that seems to be the actual effect of current rhetorical tendencies. If the talk of a Church of the poor and the peripheries comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, it’s hard to see why Francis has been so well received by the powerful, well-placed, and well-tended—why, for example, he has made the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, Fortune, The Advocate, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair, and received very favorable coverage from those and other very secular publications. As far as I can tell, the reason has less to do with an impending wave of conversions than an impression that Francis is much less at odds than his predecessors to what those publications stand for.

The joy of the Gospel.” The joy of the “good news” is a truth that very few of us take enough to heart. Like other great truths, though, it can be used as a club, for example to bash those who point out problems and emphasize how serious they are. The Gospels are about joy, but the joy is mixed with suffering and sorrow, and they tell us that ultimate joy will come only after horrific catastrophes. Taking such things seriously and somehow dealing with them is part of the Christian life. Failing to do so turns the Gospel once again into a pleasing lifestyle accessory.

Be surprised by God.” Excellent advice, but who knows what the surprise will be? Maybe it will be a need for unprecedented pastoral approaches to accommodate new realities, or maybe it will be a need for Catholics to respond to mistaken initiatives by their pastors with an outspokenness not seen since Paul confronted Peter. We must all do our best to discern what God wants for us, and the Church is rich in authorities that can help us do so.

Beyond issues suggested by specific statements and acts, there are those suggested by the Pope’s reputed desire to be a new kind of pope. The apparent contrast with his predecessors raises the question of the nature and function of authority in the Church, and how to respond to it in the varying situations with which we are presented.

The situation puts me in mind of a talk I heard recently by a notable theologian, whose name I won’t mention for fear I’ll misrepresent him. He pointed out that the recent sexual abuse scandals would not have occurred if the bishops had followed the clear requirements of canon law. But why did they simply ignore the law of the Church? He attributed the tendency ultimately to a late Medieval change in the understanding of will and authority that severed their connection to reason and the good, and thus made them essentially arbitrary. So where Aquinas understood obedience as obedience to the precept of a superior, an understanding that made it part of a larger system of authoritative precepts and subject to rational understanding and (if necessary) limitation and correction, later thinkers tended to make it a matter of doing whatever your superior wants short of something like murder.

The older more principled understanding was superior. By limiting and rationalizing authority, and bringing it into an overall system of obligations, it made it clear why it is a good thing even when it may be exercised imprudently. Man is social, he needs correction, and imperfect correction is better than no correction at all. If a precept given by authority is legitimate, and consistent with the larger system of precepts we are bound to follow as Catholics, it can be presumed to have a good reason behind it. Whatever that reason is, your superior may be at least partly right in rating it more highly than you do, and the fact he’s in authority forces you to consider the possibility seriously.

If we’re not put in that situation repeatedly we’re forced to rely simply on our own thoughts and judgments so we’re unlikely ever to learn anything. We’ll become as stupid and deluded as an absolute dictator. That’s a big reason rebellion is bad and obedience to legitimate commands is good. It’s not because the Holy Ghost automatically countersigns every order issued by higher-ups, it’s because it’s the most practical way to limit our will and force us to look seriously at views not our own. For the system to work, though, obedience must be principled, and for that we need the older view. Simply doing what the boss wants and making his desires your own won’t get us there.

(AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)


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