Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Synod15: No to the ministers of rigidity

Sinodo della famiglia 2015 papa francesco

On Saturday, Cardinal Ravasi - one of the Synod Fathers, and head of the Pontifical Council for Culture - published a short reflection on the family, entitled “The room of pain,” whose English translation I’d like to share here next:
“The French writer Jules Renard, author of the famous novel Poil de carotte (1894), was right when he noted in his diary: “If we want to build the house of happiness, we must remember that the largest room must be the waiting room.” In fact, if we take a look at the biblical house of the family, we realize how large and populated is the room of pain. The Bible is a constant witness to this, from the brutal violence of Cain’s fratricide of Abel and the quarrels among the children and spouses of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then moving on to the tragedy that has bloodied the family of David, with his son Absalom’s aspiring to parricide, to the many difficulties that pepper the familiar tale of the book of Tobit or to that bitter confession of Job: “My family has withdrawn from me, my friends are wholly estranged. ... My breath is abhorrent to my wife; I am loathsome to my very children.”(19:13,17). Jesus himself is born in a refugee family, enters Peter’s house where the mother-in-law is ill, let’s himself be involved in the drama of death in the house of Jairus, or in that of Lazarus, hears the desperate cry of the widow of Nain. In their homes he meets tax collectors like Matthew-Levi and Zacchaeus, or sinners like the woman who is introduced in the house of Simon the leper; he knows the anxieties and tensions of families, pouring them into his parables: from children who leave home in search of adventure (Luke 15:11-32) up to difficult children (Matthew 21:28-31) or the victim of external violence (Mark 12:1-9). And he shows interest in a wedding that runs the risk of becoming embarrassing due to the absence of wine or of guests (John 2:1-10, Matthew 22:1-10), and he also knows the horror of the loss of a coin in a poor family (Luke 15:8-10). One could go on for a long time, describing the vastness of the room of pain, arriving at the present day. The list of the old wounds of divorces, rebellions, infidelities, pornography, abortions and so on is expanding to new socio-cultural phenomena such as individualism, privatization, the surprising and often disconcerting bioethical approaches to fertilization, the requests for recognition of new models of marriage, different from that between man and woman and their adoptions, of theories of “gender”, of cloning, of single parenthood and so on. A list that shakes the traditional system of family and turns the family “home” into something “liquid,” pliable into soft and changing forms. We stop here, leaving it to the Synod of Bishops on the family that opens this difficult visit to the space of questions and of questions. What remains, however, is the realization that the values ​​that families preserve are great too. Next to the room of pain, in fact, there are bright rooms where the love between parents develops, where you can feel the joy of children, where windows are opened to listen to the cry for help of the poor and to go out to meet them.”
I feel a great sense of looking at the world with open eyes from Cardinal Ravasi’s words. A not looking away even when faced with suffering and a simultaneous bearing in mind also of all the good, true and beautiful that there is in that same, suffering world.

Another early reflection on the Synod that I have particularly liked comes from another of the Synod Fathers, the Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, who read the singing during the opening mass as a parallel to the challenges of the coming weeks:
“We sang [the Creed] in Latin, alternating with the men of the choir. [...] I was sitting in the midst of the bishops who will be participating in the Synod, and I listened to them sing (as I sang along, naturally). One of the bishops would start the verse even before the organ had sounded the note; others sang more quickly than the rest; another, to the contrary, would always end after the rest; some were certain they had the correct rhythm and would sing louder, hoping to impose their rhythm to the others; a few didn’t know Latin or Gregorian Chant very well and were happy to simply murmur... or listen. For a song that was supposed to manifest the Church’s unity in the faith, I must admit it was a bit funny listening to this vocal struggle. Thankfully, we all sang the same words!

The Synod is a bit like that. Nearly 300 bishops gathered to discuss a fundamental issue: how to help Christian families live their mission in today’s world. Among the bishops, some want to go quickly, while others hesitate and want to move with great prudence. Some are certain that they know the correct rhythm and want to impose upon the group, lifting their voices and speaking out loudly. Others feel a bit lost: they listen, read, observe...

[...] I didn’t want to sing so loud that I would break what was left of the group’s harmony. Slowly, some bishops followed me in this search for unison, and we were able to adapt our rhythm to that of the organ and the boys. I think that, by the end of the Creed, we manifested the Church’s unity a bit more than we had at the beginning.

During the Synod, only one can give us the correct rhythm: the Holy Spirit. Our work as bishops is to discern this rhythm, this vital pulse that the Spirit want to give us.”
Cardinal Schönborn has also shared his hopes for the Synod in a reflection on the Gospel from the Synod’s opening mass:
“Jesus approaches the question of marriage in a much more fundamental way. He looks at what God originally intended with marriage: man and woman are made for each other, and the two should become one: “one flesh”, a couple: “They are no longer two, but one.” And forever, because “what God has joined together, man must not separate”. Isn’t that clear? Jesus shows why marriage forms an indissoluble bond: God himself has formed this covenant.

And if it does not work? Is there no way out in sight? Moses has allowed for the wife to be dismissed. Did Jesus forbid that? He does not deny that there are always separations. But he also calls out their deepest cause: “because you are so hard-hearted!” Yes, certainly, if we were all patient, understanding, didn’t hold grudges, kind, loving, then there would certainly be much fewer divorces.

But what if we do not succeed, despite all efforts to stay together? Does Jesus have no advice then? Is there no way out of such an emergency? Here children come into play. Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them.” I see it as the prayer of Jesus to take care of children. They are often the first victims of divorce. They need the unity of their parents, so as to feel secure. It is hard-hearted when parents wage their marital wars on the backs of their children. What does Jesus want from us? That we are all more merciful with one another, even when a marriage falls into crisis or breaks. This is the message that I hope to hear from the Synod that begins today.”
Turning to the General Congregations, yesterday afternoon and this morning saw both scheduled contributions and “free” ones during the evening session. During the press conference this lunchtime, Fr. Lombardi provided some statistics also about the languages used by the speakers. The majority (over 20) were in Italian, closely followed by also more than 20 speakers using English. Furthermore, this morning Pope Francis addressed the Synod (unlike last year, where he only spoke at the beginning and very end of the Synod), making two points: first that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not been questioned either during last year’s Synod or the year that has passed since and that it remains fully in force and, second, that the Synod mustn’t focus solely on the question of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried since there is a broad range of important topics to be dealt with. Pope Francis also emphasized the importance of work in small groups this year and the continuity between last year’s Synod from which three formal documents are carried forward: his opening and closing speeches and the Relatio Sinodi.

Fr. Lombardi then provided an overview of the topics that were discussed, mentioning the question of what language is most appropriate for describing various situations of the family and, importantly, to avoid giving the impression of judging persons and situations negatively. Some have pointed to Pope Francis’ catecheses as a positive example of how to speak simply, concretely and positively about the reality of the family in the world of today. Many have also emphasized the importance of growth in the Christian life of couples and families and about the accompanying that is necessary for helping such growth.

Fr. Rosica, the English-speaking assistant to Fr. Lombardi, who is the Vatican’s spokesperson, then underlined that there has been an emphasis on the family being the main protagonist of evangelization. Poverty, unemployment, war and the refugee crisis all put pressure on the family. “There must be an end to exclusionary language and an emphasis on embracing reality as it is, and we should not be afraid of new and complex situations.” “We deal with the people as they are and lead them forward.” The need for a renewed language was also linked to the Jubilee of Mercy that starts soon and that will also require such a new language. “In particular, when speaking about homosexual or gay persons we do not pity gay persons but we recognize them for who they are: they are our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and neighbors and colleagues. [...] These are our children, family members - they are not outsiders, they are our flesh and blood. How do we speak about them and how do we offer a hand of welcome to them?”

Archbishop Durocher, who was one of the two Synod Fathers at the press conference - alongside Cardinal Celli, shared his perspective on how to relate the Church’s teaching to the reality of the world:
“There is a great unanimity in recognizing that there is a growing distance between the cultural vision of marriage and family life and what the Church proposes and teaches growing out of the teaching of Jesus. And that growing gulf involves different ways of reaction. One reaction is to emphasize what the teaching is, for fear that as the culture moves away from the vision, our own understanding gets diluted. The other fear is that we lose contact with that culture and that we close in on ourselves and become a kind of a ghetto or a sect that no longer has an impact in culture. And all the bishops, I think, agree that the teaching of the Church, coming from Jesus, is a gift for the world, it is not just for a select few. We really believe that the teaching, the vision of marriage which is ours is a good news for the world. So, how, on the one hand, do we hold on to the teaching without it being diluted, and at the same time entering into dialogue with that world in a way that will speak to the world and will provoke its imagination and its interest. And so some of the bishops will emphasize the teaching and others will emphasize the importance of the dialogue and I think that’s why its important that this is a collegial exercise in the sense that we do this together, because we need to hold both those together. I think Cardinal Erdő’s talk was a beautiful, classical presentation of the Church’s teaching and I think there are other bishops who are thinking this is important, we need to hold onto this, now how do we enter into dialogue with this world, and what we have been hearing in the various interventions is that loving look upon the world to try and discern where it is that the message of the Gospel can the men and women of today’s world and the families that are ours.”
Beyond the press conference, a gem coming from the Synod today have been the tweets of Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ - director of La Civiltà Cattolica and directly appointed Synod Father by Pope Francis - of which I’d like to share four here:
Discernment helps us not to see the demon in what are only our fears and our obsessions.

During #Synod15, when we speak about the family, we are in fact speaking about Gaudium et spes, that is about what the relationship is between the Church and the world.

I have to admit with humility that at times today we are called to face challenges that we don’t understand well yet.

We have to always be careful that, with the excuse of defending faith, it is not just our own ideas that get defended.”
And, finally, what better way to conclude an overview of the day’s events at the Synod than with Pope Francis’ homily from this morning’s mass at Santa Marta, where he reflects on the first reading from the book of Jonah (3:1-10):
“He really performs a miracle, because in this case he has left his stubbornness behind and has obeyed the will of God, and has done what the Lord had commanded him.

The story of Jonah and Nineveh, consists therefore of three chapters: the first is the resistance to the mission that the Lord entrusted to him; the second is obedience, and when he obeys he performs miracles. He obeys God’s will and Nineveh repents. In the third chapter, there is resistance to the mercy of God:

Those words, ‘Lord, was not this what I said when I was in my country? For you are a merciful and gracious God’, and I have done all that work of preaching, I have done my job well, and you forgive them? It is the heart with that hardness that does not let in the mercy of God. My sermon is more important, my thoughts are more important, more important is that list of all the commandments that I must observe, everything, everything, everything is more important than God’s mercy.

And Jesus too experienced this drama with the Doctors of the Law, who did not understand why he did not let the adulteress be stoned, why he went to dinner with tax collectors and sinners, they did not understand. They did not understand mercy. ‘You are merciful and gracious’. The Psalm that we prayed today suggests that we “wait for the Lord because with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.”

Where the Lord is there is mercy. And St. Ambrose added: ‘And where there is rigidity there are his ministers’. Stubbornness that defies mission, that challenges mercy.”

Monday, 5 October 2015

Synod15: courage, humility and prayer

Baby at synod

This morning saw the opening of the Ordinary Synod on the Family, entitled “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world.” The first General Congregation consisted of an opening address by Pope Francis, an overview of the journey traversed so far by Card. Baldisseri and an introduction by Card. Erdő.

Pope Francis spoke briefly and after calling for parrhesia (speaking boldly), frankness and a bearing in mind of the supreme law being the salvation of souls (for which he referenced Can. 1752), he proceeded to spell out what a synod is (and is not):1
“I would like to remind you that the Synod is not a conference or a “parlor”, it is not a parliament or a senate, where one comes to an agreement. The Synod, instead, is an ecclesial expression, which is that it is the Church walking together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God; it is the Church who questions herself about her own fidelity to the deposit of faith, which for her is not a museum to look at or even just to protect, instead it is a living source from which the Church quenches her thirst so as to quench the thirst of and illuminate the deposit of life.

The Synod necessarily moves within the bosom of the Church and in the Holy People of God to which we belong as pastors, that is servants.

The Synod is also a protected space where the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit. In the Synod the Spirit speaks through the language of all the people who let themselves be led by the God who always surprises, by the God who reveals to the little ones what he hides from the wise and the intelligent, by the God who created the law and the Sabbath for man and not vice versa, by the God who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep, by the God who is always greater than our logic and our calculations.

Let us recall, however, that the Synod may be a space of the Holy Spirit only if we, its participants, put on vestments of apostolic courage, evangelical humility and trusting prayer.”
Francis then proceeds to elaborate on these three prerequisites for receiving the Holy Spirit:
“Apostolic courage that doesn’t allow itself to be scared either in the face of the temptations of the world that tend to extinguish the light of the truth in the hearts of men, replacing it with small and temporary lights, or when faced with hearts turned to stone that - in spite of good intentions - drive people away from God. “Apostolic courage that brings life and that does not turn our Christian life into a museum of memories” (Homily at Santa Marta, 28 April 2015).

Gospel humility that knows how to empty itself of its own conventions and prejudices, to listen to his brother Bishops and be filled with God. Humility that leads to not pointing a finger at others to judge them, but to offer them a hand to help lift them up without ever feeling superior to them.

Trusting prayer is performed by the heart when it opens to God, when all of our moods are silenced to listen to the gentle voice of God that speaks in silence. Without listening to God all our words will only be “words” that do not sate and that do not serve. Without letting ourselves be guided by the Spirit, all our decisions will only be “decorations” that instead of exalting the Gospel cover it and hide it.”
To conclude, Pope Francis returns to contrast the workings of parliaments with what the Synod is called to:
“As I said, the Synod is not a parliament, where it is necessary to negotiate, to bargain or to compromise, so as to reach consensus or a common agreement. Instead, the only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit, with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and trusting prayer; so that it may be Him who guides us, who enlightens us and who makes us put before our eyes not our personal opinions, but faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church and the salus animarum [salvation of souls].”
Cardinal Baldisseri then presented an extensive review of the synodal way that has been followed so far - including an overview of last year’s Extraordinary Synod and the work carried out by the Church worldwide during this past year in preparation for the present Synod. Cardinal Baldisseri also presented the methodology that will be followed during this year’s Synod.

Next, Cardinal Erdő presented an overview of the instrumentum laboris published in June that will be the basis for the Synod’s work over the next three weeks (each week focusing on one of its three parts).

1 In this post and in all that will follow about the Synod, I will strive to share information as soon as possible, which means that many of the English translations will be my, rough ones. If the link I provide to the source is not in English, please, assume that the translation is mine, with all the caveats that that carries.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Synod15: gentle breeze, faint light

Vatican pope francis vigil prayer before synod assembly afp 041015

The second in a pair of Synods on the Family opened this morning with a mass presided over by Pope Francis. It will last for the next three weeks, during which 270 Synod Fathers (45 of which have been directly nominated by the pope), 51 auditors (among whom there are 9 married couples) and 14 fraternal delegates (representatives of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities) will discuss “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world.” This will be done by following the structure of the working document (“instrumentum laboris”) that was published at the end of June, where each week will focus on one of the document’s parts: “Considering the challenges of the family,” “The Discernment of the Family Vocation,” and “The Mission of the Family Today.”

Like I did last year, I will again try to share excerpts from the material published during this Synod and I will here start with selecting parts from yesterday’s prayer vigil for the Synod and his homily at the opening mass of the Synod this morning.

Pope Francis opened his prayer vigil address with underlining the gentleness of God’s call:
“God’s grace does not shout out; it is a whisper which reaches all those who are ready to hear the gentle breeze – that still, small voice. It urges them to go forth, to return to the world, to be witnesses to God’s love for mankind, so that the world may believe…”
Then, he spoke about the fundamental importance of the Holy Spirit, by referring to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch who said that:
“without the Holy Spirit God is far off, Christ remains in the past, the Church becomes a mere organization, authority becomes domination, mission becomes propaganda, worship becomes mystique, Christian life the morality of slaves.”
Francis then set out his desires for the Synod:
“[L]et us pray that the Synod which opens tomorrow will show how the experience of marriage and family is rich and humanly fulfilling. May the Synod acknowledge, esteem, and proclaim all that is beautiful, good and holy about that experience. May it embrace situations of vulnerability and hardship: war, illness, grief, wounded relationships and brokenness, which create distress, resentment and separation. May it remind [...] every family, that the Gospel is always “good news” which once again enables us to start over. From the treasury of the Church’s living tradition may the Fathers draw words of comfort and hope for families called in our own day to build the future of the ecclesial community and the city of man.”
To emphasize the importance of even the smallest good, Francis then declared that “Every family is always a light, however faint, amid the darkness of this world,” and he equated love for even the most insignificant neighbor with an ascent to God: “For in loving others, we learn to love God, in stooping down to help our neighbour, we are lifted up to God.”

Concluding the vigil he then set out parallels between the family and the Church, again drawing on the image of the Church being mother, father and a community of siblings and at the same presenting ideals for both Church and family to strive for:
“In the “Galilee of the nations” of our own time, we will rediscover the richness and strength of a Church which is a mother, ever capable of giving and nourishing life, accompanying it with devotion, tenderness, and moral strength. For unless we can unite compassion with justice, we will end up being needlessly severe and deeply unjust.

A Church which is family is also able to show the closeness and love of a father, a responsible guardian who protects without confining, who corrects without demeaning, who trains by example and patience, sometimes simply by a silence which bespeaks prayerful and trusting expectation.

Above all, a Church of children who see themselves as brothers and sisters, will never end up considering anyone simply as a burden, a problem, an expense, a concern or a risk. Other persons are essentially a gift, and always remain so, even when they walk different paths.

The Church is an open house, far from outward pomp, hospitable in the simplicity of her members. That is why she can appeal to the longing for peace present in every man and woman, including those who – amid life’s trials – have wounded and suffering hearts.

This Church can indeed light up the darkness felt by so many men and women. She can credibly point them towards the goal and walk at their side, precisely because she herself first experienced what it is to be endlessly reborn in the merciful heart of the Father.”
This morning, Pope Francis then set out his vision for the Synod to the Synod Fathers themselves, by plotting a path from the individual, through the relationship between a man and a woman to the family. The starting point here, as in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, is Adam’s solitude in the Genesis accounts of creation that has echoes in today’s world:
“The drama of solitude is experienced by countless men and women in our own day. I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.

Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom… The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.

Our experience today is, in some way, like that of Adam: so much power and at the same time so much loneliness and vulnerability. The image of this is the family. People are less and less serious about building a solid and fruitful relationship of love: in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, in good times and in bad. Love which is lasting, faithful, conscientious, stable and fruitful is increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past. It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”
God’s response to Adam’s loneliness, and to the loneliness we experience today, is to give him “another heart like his own”:
“This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self. It is the same plan which Jesus presents in today’s Gospel: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:6-8; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:24).

[... Jesus] brings everything back to the beginning, to the beginning of creation, to teach us that God blesses human love, that it is he who joins the hearts of two people who love one another, he who joins them in unity and indissolubility. This shows us that the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life! In this way Jesus re-establishes the order which was present from the beginning.”
Pope Francis presents a profound insight about Jesus’ self-sacrificing love, perceived as folly by his contemporaries, being the key to understanding the indissolubility and exclusivity of conjugal love:
““What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:9). This is an exhortation to believers to overcome every form of individualism and legalism which conceals a narrow self-centredness and a fear of accepting the true meaning of the couple and of human sexuality in God’s plan.

Indeed, only in the light of the folly of the gratuitousness of Jesus’ paschal love will the folly of the gratuitousness of an exclusive and life-long conjugal love make sense.

For God, marriage is not some adolescent utopia, but a dream without which his creatures will be doomed to solitude! Indeed, being afraid to accept this plan paralyzes the human heart.”
What can the Church do to support such a Christocentric understanding and living of marriage?
“We see people chase after fleeting loves while dreaming of true love; they chase after carnal pleasures but desire total self-giving. [...]

In this extremely difficult social and marital context, the Church is called to carry out her mission in fidelity, truth and love.

To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.”
Such a defense of faithful love is built on two pillars: truth and charity:
“The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3).

And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.”
And finally, Francis calls for an intensified love for those who fall and err so that the Church may be the bridge it is called to be:
“I remember when Saint John Paul II said: “Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time” (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978). The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11).”
To my mind, Pope Francis’ words last night and today are a beautiful synthesis of what he has taught about the family all throughout this year and what he has already emphasized during the last Synod. I pray for him, the whole Synod and all families that the next three weeks may be a journey towards Pope Francis’ vision of bringing God’s love to all.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Schönborn: The door is never closed

Yesterday, the Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, published an extensive interview of its director Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna in Italian. Even though some partial translations in English are already available, the following is my, rough translation of the passages that spoke to me most strongly (it is around 90% of the full text and the passages I left out were only left out for practical reasons …).

In response to a question about whether the scope of the upcoming Synod on the family ought to be doctrinal, Cardinal Schönborn replied:

"The challenge that Pope Francis puts in front of us is to believe that, with the courage that comes from simple closeness, from the everyday reality of people, we will not distance ourselves from doctrine. We don't risk diluting its clarity by walking with people, because we ourselves are called to walk in faith. Doctrine isn't, in the first place, a series of abstract statements, but the light of the word of God demonstrated by the apostolic witness at the heart of a Church and in the hearts of believers who walk in the world today. The clarity of the light of faith and its doctrinal development in each person is not in contradiction with the journey that God undertakes with us, who are often far from living the Gospel fully."
When asked about how we ought to view and what attitude we ought to have towards those who live in irregular arrangements, he then replied:
"At the last Synod, I proposed an interpretative key that has lead to much discussion and was referred to in the Relatio post disceptationem, but that was no longer present in the final document, the Relatio Synodi. It was an analogy with the ecclesiological interpretative key given by Lumen Gentium, the constitution on the Church, in its article 8. There the question is: "Where is the Church of Christ? Where it is incarnated concretely? Does the Church of Jesus Christ, which he desired and founded, really exist?" To this, the Council responded with the famous statement: "The only Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church", subsistit in Ecclesia catholica. It is not a pure and simple identification, like saying that the Church of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church. The Council affirmed: it "subsists in the Catholic Church", united with the Pope and legitimate bishops. The Council adds this phrase, which has become key: "Although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity." Other denominations, other churches, other religions are not simply nothing. Vatican II excludes and ecclesiology of the all or nothing. The all is fulfilled in the Catholic Church, but there are elements of truth and holiness in other churches, and even in other religions. These elements are elements of the Church of Christ, and by their nature they tend to catholic unity and the unity of mankind, towards which the Church herself tends, in anticipation of, so to speak, the great plan of God that is the one Family of God, humanity. The approach of the Council is justified in this key, because of which one does not consider first what is missing in the other Churches, Christian communities or religions, but what is positive there. One gathers the semina Verbi, as has been said, the seeds of the Word, elements of truth and sanctification."
And how does this translate to the family?
"I simply proposed to apply this interpretation to the ecclesiological reality of the sacrament of marriage. Because marriage is a Church in miniature, an ecclesiola, the family as a small Church, it seems legitimate to me to establish an analogy and say that the sacrament of marriage is fully realized where there is a properly established sacrament between a man and a woman living in faith etc. But this does not prevent that, outside of this full realization of the sacrament of marriage, there be elements of marriage that are anticipatory signs, positive elements."
Let's take, for example, civil marriage:
"Yes, we consider it as something more than simple cohabitation. Why? It is a simple civil contract that from a strictly ecclesial point of view has no meaning. But we recognize that in civil marriage there is more commitment, therefore a greater alliance, than in simple cohabitation. The two make a commitment before society, humanity and themselves, in a more explicit alliance, anchored legally with sanctions, obligations, duties, rights ... The Church believes that this is a further step than simply living together. There is in this case a greater proximity to sacramental marriage. As a promise, an anticipatory sign. Instead of speaking about all that is missing, one can approach these realities, noting the positive that exist in this love that is becoming more stable."
How do we therefore consider situations that have objective shortcomings?
"We should look at the numerous situations of coexistence not only from the point of view of what is missing, but also from the point of view of what is already promised, what is already present. Moreover, the Council adds that, although there is always real holiness in the Church, it is made up of sinners and advances along the path of conversion (LG 8). It is always in need of purification. A Catholic mustn't put themselves on a step above others. There are saints in all the Christian churches, and even in other religions. Jesus said twice to the pagans, a woman [cf. Luke 8:48] and a Roman officer [Luke 7:9]: "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." A true faith, that Jesus found outside the chosen people."
So, the dividing line is not between those who live sacramental marriage and who don't?
"Those who have the grace and the joy of living sacramental marriage in faith, humility and mutual forgiveness, in a trust in God who acts in our daily lives, know how to look and discern in a couple, in a cohabitation, the elements of true heroism, true charity, true mutual giving. Even though we must say: "It is not yet the full reality of the sacrament." But who are we to judge and say that there are no elements of truth and sanctification in them? The Church is a people that God draws to himself and to which all are called. The Church's role is to accompany everyone in growth, along a path. As a pastor I experience this joy of being on a journey, among believers, but also among many non-believers."
Cardinal Schönborn then gives examples of how a person who has been through several marriages may find faith in later life and how accompanying them and caring for them may require considering their specific, individual circumstances rather than a simple application of rules. He concludes that answer with saying "I can't hide [...] that I have been shocked by how a purely formalist way of thinking wields the axe of the "intrinsece malum." Fr. Spadaro then explains it in a footnote thus: "What is meant by an "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum) act is an action whose moral connotation is such that it can in no case change from negative to positive. Therefore it is an act that is always considered morally evil, irrespective of the ulterior intentions of the one acting and of the circumstances."

Could you elaborate on the problem of that which is defined as "intrinsece malum"?
"In practice, it excludes any reference to the question of fitness [convenientia] that, for St. Thomas, is always a way of expressing prudence. It is neither utilitarianism nor an easy pragmatism, but a way to express a sense of appropriateness, of conformity, of harmony. Regarding the question of divorce, this type of argument has been systematically excluded by our intransigent moralists. If misunderstood, the intrinsece malum suppresses discussion of - by definition complex - circumstances of and situations in life. A human act is never simple, and the risk is to "paste" in a false relationship between the true object, purpose and circumstances, which instead should be read in the light of freedom and of an attraction to the good. The free act is reduced to a physical one so that the clarity of logic suppresses any moral discussion and all circumstances. The paradox is that by focusing in the intrinsece malum one loses all the wealth, I would say almost the beauty of a moral articulation, resulting in its annihilation. Not only does the moral analysis of situations become univocal, but but one is left cut off from a comprehensive perspective on the dramatic consequences of divorce: economic, educational, psychological, etc. This is true for everything that regards the themes of marriage and the family. The obsession with intrinsece malum has so impoverished the debate that we are deprived of a wide range of arguments in favor of the uniqueness, indissolubility, openness to life, of the human foundation of the doctrine of the Church. We have lost the flavor of discourse on these human realities. One of the key elements of the Synod is the reality of the Christian family, not from an exclusive point of view, but from an inclusive one. The Christian family is a grace, a gift of God. It is a mission, and by its nature - if it is lived in a Christian way - is something to be welcomed. I remember a proposal for a pilgrimage for families in which the organizers wanted to invite only those who practice natural birth control. During a meeting of the Bishops Conference we asked them how they would: "Select only those who practice 100%, n%? How do you do that?". From these somewhat caricature expressions you realize that if the Christian family is lived in this way, it inevitably becomes sectarian. A world apart. When you seek safety, you are not a Christian, you are focused only on yourself!"
On the challenges of pastoral accompaniment of persons living in irregular unions:
"If a valid sacramental marriage existed, a second marriage is an irregular union. However, there is the whole dimension of spiritual and pastoral care for people living in irregular situations, where it will be necessary to discern between everything and nothing. You can not transform an irregular situation into a regular, but there are ways of healing, of deepening, ways in which the law is experienced step by step. There are also situations where the priest, the accompanying person, who knows the people well, may arrive at saying: "Your situation is such that, in conscience, in your and in my consciousness as a pastor, I see your place in the sacramental life of the Church.""
Could you tell me about a pastoral experience that was particularly significant for you?
"I have an unforgettable memory of the time when I was a student at Saulchoir, with the Dominicans in Paris. I was not yet a priest. Under the bridge over the Seine that leads to the Évry convent lived a homeless couple. She had been a prostitute and I don't know what he has done in life. Certainly they were not married, nor did they frequent the Church, but every time I passed by there, I said to myself: "My God, they help each other along the path through such a hard life." And when I saw gestures of tenderness between them, I said to myself: "My God, it is beautiful that these two poor people should help each other, what a great thing!" God is present in this poverty, this tenderness. We must break free from this narrow perspective on the access to the sacraments in irregular situations. The question is: "Where is God in their lives? And how can I, as a pastor, discern the presence of God in their lives? And how can they can me to better discern the work of God in a life?" We need to learn how to read the Word of God in actu [in reality] between the lines on which life is written and not only between the lines of incunabula!"
Are there any situations that are irreparable for the mercy of God?
"There may certainly be situations of self-exclusion. When Jesus says: "But you were unwilling" [Matthew 23:37]. Faced with this, in some way, God is disarmed, because He gave us the freedom … And the Church must recognize and accept the freedom to say no. It's hard to want to reconcile at all costs complex situations in life with full participation in the life of the Church. This will never prevent either hoping or praying, and will always be an invitation to entrust such a situation to the providence of God, which can continuously offer instruments of salvation. The door is never closed."
How can we find realist and Gospel-based words to accompany homosexuals along their journey of faith?
"We can and we must respect the decision to form a union with a person of the same sex, to seek means under civil law to protect their living together with laws to ensure such protection. But if we are asked, if it is demanded of the Church to say that this is a marriage, well, we have to say: non possumus [we cannot]. It is not a discrimination of persons: to distinguish does not mean to discriminate. This absolutely does not prevent having great respect, friendship, or collaboration with couples living in this kind of union, and above all we mustn't look down on them. No one is obliged to accept this doctrine, but one can't pretend that the Church does not teach it."
Have you come across circumstances in the lives of homosexuals that have spoken to you in a particular way?
"Yes, for example, I know a homosexual person who has lived a series of experiences for years, not with a particular person or cohabiting, but frequent experiences with different people. Now he has found a stable relationship. It is an improvement, if nothing else then on a human level, this not jumping from one relationship to another, but being in a stable relationship that is not based only on sexuality. One shares one's life, one shares the joys and sufferings, one helps one another. We must recognize that this person has made an important step for his own good and for the good of others, even though, of course, this is not a situation that the Church can consider regular. The judgment on homosexual acts as such is necessary, but the Church mustn't look first in the bedroom, but in the dining room instead! We must accompany."
What then is the correct, Gospel-based attitude in the face of all these challenges?
"Pope Benedict has magnificently shown in his teaching that the Christian life is not at first a morality, but a friendship, a meeting, a person. In this friendship we learn how to behave. If we say that Jesus is our teacher, it means that we learn directly from him the path of Christian life. It is not a catalog of abstract doctrine or a backpack full of heavy stones that we must carry, it is a living relationship instead. In the life and Christian practice of following Christ, the Christian path shows its soundness and its fruits of joy. Jesus promised us that on this path "the Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you." (Jn 14:26). The entire doctrine of the Church acquires sense only in a living relationship with Jesus, of a friendship with him and a docility towards the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Herein lies the power of Pope Francis’ gestures. I think that he really lives the charism of the Jesuits and of St. Ignatius, that of being available to the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is also the classical doctrine of St. Thomas on the new law, the law of Christ, which is not an external law, but the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. Of course, we also need external teaching, but for it to be a living reality, it must pass through the heart. When we observe a lived Christian marriage, we perceive the meaning of marriage; and seeing Mother Teresa in action, in her gestures, we understand what it means to love the poor. Life teaches us doctrine, more than doctrine not teaching us life."
How do we unite the two dimensions of doctrine and mercy?
"The doctrine of the Church is the doctrine of the Good Shepherd. In an attitude of faith, there is no opposition between "doctrine" and "pastoral". Doctrine is not an abstract utterance without a link to "what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 2.7). Pastoral ministry is not a degraded putting into practice, or even a pragmatic version of doctrine. The doctrine is the teaching of the "Good Shepherd", which manifests itself in his person, the true way of life, a teaching of a Church who, as she walks, goes towards all those who are awaiting Good News, a waiting that is sometimes kept secret in the heart . The pastoral is a doctrine of salvation in actu [in reality], the "Good Teacher"'s Word of life for the world. There is an involution between these two dimensions of the Word of God, of which the Church is bearer. The pastoral without doctrine is nothing but a "clashing cymbal" (1 Cor 13.1). The pastoral without doctrine is only "human thought" (Mt 16:[23]). Doctrine is first of all the Good News: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." (Jn 3:16). It is the announcement of the fundamental truth of faith: God has used mercy. And all that the Church teaches is this message, that is then translated into complementary doctrines, into a true hierarchy of truth, both dogmatic and moral. We must constantly return to the kerygma, to what is essential and gives meaning to our whole body of doctrine, especially to moral teaching."
We need to be pastors [shepherds] ...
"Pope Francis calls each of us, pastors to a real pastoral conversion. In the final speech of the Synod, he summed up what he meant when he said that the experience of the Synod is an experience of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic and composed of sinners, in need of His mercy. It is the Church who is not afraid of eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors. The Pope expresses perfectly the balance that must characterize this pastoral conversion. At the end of this, his speech, all spontaneously stood up, and there was a unanimous and intense applause. Everyone felt that it was the Pope, Peter, who spoke."
I feel a great sense of gratitude towards Cardinal Schönborn for his deep wisdom and obvious love for humanity, that has also shone during this last days in his welcoming of Syrian refugees - a welcoming that was not only conceptual by highly practical when he went to meet and welcome them as they crossed the border from Hungary to Austria. I wish the bishops of other Central European countries would follow his example. I am also grateful to Fr. Spadaro for not only having conducted such an outstanding interview, but for having made it freely available. Thank you!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Who is my neighbor?

Already in Jesus’ time, his “good,” religious, law-abiding contemporaries were looking for a way to reconcile their desire for “eternal life” (Luke 10:25) with the rather uncomfortable lack of qualification when, in response, he - like God through Moses before - pointed them to loving their neighbors as themselves (Luke 10:27, quoting Leviticus 19:18).

Loving. Neighbors. As myself.

What do you mean? Just any old neighbor? What if they are weird? What if they have loads of cats? Or, worse still, what if they are foreign? Outrageous!

Their mistake then was to feign ignorance and ask Jesus point-blank: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) [you can imagine the saccharine, angelic looks on their faces]. In response, Jesus proceeds to recount the story of the Good Samaritan that we all know - a guy gets ambushed, robbed and beaten senseless, and a number of passers-by - all of the best caliber: a priest and a professional, well ... they just pass by. Until a Samaritan - to the Jews of the first century AD the equivalent of today's Gypsies, or - if you live in certain countries that like to call themselves Central European - a Syrian Muslim1 - comes along and takes care of our guy. Not only does he make sure our man is "OK," but he - at his own expense - takes him to a hotel and entrusts his care to its owner.

Oh ... if neighbors include Samaritans (Gypsies, Syrian Muslims, Homosexuals, Atheists, Single Mothers, The Divorced, Poor People) then there really is no exception to this category. Drat!

But what Jesus’ listeners at the time, and many of his listeners today too, may have missed is the bait-and-switch that he pulls when explaining his parable. It is not I who am in the position of the magnanimous grandee, handing out charity to neighbor "Samaritans" [who better be grateful for it!]. I am the robbed and beaten neighbor, in receipt of love from the Samaritan! I am the beneficiary, not the benefactor! "Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?" asks Jesus, referring to the priest, scribe and Samaritan. The parable isn't about coming across a needy Samaritan and having to overcome one’s prejudices, mistrust and small-mindedness. It is about recognizing that I am a neighbor to the “Other”, who is a source of God's love for me and to whom I am called to transmit God’s love too.

Every single human being is my neighbor, put in my way to receive God’s love through me and to transmit God's love to me. That is Christianity: God. Love. Neighbor.

What is not Christianity - and let me be categorical about this - is to - literally! - build walls between myself and my God-given neighbors, to make it illegal for me to help my God-given neighbors and then to pretend that all of these “measures” are there to preserve my glorious nation's Christianity (cf. Hungary). What is not Christianity is to say that "we can't take in Muslims because we have no mosques here” or to plead poverty when I have a roof over my head while my God-given neighbor has had their family murdered, has had to flee thousands of miles, is at their wits end and is homeless (cf. Slovakia). What is not Christianity is to ask to see a refugee's “certificate of baptism, recommendation from their clergyman [and] information about their health” before considering whether to help them and to equate all Muslim refugees with ISIS (cf. Poland).

I did not plan to write about the open wound on the mystical body of Christ that is the refugee crisis, but the outrageous claims that turning away our neighbors, sent to us by God, blood of our blood, beloved children of our Father, is justified by Christianity and is even done for the good of Christianity are profoundly irrational and offensive. Anyone who still buys such arguments should look again at those deeply disturbing, shocking, wounding images that are all around us, understand that they show our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and heed Jesus’ own words: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter. [...] You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?“ (Matthew 23:13, 33).

1 “[… T]he strongest expression of hatred the Jews could invent against Christ was ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil’ (John 8:48). [… I]f a Jew and a Samaritan met in a narrow way, they were particularly careful to avoid touching each fearing to receive pollution from the other.” John Henry Newmann. For more on this parable see a previous post here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Ravasi: art and faith - the invisible in the visible

2 Lucio Fontana Conceito espacial 1968

Today I’d like to bring you my, rough English translation of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s 2011 talk, entitled: “The invisible in the visible: art and faith,” which has given me great joy and which I hope will delight you too:

The title of this talk, “The invisible in the visible: art and faith”, points spontaneously to two great painters of the last century. On the one hand Paul Klee and on the other Joan Miró, who in different ways, but with the same substance, have declared that art does not represent the visible, but the invisible that is in the visible. […]

For Vasari, the holy and the beautiful, holiness and beauty, intertwine. Not as extrinsic realities, but almost as if they were, among themselves, sisters. So, in a certain sense we can say, and I would like to demonstrate only […] this sisterhood between art and faith. […]

As a premise, we know that a single expression is used, curiously, to indicate two realities that are similar, but that are also profoundly different. Isn’t it true that one speaks about the inspiration of the Scriptures, of the word of God? The word of the Scriptures is inspired. And doesn’t this same expression also get used to speak about artistic inspiration? It can therefore be seen that both faith and art, the witness of the divine word and of the human word, have inside them a seed of eternity. A seed of the infinite. A dimension that precedes them and that exceeds them, that surpasses them.

The artist, in a certain sense like the prophet, has inside them a voice that comes from the beyond and the other. And Beyond and Other need to be written with capital letters. The invisible that is in the visible.

It is interesting to note that, e.g., in the Scriptures, chapter 35 of Exodus speaks about Bezalel, who is an artisan, an artist, who built the ark and the mobile temple of the desert that the Hebrews carried with them. Having left the drama of their enslavement in Egypt behind, they carry with them a mobile temple. So, what is said about this artist is that he was filled with the spirit of God (cf. Exodus 35:30-31), exactly like a prophet.

And think about how in the first book of Chronicles, in chapter 25 [...] musicians are mentioned, the singers in the temple. It is said that they were inspired by God. And do you know what Hebrew expression is used? Navi - the same one as used for prophets (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:1). Prophets and musicians are almost the same reality, infused by the spirit of God.

This is why speaking about art and faith isn’t speaking about two external realities. Unfortunately, however, as we know well, a divorce has been consummated and art and faith do not walk together anymore. Therefore we must struggle to rediscover [..] the harmony that is beneficial for art, precious for art, so that it no longer has to lose itself in the vague, the inconsistent, the banal, and may rediscover the great narratives, the great symbols, the great themes, the great challenges: the invisible. On the other hand it is beneficial for faith because we must say “God” in a beautiful way, as the Bible says in Psalm 47: “sing to God with art!”1

My reflection [...] is linked to two movements that revolve around a single symbol. A symbol that, I have to say, is a bit strange and that might puzzle you. [...] I take this symbol from a phrase of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, from one of his articles on faith and art. He wrote the following words, in which you will see the symbol that I’ll then use: “Beauty wounds, and by doing so reminds the person of their ultimate destiny.” Hence, beauty, art as a wound. And we will see that faith too is a wound.

So, let’s start with this theme: the wound. The wound makes us bleed. The wound unsettles, torments. It doesn’t let you sleep. It is a plague. Hence, art, like faith, have this scope. To make you tremble.

What is the great illness of our times? [...] Indifference, superficiality, banality. The French Catholic writer, Bernanos, in one of his novels [...] - The Impostor, tells the story of a priest - Fr. Cenabre - who loses his faith and becomes an atheist. He writes: “There is a fundamental difference between emptiness and absence. Emptiness is nothing, a lack of substance. Absence is not a nothing.” When I go home, to my sisters, in the north, in Milan, we still have the two empty chairs of my dad and my mother. They are apparently empty. But, in reality, they aren’t. They are an absence. An absence that, in this case, is filled with memories, and for the believer also with another type of presence, by a nostalgia. Our times have lost the absence of God, the nostalgia for great values. These are empty times, lacking substance.

Some of you will know the great painter, Braque, friend of Picasso, cubist, who then also went beyond cubism, and so on, and who died in 1963. And Braque said this phrase, which is not entirely true, but that has its meaning: “Art is made to disturb, science to reassure.” Technology. We are children of technology. Technology will solve all your problems. Don’t ever ask yourselves the great questions.

This is why we must return greatness to art. When I speak about art I don’t only have figurative arts in mind - sculpture, painting, etc. - I speak about art in general, with all of its thousand manifestations that pass from literature through music to photography to the cinema. We have a need for returning to, rediscovering this restlessness.

[...] Henry Miller, who as a profoundly anti-christian writer, even a scandalous one at a certain moment, wrote a book entitled “The wisdom of the heart.” And in that work there is the following paradoxical phrase on which we must meditate: “Art, like faith, is good for nothing, other than to give you the meaning of life.”

You see, if you have to look for food, for the immediate, are chasing fashions, you have no need for art. On the contrary! Poetry. What’s it for? Hölderlin wrote an entire poem: “Wozu Dichter?” [“Why poets?”] Apparently they are good for nothing. But, like faith, they point you to the meaning of life.

That is why we need this wound, this restlessness, in a time that is so superficial, in which we are dragged along, in which we have passed from immorality, which means that we are at least aware of it, to amorality, total indifference. [...]

The wound keeps you awake. And it therefore keeps you continuously looking. So, there is another element that associates art and faith in this context of the wound. Wonder. When you are in front of a work of art, that work of art isn’t to be explained, to tell the truth. You can say something about its origin, about the image it depicts, about something. But, you have to, in the end, if you want to enter in harmony with it, succeed in establish a bond of wonder, of contemplation, as is indeed the case with faith. Yes, there is need for reason, but in the end, art is an intuition, something that dazzles you.

The poet, Ezra Pound, said:2 “Do you perhaps explain the charm of an April wind? Do you perhaps explain the luminous beauty of one of Plato’s thoughts? Do you perhaps explain the unexpected beauty that you perceive in a woman’s face?” They don’t have explanations. You discover them, unexpectedly. They are an epiphany. So, we still need clear eyes. Eyes that has been dirtied by so many images of extreme vulgarity and superficiality and violence ... We need to regain the eye of a child that is filled with wonder when faced with the marvels of being and of human creatures. In front of the marvels of the divine. This is why faith and art are like each other.

The English writer [...] Chesterton, wrote these words: “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.” And he continued: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; [...] There are plenty of them, I assure you [...], but only for want of wonder.” Because it is no longer able to contemplate, to look, to go beyond the skin, the surface of things.”

This was my first reflection, the simpler one, the second one is a little more complex, also because I would like to enter the theme in a more profound way.

Art and faith as wound, as we have said, that generates restlessness, that makes you tremble, that looks for something that isn’t there in our times anymore: the question about the meaning of what you do, who you are, of what is.

In the second reflection I will take that same symbol of the wound [“ferita”] that in Italian has another word that derives from it: “slit” [“feritoia”].3 So, I would say that art, like faith, is a slit through which the absolute, the transcendent, mystery can be accessed. I would, therefore, like to invite you now to look for where these slits are so that we may discover a mystery, something that exceeds us, that transcends us, which is what true art and great, authentic faith need to do. I would, in this regard, like to put forward five ways, which in the end justify the fact that there exists a religion like the Christian one, which is the celebration of art.

Let’s start from a Biblical text what, paradoxically, begins with a negation of art. You remember the first commandment of the decalogue, the great, so called aniconic commandment, i.e., that wipes out images: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Avert your eyes from the golden calf! Sure, it is idols that are condemned here, but then you know that during the course of history some have taken this by the letter, and have drowned art. Think of Islam which, for some time already is moving in this direction. God must never be represented, and human beings neither, because there is always this risk of idolatry. [...] It is not for nothing that at a certain moment Protestantism has exalted music in a particular way. Bach was a protestant. Schütz was a protestant. Pachelbel - protestant. Then there is Handel. A whole line that goes towards music, towards its sound that is extraordinarily potent in speaking to us about the eternal and the infinite, while avoiding recourse to images. Why is it then that Christianity has instead, over the centuries, returned to and celebrated the image.

Overcoming this silence, the silence of the images of art therefore, has been done in certain ways, which I would now like to evoke because they are ways in which the famous slit appears.

In parenthesis, regarding slits, I would like to tell you something that you may not have heard before. [...] You all know a great painter, who was important in the last century: Lucio Fontana. I knew his widow, and I know many of his works since I am from Milan and he was from Milan too. Why is Fontana famous? Because, at a certain moment, he made that famous gash in a canvas. He painted it and slashed it. And do you know that when others asked: “But why?,” critics elaborated complicated discourses to explain it. But when they asked the artist himself, he responded with a phrase that is almost the formulation of the thesis of this second movement. He replied: “For me, this cut is a glimmer of the absolute, of the infinite.” It is almost a going beyond the canvas, beyond matter, to look for depth, for the secret.

First of all there is a place where the Bible sees a slit opening towards the infinite, the eternal, the divine. And this reality, a reality that is fundamental also, e.g., for literature, is the word. If you look closely, God, precisely because images are forbidden, is presented in the beginning of the first line of the Bible using this expression: “God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3). The silence of nothingness is slashed by a word. Also, how does the New Testament begin? Ideally, with the prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” (John 1:1). Absolute primacy.

When Moses, and maybe you have never heard this phrase, because it is from a book that is read little, speaks in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, in its fourth chapter, verse 12. When in Deuteronomy Moses describes the entire experience of Sinai, of what the Hebrews have experiences up there, once they were back down in the valley. Moses says: “Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (Deuteronomy 4:12) God is a voice. He is a word that creates, that saves, that liberates. So, the first place where we find a slit: the word. It is not for nothing that the Bible is at the center of our faith. It is a word. And this word pierces and shows you the horizon that is God.

Jesus, for example, is his word, his lips, his parables; his 32 parables, or 72 if one also includes the extended metaphors, are an expression of the power of this word. I don’t know whether you have in your minds that episode recounted in the seventh chapter of John. One day the priests of the temple decide to shut up this voice that is so annoying - Christ, so they send their police, i.e., the temple guard, and tell them to go and arrest him. These simple people go and return. But they come back with empty hands. And the priests ask: why haven’t you brought him? And their response is, in my opinion, illuminating for this first way: “Never before has anyone spoken like this one.” (cf. John 7:32-46) And the hands drop. Words can’t be imprisoned.

This is why it is important for the word, the word of God, to be at the center of our liturgy, of our lives. And it is important for art, for poetry for example, to continue to exist, to open this slit onto the infinite.

The second element, and I will do this one more quickly, because in a certain sense I have already called it out. The second place, the second slit is the cosmos, nature. Nature that is seen as a decipherable element, not as an accumulation either of cells or of matter. There is a phrase in the book of Wisdom (13:5), that is important. It says: “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” Analogos in Greek means a ladder - rung by rung. So, you see: this experience is to be had in nature. This is why art so often starts from nature. Not to represent her as such but to manage and create landscapes of the soul. All the great scenes of nature that are in the backdrops made by great artists are an evocation of something that speaks of harmony and that therefore speaks of beauty and of God.

Let’s think along this line about Psalm 19. Do you remember it? The song of the sun: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalms 19:2) When the Hebrews even now, today, in the synagogue celebrate what we call the feast of Pentecost, they call it Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Easter, they sing a hymn that basically says this: Between heaven and earth, God has unfurled a great parchment that is nature and on it He wrote a message. We must tear a quill from a shrub to write on this parchment our response of praise: the alleluia.

So, you see this idea that in nature, in the beauty of nature, that art transfigures, there is the secret of God. A word of God that has been called the cosmic revelation, open to all. The revelation of the Bible is open to believers, that of the cosmos - the great book of the universe, as Galileo said.

The third way is a way that is particularly significant and that, in the context of art, has a particular meaning, but that we’ll base on a phrase of the Bible that is usually interpreted in a completely different way, which is not the correct reading of the text. It is an extremely famous expression. But, first, let’s start with saying what this way is. It is that way that in this moment allows you to communicate also beyond words. It is the way of faces. Faces. We know that communication happens through faces. They aren’t planes, surfaces. They are signals. Think, e.g., of two people in love. When they have exhausted all words, and if they are truly in love, what do they do? They look into each other’s eyes. This, looking each other in the eyes, is not merely about seeing the pupils of the other. It is, instead, a language. As Pascal said: “In faith, as in love, silences are far more eloquent than words.” A communion of faces.

In the Bible there is this phrase, in Genesis 1:27, that says: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” Here we have that fundamental law of Eastern languages, that is the Biblical one, of parallelism. Things get repeated so that they may leave more of a mark in one’s attention, or also to explain them. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them.” And then it continues and explains what the image is, what is it that corresponds to the image. “[I]n the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” So, the image, the statue that looks most like God, what is it? The Patristic tradition, the tradition influenced by the Greeks, responded that it is our soul. But the Bible doesn’t say that. What’s more, the Bible speaks about the soul in an altogether different way. The Bible considers the human being in its fullness.

So, what would it be instead? Is it that God is both male and female? Evidently not. The Bible has continuously fought against a sexist concept of the divine, as the nations who surrounded it had and that the Bible condemned. Peoples who, for example, believed that when there was a storm it was the orgasm of a male and a female god and the rain was the seed, the fertile seed of the god who thereby fertilized nature. And the cracked earth was like a womb that received the seed of the god. The Bible rejected this type of concept and continues to consider it an idolatry. So, what would this image of God be like? And here the slit can be seen in the faces of man and woman, the male and the female, through which we see God. And the answer is obvious because as Genesis unfolds, the history of salvation is built on generations. What this means is that that which represents God most for us are man and woman in their capacity to give live. If you will, their capacity to love. So, this is why the human figure of the male and female saint becomes so fundamental, because at the heart of this reality, which is that of the human person in their generative capacity, in their capacity to give live, is the reflection of the Creator Himself. Creation continues precisely because man and woman continue to generate and generation in man and woman is born of a wellspring of love. So, this is the third way, a slit open onto the divine.

Number four. And here we arrive at another face, a fundamental face, that is at the center of all of our churches. A face that also dominates artistic tradition, but above all it also dominates faith. It is the face of Christ. Colossians 1:15. What does Paul say? “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God.” God has His image in Christ and it is a carnal image. And it is because of this that when the temptation comes, which is the temptation of iconoclasm that I referred to before, that negates the possibility of art, artists and theologians like St. John Damascene continue to repeat: if we negate images, we also negate the incarnation. We negate that God has made himself visible in a face. And it is because of this that the face of Christ is a face that is repeated infinitely many times. And it is because of this that St. John Damascene encouraged the following experience: [...] “If a pagan comes to you and ask you: “How is your faith? What is your faith?,” don’t answer them. Take them by the hand, lead them into a church and show them the paintings, the images.” You see, God is in the image of Christ that reflects the divine, that reflects the mystery, the transcendent.

In some cases though, and I wouldn’s say always, since we are starting to revive the sisterhood between art and faith, but in some contemporary, modern churches it is better not to bring pagans, atheists since they would completely lose their faith. [...]

The fifth and last way that I would like to recall is the way of the liturgy. The liturgy is the place where [...] music succeeds in passing through hearts. Therefore it is necessary ceaselessly to return to the beauty of temples, of art, where the liturgy is celebrated, to a proclamation of the word in a beautiful way, to song, to celebration that is a drama that has its own dignity and nobility. [...] It is said that contemporary music is [inadequate] ... That is not true, because in contemporary music, the music of our days, that has its own musical grammars, there is its own beauty. Think about what happened when in the 16th century, imagine being inside St. Peter’s, where before only Gregorian chant was heard. Gregorian chant is most pure in spaces like that because, thanks to the echoes that are there, it becomes a song that is enshrined and held in that space and it is a monodic song that rises up high and allows for the possibility of being welcomed by a sonorous womb. But, what happens in the 16th century? Palestrina introduces polyphony into the liturgy. Polyphony disrupts the unicity of Gregorian chant, it multiplies the voices, makes them cross each other, one above the other, it constructs new harmonies through a sequence of crossings. This must have been scandalous at the time! But then think about the masterpieces of faith that have been created thanks to it. Slits, also in this case, onto the beauty of the divine. Let’s just think of the absolute pinnacle of music, who is Bach. Or think of Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, with its absolute purity that, however, consists in a richness of voices and that celebrates a need of the divine, which is like an instinctive, physical need. Like the doe [cerva] that charges ahead towards the river bed, where it expects to find water but that is dry. And now it launches into a cry of lament, a lament of thirst ... in Hebrew there is a thing that can’t be translated into our languages, because in Hebrew there is a single word - nefesh - that at the same time means throat and soul. So, when we translate: “My soul thirsts for the living God” (cf. Psalms 42:3), in Hebrew there is a joke - the throat, which indicates a need for God that is physical. So, all of this has been exalted through new music and it is because of this that I am struggling for contemporary art with its new expressions [to have its place]. Not always and only retracing the past, which, however, is the great, supreme heritage that we mustn’t forget or humiliate, we mustn’t discard it [...] but we also have to be open so that the liturgy may once again become the highroad on which art and faith meet each other and walk together.

There was a very important thing in the statutes of the artists of Siena in the 14th century. In the statutes of these artists, one of the first paragraphs was this: “We, artists, have as our task to show to people who don’t know how to read the Bible the great marvels worked by God throughout history.” The artist, you see, was in the cathedrals, the great churches of the past, for a good reason. There was a Bible of stone, pages of stone, the bas-reliefs, or, instead there were pages of frescoes, or paintings, that spoke about God. The liturgy always needs to have in its interior, as Jean Guitton, the French Catholic philosopher, said - making a play on words in Latin - it needs to have at the same time mumen and lumen. Lumen, because it must be light, must be representation, must show reality straightaway in all its beauty. But, it is not just any old representation like you would have in some arbitrary building. It also must be mumen, that is mystery, which is beyond the slit.

I have presented two moments to you about this single symbol. I have concluded. We have presented, on the one hand, art and faith as wound. We need a thrill. We need to be a bit shaken. To return again to this intensity. It is always impressive to see, e.g., in great squares, and it is sad because it is often the young generations, people moving as if they were flocks. They move like that - without purpose. And they may even be next to marvelous monuments that used to speak in extraordinary ways [...]. This flow, almost a drift ... This is the great need of our times. To do things again so that this thrill may return.

I often quote [...] a phrase from the diary of a Danish, Christian, Protestant philosopher, a strong believer, of the 19th century - Søren Kierkegaard. He spoke in the 19th century, but think how true this reality is in our days too ... He said - he used this image [...]: “The ship is in the hands of the cook’s mate and what the captain’s megaphone transmits is no longer the route of the ship but what we shall be eating tomorrow.”4 How many are, e.g., in front of a television, or a computer. They learn about everything. They know, they can look for everything. But what they are lacking, and let’s return to Miller, is the route, meaning.

Once, in Florence, I was walking along with a friend of mine, whom many of you know - one of the greatest poets of the last century: Mario Luzi [...], and he - it was an afternoon or maybe evening - [...] said to me: “Look,” the lights in the windows were coming on in the houses and in the flats you could literally see in almost all of them the bluish rectangle of the television. And he said a phrase to me - he spoke slowly - a phrase that has always impressed me. He said: “We don’t know whether these people, who are there in front of the television, have their hands up as a sign of surrender or adoration.” Effectively this is true. In the end it tells you everything about what you’ll eat tomorrow, about all that is happening - the banal and the vulgar. It tells you all about fashions, but about the route? Here is the open wound.

On the other hand we have also wanted to evoke the need for transcendence. Art and faith that take you towards the beyond, the divine, in these different forms, these five ways that we have called out: the word, the world, the human face, the face of Christ, and finally the celebration.

And now I’ll finish and conclude with two witnesses that I would like to seal together [...]. I’d like to finish with a lay voice, the voice of a writer, since we need both the voice of faith and the voice of art. He is a famous writer whose books still sell even after a long time since his death. It is the German, Herman Hesse, who is much liked also by the youth. The author of Siddhartha, of Narcissus and Goldmund. He once wrote a historical novel that has two artistic protagonists already in its title: Klein und Wagner. So, on the one hand figurative art and on the other music. And at the end he says, he explains what art is. And, look, he wasn’t a particularly strong believer. He did have his own spirituality in his own way, imbued with oriental elements. And this is the definition he writes: “Art means: seeing God in everything.”5 The slit. Seeing God in everything.

But, I would like to conclude with the voice of believers, a choral voice, and I’ll leave the words as they sound. There are two subjects who speak, in a choral way representing also all of us.

On 8th December 1965, the Council concludes and messages are sent, where one is also addressed to artists. Let’s hear the words of the council fathers: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the year and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands.” The Council has thanked artists, the true, great artists.

On the other hand there is the voice from which I have started, the voice of Benedict XVI [...] who addressed artists in the Sistine Chapel and his talk finished as follows. And I too will finish with these words that speak to artists, that speak about beauty and that are spoken by a pastor, a believer, by him who continuously feels the need for art and faith to be together. So, here are his words, spoken on 21 November 2009: “You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”

Thank you.

1 Note that this is a verbatim translation of the Italian rendering of the end of Psalm 47:8, the term “art” does not appear in most English ones. The New American Bible simply says “sing praise”, while the King James Bible, which - in this case - comes closest to the Italian that Ravasi uses, renders that phrase as “sing ye praises with understanding.”
2 This probably refers to the following passage from Pound’s The Serious Artist:“You don’t argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it. You feel bucked up when you come on a swift moving thought in Plato or on a fine line in a statue.”
3 “Feritoia” in Italian can refer to a narrow slit or opening, e.g., in a wall that can can let light in, or an arrow loop through which archers can shoot out of a fortress’ walls.
4 It looks like this refers to the following entry in Kierkegaard’s diary from 24th January 1847: “Suppose there is only one megaphone on a ship and the cook’s mate has appropriated it, an act that all regarded as appropriate. Everything the cook’s mate to has to communicate (“Some butter on the spinach” or “Fine weather today” or “God knows if there’s something wrong below in the ship” etc.) is communicated through the megaphone, but the captain has to give his commands solely by means of his voice, for what the captain has to say is not so important. Yes, the captain finally has to ask the cook’s mate to help him so that he can be heard, if the cook’s mate would be no good as to “report” the order, which, it must be admitted, sometimes gets completely garbled in going through the cook’s mate and his megaphone, in which case the captain strains his little voice in vain, for the cook and his megaphone are heard. Finally the cook’s mate gets control, because he has the megaphone.”
5 Incidentally Benedict XVI quotes that same definition in his address to artists two years earlier.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Ceaselessly re-expressing the universal


For several years now I have kept coming across articles by George Weigel, the US author and political and social activist, all of which have to my mind been misguided and lacking in insight. This undoubtedly makes me biased, which may be why I have not responded to his writings here before, and his latest piece - “The deeper issue at the Synod” - was destined to join that growing rank of articles to which I turned with silence. It is not like his latest feuilleton is any more objectionable than its predecessors, but, since it addresses a point that I do agree is pivotal for the upcoming Synod on the Family, and now that I have put my cards clearly on the table, I will spell out my disagreement in this case.

Weigel in this piece starts with recalling opposing positions before Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, where the losers “argued, moral choices should be judged by a “proportional” calculation of intention, act, and consequence” while the winners - who upheld “tradition” - “held that some things were always and everywhere wrong, in and of themselves.” He then cites John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor as reinforcing this position and moves on to recounting an analysis of the pre-Synod battle-lines by Prof. Thomas Stark, likely from this article - although without referring to it directly, where he argues that the real opposition at the Synod will be between two camps. The first, who, like Cardinal Walter Kasper, effectively believe that there are no “sacred givens”:
“Professor Stark argues that, for Kasper, the notion of what we might call “sacred givens” in theology has been displaced by the idea that our perceptions of truth are always conditioned by the flux of history – thus there really are no “sacred givens” to which the Church is accountable. To take a relevant example from last year’s Synod: on Kasper’s theory, the Lord Jesus’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, seemingly “given” in Scripture, should be “read” through the prism of the turbulent historical experience of the present, in which “marriage” is experienced in many different ways and a lot of Catholics get divorced.”
This, in Weigel’s reading of Stark results in Kasper denying human nature or there even being “Things As They Are”, since the attitude they attribute to Kasper is one where “what happens in history does not happen atop, so to speak, a firm foundation of Things As They Are; there are no Things As They Are.”

The second camp, instead believes that “the “truth of the Gospel” is a gift to the Church and the world from Jesus Christ: a “sacred given.”” Weigel then concludes that Kasper “absolutizes history to the point that it relativizes and ultimately demeans revelation – the “sacred givens” that are the permanent structure of Christian life.” The opposition, in Weigel’s view, is between an absolutization of history at the expense of relativizing revelation and tradition, versus a - in Weigel’s view - appropriate absolutization of the latter.

Instead of retracing Weigel’s steps through Stark’s article, which quotes from Kasper’s 1972 (!) book, An Introduction to Christian Faith, let me instead look at how well invoking John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor as a rod for Kasper’s back holds up, and then proceed to argue for Weigel’s point being built on category mistakes.

Let’s begin by looking at Veritatis Splendor though, and test the strength of Weigel citing it as an argument for “sacred givens” and for “Things [Being] As They Are” as opposed to historical interpretation [I am sure St. John Paul II is slowly shaking his head in disbelief, looking down on this spectacle from the Father’s house.]

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II kicks off with the following preamble:
“The splendour of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6).”
From the get go he speaks about a process: Truth leading to knowledge and love of God, rather than “givens” no matter how “sacred” they may be. Not a good start for the “Things As They Are” team.

Already in the second paragraph, John Paul II presents the teaching of the Church to be not words, but the Word - a person:
“Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself.”
Then comes the killer (and we are still just in paragraph 2 of this 45K word gem of clear thinking by one of the 20th century’s greatest minds):
“The Church remains deeply conscious of her “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related” (Gaudium et Spes, 4).”
Oh ... “interpreting ... in every age” ... “manner appropriate to each generation” ...

But, let’s take a closer look at how John Paul II thinks about permanence versus historicity, by reading the opening lines of §25:1
“Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man [Mt 19:16-21] continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own. The question: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer. The Teacher who expounds God’s commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst, as he himself promised: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). Christ’s relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would “bring to their remembrance” and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26), and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13).”
Jesus, who is alive in His Church today, continues to converse with us and continues to supply us both with reminders of what He has already told us and with “new life” too through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words today are not mere mindless, mechanical repetitions of what he said 2000 years ago, but instead His continuing and evolving desire to lead us to an understanding and love of Himself, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

To avoid giving a distorted impression about what John Paul II is saying here, it is important not to confuse the above process of renewal, of being up to date, of - as he himself later says - “doctrinal development” and “renewal of moral theology” (§28), with some giving in to the World. No, this being in the presence of the living Christ and under guidance from the Holy Spirit also means not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2):
“Assisted by the Holy Spirit who leads her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), the Church has not ceased, nor can she ever cease, to contemplate the “mystery of the Word Incarnate”, in whom “light is shed on the mystery of man”. [... The Church needs to undertake] discernment capable of acknowledging what is legitimate, useful and of value in [contemporary tendencies], while at the same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers and errors.”
John Paul II also speaks directly about how the divine and the human interplay in this context:
“The teaching of the Council emphasizes, on the one hand, the role of human reason in discovering and applying the moral law: the moral life calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. On the other hand, reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine wisdom itself. At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a “rightful autonomy” of man, the personal subject of his actions. The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law.”
Human reason discovers (imperfect historical process) divine wisdom (perfect atemporal). This leads us directly to the question of immutability that Weigel sees threatened by Kasper. Here John Paul II first insists on the reality of “permanent structural elements”:
“To call into question the permanent structural elements of man which are connected with his own bodily dimension would not only conflict with common experience, but would render meaningless Jesus’ reference to the “beginning”, precisely where the social and cultural context of the time had distorted the primordial meaning and the role of certain moral norms (cf. Mt 19:1-9). This is the reason why “the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change and are ultimately founded upon Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and for ever”. Christ is the “Beginning” who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbour.” (§53)
However, the very next lines distinguish the above, permanent structure from how it is expressed:
“Certainly there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law — like that of the “deposit of faith” — unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [“with the same meaning and the same judgment”] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium.”
And John Paul II proceeds to refer to John XXIII’s words at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, saying that:
“This certain and unchanging teaching (i.e., Christian doctrine in its completeness), to which the faithful owe obedience, needs to be more deeply understood and set forth in a way adapted to the needs of our time.” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 12, 1962, p. 2.)
Looking back over St. John Paul II’s words and those of George Weigel, the funny aftertaste that the latter left in my mind crystalizes and, I believe, boils down to the following: a confusion of being with knowing and a mistaken assumption that attributes of the latter transfer to beliefs about the former. Weigel, taring with a broad brush, effortlessly transposes Kasper’s talking about a historicity of knowing (“perceptions of truth ... conditioned ... by history”) to an alleged historicity, or indeed total absence, of being (“there really are no “sacred givens””). This, even with a strained desire to apply the Principle of Charity, is a fundamental category mistake. Epistemological constraints do not ontological ones make.

Accepting an evolving, changing understanding and expression of Truth, as is consistent with John Paul II’s teaching, also has a corollary that may have irked Weigel, which is that past expressions and understanding have use-by dates and expiring validity in the present (without this implying a change of underlying reality). In one of the passages that Stark quotes from Kasper’s 1972 book, and identifies as a serious problem, Kasper expresses this situation as follows:
“Whoever believes that in Jesus Christ hope has been revealed for us and for all mankind, and whoever ventures on that basis to become in real terms a figure of hope for others, is a Christian. He holds in a fundamental sense the whole Christian faith, even though he does not consciously accept all the deductions which in the course of almost two thousand years the Church has made from this message.”
Yes, what was the best the Church could do to understand and express the Truth in the past may no longer be the best it can do today. And, just in case this interpretation of the renewal argument sounds dodgy or misguided, let’s hear it also from Pius XII, who has the following to say about his own teaching in view of his successors’ words, in his Mediator Dei:
“Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas.”
“Old formulas” are no guarantee of holding on to “sacred givens,” whose expressions today need instead to be sought by living with the Jesus who walks among us today. A less obvious and easily testable answer to what doing the right thing means and one that requires courage, but one that leads to the Truth, however imperfectly we understand Her or adhere to Her.

1 Note that the italics in quotes from Veritatis Splendor are John Paul II’s own, who liked to use them for emphasis in all his writings.