It goes without saying that the current Pope is making heads turn and making many people pay attention to the church in a new way. In fact, this is part of a Pope’s job description, and so Catholics are rightly proud of Pope Francis for fulfilling his duties with ‘aplomb’.
Perhaps the most noticeable word that has been applied to Jorge Mario Bergoglio since his election to the chair of Peter is ‘humble’. That word appears over and over again in various news reports, and rightly so. But like every media meme, the ascription of one particular attribute to a person is insufficient for a good understanding of him. In the case of Francis, it is no different. Humility is one virtue among others, and it is arguably the one that the Church most needs at this time.
But there are other virtues, charisms and skills that Pope Francis has been exercising in service to the church and these are no less important. Today, a fresh and relatively good report from the New York Times (though it takes a gratuitous rhetorical swipe at Pope Benedict, and near the end, it mistakes pink as a liturgical colour for Christmas, rather than Gaudate Sunday in Advent, but anyway…), Pope Francis is described as firm in his efforts to clean house – within the church bureaucracy – known as the curia- and other institutions at the Vatican, including the Vatican bank.
What is particularly interesting is to read a news report from the main organ of western liberalism (the NYTimes) that cheers on the Bishop of Rome in his exercise of papal authority. Liberal newspapers have not been known for their cheery coverage of papal authority. But I digress!
Whereas the newspaper plays up the division between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘moderates’, I think it would be fairer to see in Francis’ moves another more theological (and less devotedly political) motivation. Francis’ appointments and his personnel policy strikes me as firmly rooted in Paul’s ecclesiology – St. Paul’s idea of the church that is rooted in Christ and which is about simply preaching the gospel.
Here is some text from 1 Cor. 1 … I’m pasting in a fair bit because if you see how Paul – in his own inimitable way, admits that he’s forgotten about all the baptisms he’s administered in his zeal to do the One Thing Necessary … and what is that One Thing? Read on…
“10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
So. That one thing? Preach the Gospel.
Herein lies the same connection that Pope Francis outlines in his homilies and various presentations. (It’s canny how some things don’t change over 1940 years.)
Paul calls out the divisions among the Corinthian church: he decries the factionalism, the playing favorites, all of that takes away from Christ. There are to be no political parties in the church. And Paul simply refers his audience back to the gospel as the one reason why party factionalism is forbidden. So is gossip forbidden: that One Necessary Thing for party factionalism to succeed in the church. So, whereas the Times report may be largely accurate on the goings on in the Vatican, it is missing a bit of the forest for the trees. Francis is not launching a politically driven campaign, but a gospel driven one.
Francis’ papacy so far has been utterly fascinating for many reasons, but if we probe beyond the headlines that refer to his his humility and see also his firmness too, we understand more precisely how attached he is to the gospel. The preaching of the gospel. The living of the gospel. The One Thing Necessary.
And this is why I think of Francis as more ‘meek’ than humble. Meekness (as in: ‘Blessed are the Meek for they shall inherit the earth’, Matt. 5:5) involves the additional elements of patience and long suffering. The Pope is teaching us what it is like to be more humble, yes. But humility involves the willingness to endure hardship, something Francis knows from personal experience at the hands of those who exercised authority over him in the past (although here the Times report exaggerates, or at least does not provide any evidence for Francis’ alleged ‘war’ with curial officials in the past).
Francis’ way of living out humility is no laissez faire passivity. It is a passionate kind of meekness, the kind that suggests teaching and the intention to correct what is wrong – to invite his interlocutors to correct themselves. We read of this kind of approach in Paul’s letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:23-25):
“23 Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, 25 correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth…”
Francis the Meek. And, thanks to the internet, we all have a front row seat to how this all unfolds.
Some few weeks ago, the Quebec government tabled legislation designed to promote ‘secularism’, an idea ostensibly designed to promote the separation of the religions and the state – as opposed to what we have now – which … well, I suppose it’s fair to say that almost everyone thought that’s what we already had in this, our constitutional democracy without any official church and a diversity of cultures and religious outlooks comprising Quebec society. But, apparently, we needed more of it.
Of course, what this legislation promises is not so much the separation of religion from the state, but rather a society with less religion, as little as possible in fact.
The other evening, I was watching some of the reaction on the part of South Africans and others to the death of Nelson Mandela. In one media clip, a South African was asked the most basic and most important of questions about living under apartheid. ‘How did apartheid make you feel?’ the person was asked. The response was quick: ‘I felt like a second class citizen.’
Now, let’s do some realistic imagining of what Quebec would look like if Bill 60 were to pass. (A big ‘if’, considering how swift and negative has been the legal reaction to it.)
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see this legislation as enacting two classes of citizens: those who are free of religious clothing (these may work for the government) and those who are not (those people may not work for the government).
It’s not simply a question of holding up a standard of attire at work – this may be a fair discussion in regards to fire fighters and police officers.
But, this legislation seems designed to impose an expectation among the citizenry that there are two kinds of people: the enlightened ones and certain others, whose marginalization should be given a formal legal stamp of approval in a Charter of all things. It’s rather shocking to see the promotion of a second class citizenry from within a tolerant and otherwise liberal society. For certain, Bill 60 is not about promoting neutrality.
Illiberal, intolerant and definitely NOT neutral: these are the words that aptly describe Bill 60.
Have you heard anything of Quebec’s proposed Charter of values? Of course! At this point, the relevant question might be: what have you not heard about it. Announced in early September, the proposed law includes changes to Quebec’s Charter of Rights and restrictions on religious clothing for employees of not only state agencies but also for other publicly funded institutions such as schools, hospitals and universities. And, as almost everyone in Montreal knows, the local reaction has been swift and negative.
Let’s cut away from the headlines and political intrigue for a moment to digest what it is that the government is really trying to suggest, assuming, as I do, that these proposals have been introduced for both immediate political purposes and long term changes to Quebec society in order to suppress religious expression. There are some who don’t think that the issue has to do with secularism at all, that this is really about immigration and the discomfort that many people have with the reality of immigration into Quebec. On the contrary, I think it is both of these things: there is undeniably an odious aspect to the debate that has to do with immigration and the unease that some feel toward it. But there is the real and very pointed anti-religious dimension to the proposed changes which is what is front and centre in the proposed changes.
So, on the religious aspect to the proposed law: yes, that’s right, there is a theological aspect to the law, a theological argument to the way the proposed law sees the state and its agents. And it can be seen in this ad which appeared in last weekend’s newspapers: the state wants to claim that it is sacred, alongside the traditional houses of worship which are designated (awkwardly) as admittedly sacred.
There are so many category mistakes that this ad reveals, it is difficult to know where to begin.
First of all, the problem is one that the government is making for itself: is the state actually sacred? (Notice that there are no ‘quotes’ around the use of the word sacred in its application of the adjective to the state… the state and its principles – only these two? – ARE sacred. Full stop.)
But wait, I thought the main idea contained in the proposed law was that the state is neutral?
Is it neutral or sacred? Surely, no institution can be both. Actually, I’m not even sure that the category of sacred is even the best word to apply to the ‘synagogue, mosque and church’. Jews, Muslims and Christians rightly think of their buildings in which they worship as ‘sacred’ in a sense, but the sacred itself includes much more than those buildings. But, the term sacred as applied by the government to describe itself is simply blasphemous.
Having committed blasphemy in its ads, framers of the proposed law turn around and propose that agents of the state (which include so many people in public institutions that the mind boggles — did I miss the implementation of communism while I was on holiday?) must be neutral. Neutrality means you can wear as many body piercings as you like or change your hair to bright neon green, but never, never must you wear a head scarf or a cross larger than something an inch long.
The humourous (some say Monty Pythonesque) aspect of the clothing restrictions is one ridiculous thing. More serious is the outrageous idea that the state should or could be neutral. It cannot. More on that later…
One of the strongest aspects of the Christian church’s public witness, especially in regions of the world that are suffering episodes of upheaval and distress is its stalwart defense of human freedom and dignity. This is popularly associated with what we call ‘human rights’, a term usually associated with non-religious agencies and perspectives. It’s a bit of a misleading association really, particularly in light of the biblical and theological mandates that undergird so many historical struggles to upend injustice and repression.
This is a big topic. But it can be easily grasped from a few episodes that are famously inscribed on our collective consciousness but which are – at the same time – misunderstood for what they are. Let’s take the struggle for full civil rights that African Americans launched under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960′s.
A text that I have sometimes assigned to students – and one of the most important texts of the twentieth century – is the Letter from a Birmighman jail. Written by King himself, it is chock full of theological examples, analogies and arguments that attest to the fact that all human beings, regardless of the colour of their skin or anything else, are created in the image of God, and thus, precious. Inherently so.
But why does the spiritual and theological basis for one of the most famous struggles of modern times – for the full equality of human beings – why does that basis get soft pedalled, ignored?
An interesting news story addresses this issue – in part – recently. Jonathan Rieder, a scholar of King and the civil rights movement has written a book titled Gospel of Freedom. The New York Times has a review of his findings, part of which reads as follows:
While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.
“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” Dr. Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College in New York, said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”
King, we have to recall, was first of all a preacher. And this in itself is very important. The verb ‘preach’ has come to take on so many negative overtones, in light of the general castigation of everything Christian in contemporary western culture. But, casting our minds back only slightly, we can appreciate anew that the preaching of the gospel has served to base the very grounding of human rights that so many take for granted as (wrongly) a strictly secular / non-religious cause. In fact, there is a good case to be made that it is the Bible itself, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition generally, to which we owe the understanding that all human beings are indeed equal
There are so many things to say about Pope Francis, and much has been already said. Maybe too much! Certainly his opening gestures and homilies are genuine evidence of his superlative qualities as a spiritual father. And these qualities were apparently on full display from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here are some splendid pieces that delve a bit deeper than the typical media item on the latest occupant of St. Peter’s chair plus some words from Pope Francis himself. Enjoy!
1) In the Atlantic magazine: Slum Priests: Pope Francis’s Early Years
2) In Commonweal magazine: Pope Francis & the Junta (this piece is an important antidote to the New York Times-led campaign to discredit Francis over the past week)
3) Pope Francis’ inauguration homily – full text
Update: Pope Francis will visit prisoners and celebrate Mass with them – on Holy Thursday no less, according to this report.
I’m not one of those who believes that the gospel can be communicated in a secular idiom without some loss of meaning. I’ve read enough attempts to translate Christian theology into psychological or philosophical categories alone to believe that it’s just not possible to translate the Christian Word into some worldly parallel counterpart.
However… there are days when I read something that strikes me as so perfectly in tune with the Christian message from an allegedly non-religious perspective, that I begin to wonder. Here is a very well done article written by Emily Esfahani Smith concerning the life and thought of Viktor Frankl, Vienna psychaitrist and Holocaust survivor.
And I just have to say: it’s the perfect article to complement the Lenten season. Lent is often viewed as so much Christian dreariness: “why focus on sin and suffering?” ask the worldly crowds. “Be happy.” “Pursue happiness…” as the American constitution so famously puts it.
Well, no actually. Happiness is fleeting. But meaning isn’t. And Christian theology is not alone in saying so.
From midway down into the article:
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Lent, as a season of reflection on the mystery of suffering endured by the Lord Jesus and the sinfulness of our world today -a world in which we are active participants – is not something ‘way out in left field.’ It marks a tangible, indeed necessary way to establish meaning in our lives with ties to a mixed past and linked to our planned future. This is about meaning, not happiness.
And that is okay because we can’t plan to be happy, not perfectly so anyway. And I’m happy to say that meaning takes care of that. Christian meaning trumps happiness completely, since it confronts evil and death (no less!) through the life of Jesus and the events of his death on Good Friday and Easter resurrection. I hope that you will find this article to be a meaningful gift as I did. And if it makes you happy, well … enjoy the moment!
With the possibility of new legislation or protocols being introduced in Quebec this coming spring concerning the application of the so-called ‘laïcité‘ principle, the topic of religious freedom is on some people’s minds. We are likely to see in the not too distant future legislation being introduced which would regulate the extent to which civil servants are permitted to wear clothing or jewellery that has a religious meaning attached to it.
Given the perilous state of Quebec’s minority government, it’s far from certain that such legislation, if proposed, will pass. Regardless: there are plenty of other issues that bear to a greater or lesser extent on the question of religious freedom, including the case of Montreal’s own Loyola High School. That case, which is still before the courts, does indeed concern religious freedom, the freedom of a school to teach about religion in accord with its Christian and Catholic character.
In Europe, things are more advanced (or in decline if you wish), and a recent European Court of Human Rights ruling on four cases dealing with religious freedom has recently been issued. A recent article by the famous American sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, makes for fascinating reading because in it, he compares the recent European rulings with a case or two from the United States, where constitutional guarantees concerning the separation of church and state have not led to a serene, uncontested public sphere – to put it mildly!
Another article by British academic, Roger Trigg, tackles the European cases astutely, noting that religious freedom, which is considered historically in many constitutions (and by the UN Declaration of Human Rights too) as a fundamental human right, has been trumped by political considerations. It’s a disturbing legal precedent, as he carefully makes clear, stating that:
The problem is that, for all their words about the importance of freedom of religion, in the cases of Mcafarlane and Ladele , the European judges do not appear to have put it in the balance against other rights, or tried to accommodate all parties. They have allowed the claims of religious freedom to be swept aside by other priorities.
He concludes soberingly:
Certainly, as is recognised in the case of conscientious objection in a time of war, it is the mark of civilised society to respect a conscientious stand, even if it is thought misguided. Whether freedom of religion can be simply replaced by an appeal to individual conscience is much more doubtful. Religion seems to be itself of deep importance in human life, and should be cherished. It has a social dimension, with institutional, as well as individual, aspects. What is quite clear is that once freedom of religion is not thought to be of absolutely fundamental importance in a society, but can give way to current social priorities, freedom of conscience also is challenged. Religious freedom, itself, is very hard to prise apart from the most basic freedoms that make any life worth living. It is regrettable that current European jurisprudence does not appear to take this point seriously.
These articles are somewhat challenging for those unaccustomed to reading about legal matters and such things.
But, given what’s coming in Quebec, we should perhaps sharpen our minds about how and why religious freedom is a vital issue for everyone, Christian or not.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve sometimes been approached at work to give to community charities, most of which I don’t particularly believe are as worthy as other charities. This happens quite a lot through my workplace. Since our charity giving is organized at home for groups that we know and appreciate, I tend to say ‘no’ to the other groups which come calling electronically or through the mail, via my workplace. Well, this story is an interesting twist on the possibility of charity ‘starting at work’ (as opposed to home). From the New York Time story:
On a cold November night in Times Square, Officer Lawrence DePrimo was working a counterterrorism post when he encountered an older, barefooted homeless man. The officer disappeared for a moment, then returned with a new pair of boots, and knelt to help the man put them on.
Charity begins at work? Well, if you are as kind and humble as this young police officer, yes apparently. Inspiring.
I like Ben Myers’ writing – it’s very honest-to-God and matter-of-fact. Myers is an Australian Protestant theologian, and he has a piece up from a few weeks ago on the importance of death. Yes, I know, not a funny subject, but it’s an honest and erstwhile attempt to approach a theologically laden theme within a narrative and common sense perspective. Refreshing almost. Enjoy the read.