Sunday, 29 September 2013

Just war?


[Warning: long read :)]

Jesus was a pacifist. To deny this in the face of his own words - “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22), “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44), “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” (Matthew 5:39) and “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) - would be sheer dishonesty.

How about the Church though, has it stuck to Jesus’ pacifist position? Let’s see what it says in the Catechism:
“(§2304) Respect for and development of human life require peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity.

(§2307) The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

(§2308) All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” (Gaudium et Spes, 79 § 4)

(§2309) The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(§2314) “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” (Gaudium et Spes, 80 § 3)”
While the above does talk about circumstances under which war is justified, it is a last resort, acceptable under the simultaneous satisfaction of specific conditions listed above, and has self-defense as its purpose, with indiscriminate destruction and the devastating effects of modern means of warfare ringing alarm bells. During the progress of such self-defense (the only possible trigger for just military action), the Catechism further emphasizes that “The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” (Gaudium et Spes, 79 § 4)” and proceeds to warn against the abuses so endemic in war and against the accumulation of arms. Finally, the Catechism draws attention to the root causes, of which war can be a symptom, and calls for their treatment:
“(§2317) Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war.”
And Pope Francis, where does he stand? There can be no doubt here that he, like Jesus, is an absolute pacifist:
“War is madness. It is the suicide of humanity. It is an act of faith in money, which for the powerful of the earth is more important than the human being. For behind a war there are always sins. [… War] is the suicide of humanity, because it kills the heart, it kills precisely that which is the message of the Lord: it kills love! Because war comes from hatred, from envy, from desire for power, and – we’ve seen it many times - it comes from that hunger for more power.” (Homily at Domus Sanctae Marthae, 2 June 2013).

“We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death! […]

My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken. […]

violence and war are never the way to peace! Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter! […]

Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: “No more one against the other, no more, never! ... war never again, never again war!” (Address to the United Nations, 1965).” (Prayer Vigil for Peace, 7 September 2013)
And Francis is not alone is his radical stance against war, Blessed Pope John Paul II said that “War should belong to the tragic past, to history: it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future” and that “Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remain standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it.” Benedict XVI too was clear about war being a failure: “War, with its aftermath of bereavement and destruction, has always been deemed a disaster in opposition to the plan of God, who created all things for existence and particularly wants to make the human race one family.”

So, you may ask, what is the point of writing about the attitude of Jesus, the Church and recent popes with regard to war, when it is so obviously pacifist and admitting of military self-defense only under almost theoretical, extreme conditions and applying to specific parts of an armed conflict? Sadly there are other, vocal proponents of a very different take on this topic, who - to my mind unbelievably - present their positions as Catholic and who tend to trace them to statements like the following one by George Weigel, who feels supported by Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:
“Thus those scholars, activists, and religious leaders who claim that the just war tradition “begins” with a “presumption against war” or a “presumption against violence” are quite simply mistaken. It does not begin there, and it never did begin there. To suggest otherwise is not merely a matter of misreading intellectual history (although it is surely that). To suggest that the just war tradition begins with a “presumption against violence” inverts the structure of moral analysis in ways that inevitably lead to dubious moral judgments and distorted perceptions of political reality.”
With Jesus and the Church’s position having been stated with such force and clarity over the last decades, I won’t even go to the trouble of addressing positions like Weigel’s point-by-point and would just like to note that they are akin to reading St. Paul and arguing in favor of slavery today. Positions that may be textually consistent with the source they claim justifies them, but that both miss the original author’s intentions (just think about what slavery would be like if “master” and “slave” followed St. Paul’s advice1) and the fact that the Church is the living Mystical Body of Jesus that has considerably matured over the last 2000 years.

1 “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, willingly serving the Lord and not human beings, knowing that each will be requited from the Lord for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. Masters, act in the same way toward them, and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.” (Ephesians 6:5-9) A classic “infiltrate and destroy from within” tactic if ever I saw one.

Saturday, 28 September 2013


20101220 Voskereweni Vladimir

In Hungarian there are separate words for older versus younger brother or sister and only a word for sibling and the - from a Hungarian perspective - generic “brother” and “sister” are rarely used. There are also words for up to the eleventh ancestors and tenth descendants and such granularity is something I haven’t seen in other languages. A further quirk of Hungarian is the application of “aunt” and “uncle” to senior acquaintances who are not blood-relations and the use of “my son” with reference to any person for whom one cares - I was always struck by the tenderness with which my grandad lovingly addressed my grandmother in this way. And finally, there is the generous use of diminutive suffixes, sometimes of multiple levels, expressing affection - e.g., “apa” - father, “apuka” - daddy, “apucika” - little daddy. All of these features of granularity and attribution of universality to intra-familiar relationships in the Hungarian language, I believe, underline their importance already by virtue of how one speaks about them. Universal brotherhood and specificity of relating to an individual person are hardwired and latent even before one opens one’s mouth or formulates a thought.

As a result of the above, a single word - “bátyóka” (“little older brother”) - suffices to express great love and affection, and my uncle, who completed his earthly pilgrimage yesterday evening, was universally known not only as “bátyóka” but as “Bátyóka.” Being the older brother who is considered with great love and warmth has become his name and all of us in our large, extended family only ever referred to him as such.

Bátyóka has lived a heroic life during tumultuous periods of the 20th century and has been the beloved elder brother not only to his biological family, but also to the countless people he served, guided and protected as a priest during decades of absurd oppression by a criminal Communist regime. His parishes always seemed to me, as a child, like oases and even at a young age it was crystal-clear to me that the way his parishioners related to him was by a bond of love rather than obedience or respect.

Meeting Bátyóka, you’d never have guessed that he had a doctorate in theology from Rome, as it would be his kindness and genuine interest for you as an individual that would strike you immediately. If the conversation turned to topics of faith or reason, his sharp intellect and vast knowledge would almost surprise you, as it wouldn’t have been him to steer the conversation in their direction.

Others could tell you much more about Bátyóka’s life, but all you’d learn from it are the details of the following fact: he was a follower of Jesus par excellence. This I knew from a very early age and continued experiencing on every occasion of meeting him since.

As I write this, on the day after Bátyóka completed his earthly life, I have tears in my eyes. They are not tears for Bátyóka though, who is now united even more closely with Jesus, the love of his life, and more than ever alive and closer to me as a member of Jesus’ Mystical Body, but for me, as I will miss seeing him, laughing at his incessant stream of jokes, being struck by the wisdom he so liberally shared with all and having him around as my “little older brother.”

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Benedict XVI - Odifreddi: searching for Truth, with gloves off

Boxing gloves

[Warning: long read :)]1

If you are even remotely interested in the dialogue between faith and reason, between religion and science, the last fortnight has to be among the most electrifying periods in the history of mankind. Not only did it kick-off with the beautifully sincere and profound move by Pope Francis in his letter to the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, but it saw the publication of “the” interview that Pope Francis gave to Jesuit media and in which he spoke about science in terms that, to my mind, take the Church’s appreciation of science further than ever before. And if that wasn’t enough, today saw the publication of extracts from an 11-page letter that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote to the Italian atheist mathematician Prof. Piergiorgio Odifreddi, in response to his book “Caro Papa ti scrivo: Un matematico ateo a confronto con il papa teologo” (“Dear Pope, I write to you: An atheist mathematician confronting the theologian pope”).

Looking at the two letters (or, more precisely, the extracts from Benedict’s versus the full text of Francis’), Francis’ and Scalfari’s style is like a polite, yet illuminating, exchange between two gentlemen over a cup of tea, while Benedict’s and Odifreddi’s exchange is like a bare-knuckle fist-fight between a pair of prize-winning boxers who in the end sincerely shake hands and respect each other, but without giving an inch during the fight itself.

To begin with, let’s take a quick look at Odifreddi’s opening move - his 204-page book, addressed to Benedict as “between colleagues” - from a maths to a theology professor. Early on, Odifreddi identifies a point in common with Benedict’s thought, by pointing to the following passage from Benedict’s Regensburg address:
“the experience […] of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason”
While Odifreddi identifies this - the adherence to reason - as a common point of departure, he quickly objects to Benedict’s excessive use of it (“your almost obsessive use of the word “reason,” repeated around forty times, akin to a musical motif or continuous base”) and to the “scandalous” words from Benedict’s sermon before the conclave that elected him:
“[H]aving a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
While being critical of Benedict’s words, Odifreddi argues that “both religion and science are perceived as antidemocratic and absolutist” as a result of their focus on “ultimate truths” and then proceeds to arguing against a series of passages from Benedict’s “Introduction To Christianity” and his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy.

Since it is the full, fine detail that is key to understanding the nature of what is going on between Odifreddi and Benedict, let me just pick out a single point of contention (from among many important and interesting ones that I hope to return to soon!),2 which Benedict objected to most forcefully and which the following passage from Odifreddi’s book sums up nicely:
“There is little to say about the historical Jesus, literally, because there are virtually no traces of him in the official history of the period. In total, there are only few tens of lines about him in the works of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Flavius Josephus. Some are of uncertain interpretation, like the “Chrestus” of Suetonius. Others are of dubious authenticity, like the interpolation of Flavius Josephus. […] If, therefore, Jesus truly existed, he must have been irrelevant to his contemporaries, beyond the narrow circle of his relatives, friends and followers.”
Odifreddi further accuses Benedict of side-stepping questions of fact by saying to him: “you seem uninterested in (or seem interested in not) discussing the historicity of the Gospels and the facts that they report” and attributes to him an opposition to historical-critical methods of Biblical interpretation, by quoting Benedict as saying that they “can effectively become an instrument of the Antichrist.”

Benedict’s response here is as sharp as the jab he received:
“What you say about the figure of Jesus is not worthy of your scientific status. If you put the question as if nothing were, ultimately, known about Jesus, as a historical figure, as if nothing were ascertainable, then I can only firmly invite you to become more competent from a point of view of history. To this end I particularly recommend to you the four volumes that Martin Hengel (exegete at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of Tübingen) has published with Maria Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example of historical precision and of vast breadth of historical information. […] Further I have to forcefully reject your affirmation (pp. 126) according to which I have presented historical-critical exegesis as an instrument of the Antichrist. Discussing the account of Jesus’ temptations, I have only recalled Soloviev’s thesis, according to whom historical-critical exegesis may also be used by the Antichrist - which is an unquestionable fact. At the same time, however, I have always - and in particular in the foreword to the first volume of my book on Jesus of Nazareth - made it evidently clear that historical-critical exegesis is necessary for a faith that does not propose myths using historical images, but demands true historicity and therefore has to present historical reality in its affirmations also in a scientific way. Because of this, it is not correct either that you say that I have been interested only in meta-history: on the contrary, all my efforts have had as their objective to show that the Jesus described in the Gospels is also the real, historical Jesus; that it is a matter of history that really took place.”
Uff … I have to be honest and admit that I was at first a bit uneasy about the tone of both Odifreddi and Benedict, neither of whom are pulling punches and both of whom are blunt to say the least. Looking more closely though, and reflecting on my professional experience as a scientist, I recognize that this is the tone and strength of academic argument and doing anything less would be dishonest on the part of both the professor and the ex-professor. This is a very different context from the Francis-Scalfari one and it demands the unforgiving rigor, precision and detail of the quotes shown above. Treating Benedict like any other academic shows Odifreddi’s respect for him (which he is explicit about when saying “Having read his Introduction to Christianity, […] I realized that the faith and doctrine of Benedict XVI, unlike that of others, were sufficiently solid and fierce that they could very well face and sustain frontal attack.”) Benedict is equally complimentary about Odifreddi, when he tells him that he “considers very positively the fact that you […] have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, in spite of all the differences, in the central themes, there is no lack of convergence at all.”

What this, academic, dialogue is truly about is put best - and to my mind beautifully lucidly - by Odifreddi, who says that:
“[The aim], obviously, was not to try and “convert the Pope,” but instead to honestly present to him the perplexity, and at times incredulity, of a mathematician with regard to faith. Analogously, the letter from Benedict XVI does not try to “convert the atheist,” but to direct at him his own, honest, symmetrical perplexity, and at time incredulity, of a very special believer with regard to atheism. The result is a dialogue between faith and reason, which, as Benedict XVI notes, has allowed both of us to confront each other frankly, and at times also bluntly, in the spirit of the Courtyard of the Gentiles that he himself has initiated in 2009. […] Divided in almost everything, but joined by at least one objective: the search for Truth, with a capital “T”.”
Wow! I have to say I am very impressed with Odifreddi (having come to this clearly as Benedict XVI fan) and I look forward to seeing his next steps in this full-contact dialogue. In many ways, I believe, that the most important thing to take away from this first encounter is the seriousness and complete transparency, with which both parties approached the challenge of dialogue - a dialogue that is not a watering-down or a “playing nice” but a striving for Truth, regardless of how vast the abyss may appear between its opposing cliffs. It would be a mistake to get stuck on whether I happen to agree with one side or the other, as it would miss the masterclass in serious dialogue that we have just witnessed. In many ways, I read Odifreddi’s closing thoughts as a transposition - from an intra-Christian to a Christian-atheist setting – of Francis’ call to an ecumenism that starts now, while there are clear differences between the parties, when he says in “the” interview: “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

1 Apologies, again, for the rough translation from Italian - once “official” translations are available, I’ll point you to them.
2 I can’t not mention the following zinger from Benedict, which points to the widespread use of “science fiction” in science, in response to Odifreddi’s claiming that it was religion that practiced the genre. Benedict here says, referring to Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s theories, and adding Dawkins’ “selfish gene” to the list, that “I’d call them “science fiction” too, in the good sense: they are visions and anticipations, to arrive at true knowledge, but they are, indeed, only imagination with which we try to get closer to reality.” :) I agree and I’ll definitely pick this line up in a future post.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Science grows Church’s understanding

350px God the Geometer0

As was immediately clear from a first reading, “the” interview given by Pope Francis last Thursday to Jesuit magazines is a text rich both in spiritual and intellectual treasures and will be a prominent trigger of reflection for a long time to come.

Today I’d like to take a closer look at a passage from it that has immediately caught my eye, but that received little attention so far. It addresses the relationship between science and religion in a, to my mind, very positive way:
“[H]uman self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”
While the opposition between science and religion certainly does not apply to the Catholic Church - with Blessed Pope John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Fides et Ratio being a categorical statement of the mutual benefits of faith and reason and with Pope Benedict XVI having spoken of the necessity of dialogue between science and faith 1 - Francis’ positioning of science as “helping the church in its growth in understanding” is a significant move. Like with many of Francis’ statements, it could be argued that they contain nothing new (Fides et Ratio already saying that “science can purify religion from error and superstition”) or that they are only new in style - and in some sense that is true, since he is firmly rooted in the Church, but it would, I believe, also miss an important nuance.

While I have always read Fides et Ratio as positioning faith and reason as separate, but mutually “strengthening” entities,2 here I see Francis presenting theology and science as two activities whose results both help the Church, the former leading to mature judgment while the latter resulting in increased understanding. This is a picture that does not place theology in a privileged, internal position with regard to the Church, and science as an external, while admittedly positive, activity, but positions both as engines of progress that deepen our humanity.3

While the above is clearly my reading and attempted unpacking of Francis’ condensed thought, I believe it is compatible with another of the important points he makes in “the” interview, namely that the Church is the “faithful people of God,”4 and that “‘thinking with the church’ [does not mean] only thinking with the hierarchy of the church,” that it “does not concern theologians only.” Seen in this way, “[t]he church is the totality of God’s people” and is therefore formed as much by theology as by science. Science becomes an internal concern of the Church - the People of God - and its advances and insights form her teaching from within.5 In many ways this also reminds me of Francis’ address to Brazil’s “leaders of society” during his visit in July, where he emphasizes that Christianity “combines transcendence and incarnation” and “faith and reason unite, the religious dimension and the various aspects of human culture – art, science, labour, literature…”

The above sketch, which I don’t believe I am bolting on to Francis’ thought, strikes me as a natural evolution of the solid foundations that John Paul II laid down, and I am curious to see whether it will find support in his future teaching.

0 I don’t mean to distract, but note the fractal in this 13th century illuminated illustration!
1 “In the great human enterprise of striving to unlock the mysteries of man and the universe, I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address To The Pontifical Academy Of Sciences, 8 November 2012)
2 As Lumen Fidei puts it in §32.
3 Echoing the affirmation in Fides et Ratio that “Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human.”
4 The definition presented in Lumen Gentium, as Francis points out.
5 This is not a conflation of the two - theology and science - but a recognition of their equal import for the Church’s progress.

Saturday, 21 September 2013


Foetus 5 months

If you search through the 166 posts published on this blog since its launch over a year ago, you won't find any mention of abortion. If, like soviet historians who, when they failed to find any sign of telephone cables during their excavations, inferred the use of wireless communication in 19th century Russia, you interpret this as my not considering the topic important, you'd be wrong. Fundamentally I find myself in the same boat as Pope Francis, whose first and until two days ago only public reference to it has been during the off-the-cuff interview with the press on his return flight from Rio, where he said that "[t]he Church has already addressed [this] issue and its position is clear."

In his interview with Jesuit media two days ago ("the" interview), he returned to the topic and essentially just expanded on his point from the Rio flight:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
In fact, the root of this reluctance is not born of attempts to please or to be popular, but of a profound care for those who are affected by suffering, as is clear from the example that Francis gives just before the above declaration:
"The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?"
On the above basis, Francis proceeds to lay out his vision of how the teaching of the Church on questions like abortion, which he adheres to and upholds, fits into the bigger picture:
"The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. […] We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."
While the above may (with a stretch of the imagination) sound like a move away from what the Church teaches about abortion, that is decidedly not the case, as Francis' immediately following point (made in the context of what sermons ought to be like) demonstrates:
"[We] must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. […] The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ."
The picture here is very clear: God loves all and wants all to love each other, like he loves them. Only once this is internalized and felt can its consequences be understood also with one's reason and "imperatives" make sense. Yet, in spite of their clarity, the interview that the above words are taken from has by many media outlets been taken as a departure from the condemnation of abortion. E.g., the Daily Mail summed it up by saying that Francis "condemned the church's obsession with such 'small-minded things' [as abortion]." The mind boggles!

Not by coincidence, I believe, Francis then addressed a group of Catholic gynecologists the very next day (yesterday) and spoke very clearly and at length about the evil of abortion, in a context where that made perfect sense:
"A widespread mentality of the useful, the “throw away culture” which today enslaves the hearts and intelligences of so many, has a very high cost: it requires eliminating human beings, especially if physically or socially weaker. Our answer to this mentality is a decisive and unhesitant “yes” to life. “The first right of a human person is his/her life. He/she has other goods and some of them are more precious; but life is the fundamental good, condition for all the others” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974, 11). Things have a price and are saleable, but persons have a dignity, they are worth more than things and they have no price. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become in recent times a real and proper priority of the Magisterium of the Church, particularly for life which is largely defenseless, namely, that of the disabled, the sick, the unborn, children, the elderly.

Each one of us is called to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced indifference and loneliness to which we often condemn the poorest, be it in developing countries, be it in well-off societies. Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world. And every elderly person, even if he/she is sick or at the end of his/her days, bears in him/herself the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded!"
Francis then points to the fundamental logic behind the Church's teaching:
"[Life] is always, in all its phases and at every age, sacred and is always of quality. And not because of a discourse of faith, but of reason and science! There is no human life that is more sacred than another, as there is no human life that is qualitatively more significant than another."
I wholeheartedly agree and absolutely fail to see how a Catholic can possibly think otherwise: abortion, like euthanasia and any neglect, torture or killing of a human person, is an absolute evil. By the exact same logic, it is necessary to treat all with mercy and compassion though, and I equally fail to understand how a Catholic can possibly think otherwise. Directing hatred at another human being, absolutely regardless of what they have done or who they are, is as much contrary to the sanctity of life as abortion or euthanasia.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Pope Francis: "the" interview

117049 pope francis

I believe it will take many weeks and months to digest all Pope Francis has said in the interview granted to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, and published simultaneously in multiple Jesuit publications worldwide. As a taster, let me just pick out my favorite parts, from the English version in America magazine:
  1. “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon. I ​​am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”

  2. “According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’”

  3. “[N]ow I hear some people tell me: ‘Do not consult too much, and decide by yourself.’ Instead, I believe that consultation is very important.”

  4. “I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. […] This was the sanctity of my parents: my dad, my mom, my grandmother Rosa who loved ​​me so much. In my breviary I have the last will of my grandmother Rosa, and I read it often. For me it is like a prayer. She is a saint who has suffered so much, also spiritually, and yet always went forward with courage.”

  5. “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be. You see, when I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Here’s an unfruitful bachelor’ or ‘Here’s a spinster.’ They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life. Instead, for example, when I read the life of the Salesian missionaries who went to Patagonia, I read a story of the fullness of life, of fruitfulness.”

  6. “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.”

  7. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”

  8. “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

  9. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

  10. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

  11. “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

  12. “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”

  13. “[T]here is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.”

  14. “In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.”

  15. “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

  16. “[H]uman self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

Wow! I am deeply grateful for having such a loving and holy pope and one whose teaching will, I believe, bear abundant fruit not only for Christians but for all.

Do MOOCs float on water?


[WARNING: long read :)]1

The classical test for witchcraft is to see whether the accused floats on water, since - and this ought to be self-evident - witches don’t. The logic is impeccable and the argument waterproof (pardon the pun), as long as pesky bystanders don’t volunteer alternatives for aquatically buoyant entities like apples, cherries, very small rocks, lead or ducks, which is precisely what I intend to do to the following argument by Prof. Jonathan Malesic against Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):2
“The grounds for a social-justice case against MOOCs are even stronger within the Catholic tradition. In his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that technology can aid our work, but he also warned that it can become an “enemy” by displacing workers and robbing work of its rightful meaning. The threat is that technology will depersonalize both the work and the worker, who is, the pope argued, “the primary basis of the value of work.”

[…] MOOCs undercut that value for academic workers. [… T]he endgame for MOOCs is the supplanting of local, in-person labor by technologically mediated remote labor. The human educator, who is the source of education’s greatest value but also its greatest expense, is meant to become dispensable. […] MOOC providers will profit at the cost of faculty jobs. The dignity of faculty as workers will be damaged.”
Here a MOOC is “an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web” (so its Wikipedia definition), and Malesic means “not replacing human labor (here, faculty) with cheaper, less effective machine labor” by “social justice.” Based on such a threat of larger Catholic universities “pushing smaller Catholic colleges […] out of business” by providing courses using the MOOC approach (and objecting also to the lack of “dialogue and physical proximity” implicit in their nature), Malesic proceeds to categorize their impact as “social injustice” and interpret Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens” as condemning them and rendering them un-Catholic.

You could certainly argue about the pros and cons of MOOCs - and Malesic too acknowledges some of their pros: “access to college-level instruction for people who have been excluded because of poverty, remoteness, or others’ prejudice,” but to argue not only that they are incompatible with Catholicism but also that such a view derives from John Paul II’s teaching is asking for a rebuttal.

Before proceeding to Laborem Exercens, let me put my cards on the table. I, already having postgraduate qualifications, have signed up to several MOOCs (on Coursera and Udacity) and have greatly enjoyed some of them (e.g., the superb “A Brief History of Humankind” by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari). Do I think they are a replacement for “traditional” education? No. Do I think they are incompatible with my Catholic beliefs? Absolutely not! If anything, I see them as great new elements to incorporate into the kind of education that Prof. Malesic too promotes - one where there is personal contact between educator and student. Beyond their expanding the means that an educator has at their disposal, by, e.g., allowing for a course to partly consist of students participating in a MOOC and then having follow-up discussions or supplemental material facilitated by their “physically proximal” educator, MOOCs also do provide access to education to those who would otherwise not have it, as Prof. Malesic too concedes. Beyond such, systemic benefits of MOOCs, there are also already some very personal success stories of those who have taken them, like that of Khadijah Niazi from Lahore, who took the Udacity Artificial Intelligence MOOC aged 10, then their physics course two years later and has since spoken at Davos alongside the worlds educational elite. Is that un-Catholic? Hardly. Is there a need for carefully considering how to best take advantage of MOOCs? Sure. But that’s not what I’d like to focus on in this post.

Instead, my aim here is to examine Prof. Malesic’s claim that John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (LE) leads to a classification of MOOCs as socially unjust and therefore to be boycotted by Catholic universities and colleges.

Let’s start at the beginning, with LE’s opening sentence:
“Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family.”
Hmm … sounds to me like the focus in LE will be not only work and the important considerations of social justice and dignity that it entails, but also progress on all fronts: science, technology, culture and morality. That’s more like the JP2 I know from his other writings, instead of the Luddite suggested by Prof. Malesic’s interpretation. To get a fuller picture of JP2’s thought (from 1981), let’s proceed to read what he says about technological progress:
“[W]e are witnessing the transformations made possible by the gradual development of science and technology. Historically speaking, this, taken as a whole, has caused great changes in civilization, from the beginning of the “industrial era” to the successive phases of development through new technologies, such as the electronics and the microprocessor technology in recent years.

While it may seem that in the industrial process it is the machine that “works” and man merely supervises it, making it function and keeping it going in various ways, it is also true that for this very reason industrial development provides grounds for reproposing in new ways the question of human work. Both the original industrialization that gave rise to what is called the worker question and the subsequent industrial and post-industrial changes show in an eloquent manner that, even in the age of ever more mechanized “work”, the proper subject of work continues to be man.”
Oh … wait … So, we need to “repropose” what constitutes human work, instead of getting stuck in superficial appearances? How does JP2 suggest we do that?
“The development of industry and of the various sectors connected with it, even the most modern electronics technology, especially in the fields of miniaturization, communications and telecommunications and so forth, shows how vast is the role of technology, that ally of work that human thought has produced, in the interaction between the subject and object of work (in the widest sense of the word). Understood in this case not as a capacity or aptitude for work, but rather as a whole set of instruments which man uses in his work, technology is undoubtedly man’s ally. It facilitates his work, perfects, accelerates and augments it. It leads to an increase in the quantity of things produced by work, and in many cases improves their quality. However, it is also a fact that, in some instances, technology can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work “supplants” him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”
The point I am hearing here is that technology, which “is undoubtedly man’s ally,” makes us look at human work not only from the narrow perspective of an individual’s “capacity or aptitude” but to consider the tools at their disposal (and these include MOOCs!) as being their extensions. While JP2 rightly points to the dangers of a “mechanization” of work that robs man of creativity and responsibility (just think of the sweatshops that many goods used today are produced in), of people being deprived of previous employment or becoming slaves of technology, he still can’t quite bring himself to labeling technology as man’s enemy, even when it is abused, applying the qualifier “almost.” Looking back at Prof. Malesic’s words, I believe it is clear that new technology poses dangers, and JP2’s teaching attests to that, but I can’t read Laborem Exercens as placing technology and man being the primary basis for the value of work at odds. The following passage makes this particularly clear:
“Working at any workbench, whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, a man can easily see that through his work he enters into two inheritances: the inheritance of what is given to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others have already developed on the basis of those resources, primarily by developing technology, that is to say, by producing a whole collection of increasingly perfect instruments for work. In working, man also “enters into the labour of others”. Guided both by our intelligence and by the faith that draws light from the word of God, we have no difficulty in accepting this image of the sphere and process of man’s labour. It is a consistent image, one that is humanistic as well as theological. […] If some dependence is discovered in the work process, it is dependence on the Giver of all the resources of creation, and also on other human beings, those to whose work and initiative we owe the perfected and increased possibilities of our own work. All that we can say of everything in the production process which constitutes a whole collection of “things”, the instruments, the capital, is that it conditions man’s work; we cannot assert that it constitutes as it were an impersonal “subject” putting man and man’s work into a position of dependence.”
I have to say I find the above quite beautiful. Not only does JP2 explicitly deny technology the capacity to enslave man (it is a tool, whose use is at the discretion of man), but he presents a Trinitarian-like model, where man’s work places him in relationship with God and his neighbor - the fundamental context for the entirety of Christian life.

Before leaving Laborem Exercens, it is worth seeing what JP2 has to say about the changes that technology brings to white collar workers:
“Movements of solidarity in the sphere of work-a solidarity that must never mean being closed to dialogue and collaboration with others- can be necessary also with reference to the condition of social groups that were not previously included in such movements but which, in changing social systems and conditions of living, are undergoing what is in effect “proletarianization” or which actually already find themselves in a “proletariat” situation, one which, even if not yet given that name, in fact deserves it. This can be true of certain categories or groups of the working “intelligentsia”, especially when ever wider access to education and an ever increasing number of people with degrees or diplomas in the fields of their cultural preparation are accompanied by a drop in demand for their labour. This unemployment of intellectuals occurs or increases when the education available is not oriented towards the types of employment or service required by the true needs of society, or when there is less demand for work which requires education, at least professional education, than for manual labour, or when it is less well paid. Of course, education in itself is always valuable and an important enrichment of the human person; but in spite of that, “proletarianization” processes remain possible.”
What JP2 means here by “proletariat” are workers who, “reacti[ng] against the degradation of man as the subject of work, and against the unheard-of accompanying exploitation in the field of wages, working conditions and social security for the worker” follow a call to solidarity and common action. Again there is a very clear recognition of the challenges associated with the many aspects of work, and a prophetic anticipation of the consequences of a wider access to education, but JP2 is clear about “education in itself [being] always valuable and an important enrichment of the human person.”

If anything, Blessed Pope John Paul II unequivocally endorses the good inherent in technological advances and education and does so with his eyes wide open - pointing to the dangers and challenges they entail. Laborem Exercens, when taken in its entirety (and I thank Prof. Malesic for the impetus), presents a truly cosmic view of work - an activity that places one in relation not only with one’s neighbors, but - via education - also with those who have contributed to the advances of science and technology in the past (echoing Newton’s “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”), with nature and with God. Technology and education are shown as being integral to man, as opposed to external entities, and as such inherently good. Their use has clear risks and dangers, but it is their prudent and socially-aware employment that is the solution, instead of a shunning and boycotting.

1 Many thanks to my überbestie PM for his nihil obstat!
2 If, for some strange reason, the opening paragraph seems like an enigma wrapped in a riddle, you might want to consult the opera omnia of MPFC, internalizing the following (abridged) passage in particular:
BEDEMIR: Quiet, quiet. Quiet! There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
CROWD: Are there? What are they?
BEDEMIR: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
CROWD: Burn, burn them up!
BEDEMIR: And what do you burn apart from witches?
VILLAGER #2: Wood!
BEDEMIR: So, why do witches burn?
VILLAGER #3: B--... ’cause they’re made of wood...?
CROWD: Oh yeah, yeah...
BEDEMIR: So, how do we tell whether she is made of wood?
VILLAGER #1: Build a bridge out of her.
BEDEMIR: Aah, but can you not also build bridges out of stone?
VILLAGER #2: Oh, yeah.
BEDEMIR: Does wood sink in water?
VILLAGER #1: No, no.
VILLAGER #2: It floats! It floats!
BEDEMIR: What also floats in water?
VILLAGER #3: Very small rocks!
ARTHUR: A duck.
CROWD: Oooh.
BEDEMIR: Exactly! So, logically...,
VILLAGER #1: If... she.. weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood.
BEDEMIR: And therefore--?
VILLAGER #1: A witch!
CROWD: A witch!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Priests as welcomers and accompaniers


This morning Pope Francis met with Rome’s priests at the basilica of St. John Lateran and, following some brief, opening remarks, spent two hours in a Q&A with them. The meeting was private and away from the lenses and microphones of journalist, but details of Pope Francis’ words have been emerging during the course of the day.

To begin with, the priests invited to the meeting were sent a letter that Francis wrote in 2008, while still a cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires, in which he reflects on the implications of the Aparecida document on the priesthood. There, Francis starts out by defining the “identity of the priest in relation to a community, with two characteristics. First, as “gift,” as opposed to “delegate” or “representative.” Second, in terms of faithfulness to the call of the Master, instead of “management.”” Francis then emphasizes that identity means belonging: “The priest belongs to the People of God, from which he has been drawn, to which he has been sent, and a part of which he is.” This communitarian aspect is further emphasized in the Aparecida document, which in its §156 affirms that “a constitutive dimension of the Christian event is belonging to a concrete communion in which we can be part of an ongoing experience of discipleship and communion with the successors of the apostles and with the successor of Peter.”

Further along in this preparatory document for today’s meeting, Francis emphasizes the joint importance of truth and mercy, which in the Aparecida document (§199) is presented thus: “to care for the flock entrusted to them and to seek out who have strayed furthest [… that they may be] servant-of-life-priests: who are alert to the needs of the poorest, committed to the defense of the rights of the weakest, and promoters of the culture of solidarity. The need is also for priests full of mercy.” Finally, Francis proposes to priests to be “enamored disciples,” since, “logically the missionary dimension is born from the interior experience of a love of Jesus Christ.” His letter to the Argentinian priests is a beautiful document in its entirety, and the above is meant to serve only as context for the very telegraphic details that have emerged so far from today’s private meeting with the priests of Rome.

The most extensive source of information so far has been an article in today’s Roma Sette, a website of the Diocese of Rome, where the following snippets are shared:
  1. Francis kicked off the Q&A by stating that “he considered himself above all to be a priest, and now as Pope he was afraid of feeling otherwise. “I would be afraid of feeling a bit more important; I am afraid of that, because the devil is cunning ... and makes you think you have power, that you can do this and that ... But thanks to God, I haven’t yet lost that fear, and if once you see that I have lost it, please, tell me, and if you can’t tell me privately, say it publicly, but say it: ‘Look, convert!’ It’s clear, isn’t it?”.” Wow! This is pretty strong stuff and it paints such a vivid picture - one that reminds me of St. Peter in the Early Church, as its head, but one that listens (cf. Galatians 2:11-14 where Paul says: “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” - i.e., the “Incident at Antioch”).

  2. A focus again on the “existential peripheries” that Francis has spoken about before. Here, he adds that such peripheries also refer to “weak and poor thought.” Francis also added that “reality is better understood from the periphery and not from the centre, which, instead, runs the risk of degenerating.”

  3. Francis acknowledges the “serious problems of the Church,” but without being pessimistic. “The Church does not crumble. The Church has never been as well as today, it is a beautiful moment for the Church, it is enough to read its history. There are saints recognized even by non-Catholics - let’s think of Blessed Teresa - but there is also the everyday holiness of ordinary mothers and women, of men who work every day for their families, and this brings us hope. Holiness is greater than scandals.” As an example of everyday holiness, he gives the example of a woman he spoke to over the phone the previous day (!), who is a “cleaner at Buenos Aires airport and who supports her drug-addicted, unemployed son: “This is holiness.””

  4. He also speaks about the fatigue that priests feel, remembering the expression John Paul II used in his “Redemptoris Mater,” where he speaks about Mary’s “particular heaviness of heart” (§17). Francis says that “when a priest is in touch with his people, he gets tired. Faced with this tiredness, there is only Jesus’ answer: be with the poor, announce the Gospel and go ahead.” Here Francis also differentiates between different kinds of tiredness: “When a priest is in contact with his people, he works, but he sleeps well. When a priest is not in contact with his people, he works, but he works badly and sleeps badly. ... When a priest is in contact with his people, who have many real needs, need for God, then this requires serious effort - but they are the needs of God, no?, that seriously make you tired, and there is no need for sleeping pills.”

  5. Beyond fatigue, priests can also experience what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul”: “there is a final effort, which is necessary at the moment that there should be triumph. ... This happens when a priest questions himself about his existence, he looks within himself at the path he has followed, at the sacrifices he has made, the children he has not had and asks if perhaps he made a mistake, if his life was a failure [… John the Baptist,] in the darkness of his confinement experienced the darkness of his soul, and sent his disciples to ask Jesus if it was He Who awaited him.”

  6. Francis then proposes the following solution both to fatigue and existential darkness: “So, what can a priest do when he lives the experience of John the Baptist? Pray, to the point of falling asleep before the Tabernacle, but stay there.” Also important are “closeness with other priests and closeness of the bishop.” Francis then goes on to underline this last point: “Us bishops have to be close to priests, we have to love our neighbors, and our closest neighbors are the priests. The closest neighbors of the bishop are the priests. [applause] The opposite is true too, eh? [laughter, applause]: the closest neighbor of the priests must be the bishop: the closest neighbor. The bishop says: my closest neighbors are my priests. This exchange is beautiful, no? I believe this to be the most important moment of closeness, between bishop and priests: this moment without words, because there are no words for this fatigue.” Another great piece of advice by Pope Francis, which very much reminds me of the key moment in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the eponymous protagonist communicates wordlessly with the ferryman Vasudeva in a moment of profound union.

  7. Another remedy against fatigue and darkness is the memory “of one’s vocation, entering seminary, one’s priestly ordination: memory is the life-blood of the Church.” Francis invites all priests to remember their initial falling in love with Jesus, the moment when they first felt Jesus’ gaze on them. “For me this is the key point: that a priest has the capacity to return in memory to his first love. ... A Church that loses her memory is an electronic Church, without life.”

  8. Francis also insisted that priest extend a “heartfelt welcome” so that “the faithful feel at home.” Referring in particular to couples who live together outside marriage, Francis emphasized the need for welcome - a welcome in truth. “Always speak the truth, knowing that the truth is not exhausted by a dogmatic definition, but that it inserts itself in the love and the fullness of God.” The priest therefore has to “accompany.” We just have to think of the disciples of Emmaus and how “the Lord has accompanied them and warmed their hearts.”

  9. Here Francis emphasizes the importance of creativity instead of novelty: “[do not] confuse creativity with making something new. Creativity is finding the path to proclaim the Gospel and ... this is not easy. It is not simply a question of changing things. It is something different, it comes from the spirit and passes through prayer and dialogue with people, with the faithful. […] The Code of Canon Law give us many, many possibilities, so much freedom to look for these things. ... We must find those moments to welcome and receive the faithful, when they enter the parish church for one reason or another.”

  10. Francis also addressed the topic of remarried divorcees: “The problem cannot be reduced merely to a matter of who can receive communion or not, because to pose the question in these terms does not enable an understanding of the real problem. ... It is a serious problem regarding the Church’s reponsibility towards families living in this situation. ... The Church must now do something to solve the problem of marriage annulment.”

  11. He also warned against economic interests by saying: “There must be a cordial welcome so that those who go to Church feel at home. They feel comfortable and do not feel as if they are being exploited. ... When people feel there are economic interests at work, they stay away”.

  12. Finally, Francis advised the priests of his diocese to beware of both severe and lax priests. “Instead, the merciful priest proclaims that ‘God’s truth is this, so to speak, dogmatic or moral truth’, but always accompanied by God’s love and patience. Do not panic – the good God awaits us. ... We must always keep in mind the word ‘accompany’ – let us be travelling companions. Conversion always takes place on the street, not in the laboratory”. This, to my mind is a fundamental point - the distinction among lax, strict and merciful - a point I didn’t get before. It made me realize that mercy involves adherence to the truth (which laxity lacks) while loving (which strictness misses).

As a married person, I am grateful to Pope Francis for these profound directions, addressed to the priests of Rome, and I feel that a lot of what he says applies equally to me and is a challenge that I too want to accept and respond to.

UPDATE (18 September 2013): Yesterday several Vatican sources (e.g., VIS, L’Osservatore Romano and Radio Vaticana) have published further details of Pope Francis’ words from the meeting with Roman clergy, which have now been added to the above post.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Pope Francis’ letter to non-believers

Pope 2509845b

That Pope Francis cares deeply for non-believers1 is nothing new, with his previous declaration that Jesus has redeemed atheists too having lead both to very positive responses and to a great media muddle. In today’s issue of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Francis continues in this dialogue with non-believers by responding to questions sent to him by the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari regarding Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei, and I would like to share my favorite parts of his letter with you here.2

Francis starts out by arguing that dialogue between the followers of Jesus and non-believers is “necessary and valuable” today for two reasons: First, the paradox that “Christian faith, whose novelty and impact on human life have since the beginning been expressed through the symbol of light, has become branded as the darkness of superstition that is opposed to the light of reason,” resulting in an absence of communication between Christian and Enlightenment-based contemporary culture. Second, for those who seek “to follow Jesus in the light of faith, […] this dialogue is not a secondary accessory[, but …] an intimate and indispensable expression of faith instead.” This, Francis argues, is expressed by §34 of Lumen Fidei, from which he proceeds to quote:
“Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.”
After a beautiful exposition of how Francis himself came to believe in God and how the Christian faith has Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection at its heart, through which all of humanity is shown God’s love and connectedness to each other - to every single human being,3 he proceeds to answering the three questions Scalfari put to him.

The first of Scalfari’s questions regards whether “the God of Christians forgives those who don’t believe and don’t seek faith.” Here Francis’s response, which I particularly like, is the following:
“Given that - and this is the fundamental point - the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to Him with a sincere and contrite heart, the question for those who don’t believe in God is about obeying one’s own conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, occurs when one goes against conscience. Listening and obeying to it means, in fact, taking decisions in the face of what becomes understood as good or as bad. And it is on the basis of this decision that the goodness or evil of our actions plays out.”
Wow! While this is in some sense nothing more than what the Catechism has been saying explicitly since Vatican II, having it presented in the above universal way is great. I have often argued in exactly these terms and have faced quizzical looks from other Catholics, who wouldn’t quite believe it. It also confirms me in the answer I have given to several of my best, atheist or agnostic friends when they have asked me whether they should want to believe in God, which was “no,” with the caveat of seeking to be honest in front of their consciences.

Scalfari’s second question asks whether “thinking that there is no absolute and therefore no absolute truth either, but only a series of relative and subjective truths, is a mistake or a sin.” Great question! :) To this Francis responds by saying:
“To begin with, I wouldn’t talk, not even to those who believe, about “absolute” truth, in the sense that the absolute is that which is disconnected, which is devoid of any relation. Now, the truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the truth is a relationship! It is also true that each one of us takes it, the truth, and expresses it by departing from oneself: from one’s history and culture, the circumstances in which one lives, etc. This does not mean though that the truth is variable and subjective. Instead, it means that it gives itself to us always and only as a journey and a life. Didn’t maybe Jesus say the same: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”?4 In other words, truth, being ultimately all one with love, requires humility and openness when sought, accepted and expressed. Therefore, it is necessary to understand each other’s terminology better, and, maybe, to avoid the constraints of an opposition that is … absolute, deepen the framing of the question. I believe that this is absolutely necessary today, so that a serene and constructive dialogue can take place.”
Another fantastic answer! Anyone who has tried to pigeonhole Francis as a populist, as opposed to the thinker that Benedict XVI undoubtedly is, can proceed to eat their own words …

The third, and final of Scalfari’s questions asks whether “the disappearance of humans from Earth would also mean a disappearance of thought that is capable of thinking God.” Here, Francis’ answer, which I won’t translate in full, revolves around arguing that, in his experience and those of many others, God is not an idea, but a “reality with a capital ‘R’.” Instead of going into more detail here, I’d instead like to translate Francis’ closing thoughts, before which he expresses his hope that his reflections would be “received as a tentative and provisional response, but one that is sincere and faithful to the invitation of walking along a stretch of road together.”:
“The Church, believe me, in spite of all the slowness, the unfaithfulness, the mistakes and sins that it may have committed and may yet commit in those who compose it, has no other meaning and end than that of living and giving testimony to Jesus: Him who has been sent by the Father “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).”
I have to say I am delighted by these words of Pope Francis - both the emphasis on conscience that I have held dear for a long time and the insights about truth as relationship and love - and I would be keen to hear from my atheist, agnostic, humanist (and even Christian :) friends what they made of them.

UPDATE (12 Sept. 2013): This morning Vatican Radio broadcast a short interview with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on the topic of Pope Francis' letter discussed above (which is now available in an official English translation here). Ravasi, who leads the Pontifical Council for Culture and in its context the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" initiative, whose aim is dialogue with non-believers, naturally welcomed Francis' letter with great positivity, including it among the initiatives foundational documents. He then also proceeds to elaborate on the, to my mind key, point Francis made about the truth being a relationship:
"Already Plato affirmed [that the truth is a relationship] when he said that the chariot of the soul runs along the plane of truth, which means that the truth is not a cold reality like a precious stone that you can put in your pocket. Instead, it is an immense plane, a horizon - or, to use another image by a writer from the last century5 - we can say that the truth is a sea that one enters and navigates. So, in this light, I believe that the concept of truth not as absolute, but personal, interpersonal, will be very fruitful for dialogue, without losing the dimension of objectivity, of identity in itself, typical of the truth."

1 Picking what term to use to refer to those who do not believe in God is tricky and I am going with the term Francis is using himself, not necessarily because I believe it is the most appropriate one, but because my aim here is to share his message with you today. I am mindful though of Prof. Cox’s point about the undesirability of negative labels, but since the positive alternatives (e.g., humanist) may not be self-applied by all whom the Pope intends to address here, I am sticking with his terminology. If you belong to his target audience (and to some extent everyone does - including me, a Catholic) and have a suggestion for what term to use, please, let me know.
2 Since I haven’t found an English translation of this article yet, the following quotes are my own crude translations, for which I apologize in advance.
3 I’d like to return to this great synthesis of Christianity in a future post and, if you understand Italian, I’d wholeheartedly recommend reading the full letter to you straight-away.
4 John 14:6.
5 Ravasi refers to this quote in an earlier talk, where he attributes it to Musil's The Man Without Qualities, although I couldn't find it there.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Liberation Theology rehabilitated

Santa cena teologia liberacion

Pope Francis is about to meet with the founder of Liberation Theology, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, thanks to the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) - Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, which - on the face of it - is a 180° turn versus its past condemnations by the Vatican. Taken superficially, it is a meeting between Francis and a proponent of a theology that has been categorically denounced both by Blessed Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

A closer look reveals quite a different picture though:
  1. Fr. Gutiérrez, unlike other teachers of Liberation Theology (e.g., Leonardo Boff), has never been censured by the Vatican.

  2. John Paul II and Benedict XVI never condemned Liberation Theology as such, but only those variants of it that placed Marxist analysis at their cores and thereby de-Christified it. In fact, Benedict XVI (then then-Cardinal Ratzinger) is quite clear about the distinction in the “instruction” he published in 1984 as the head of the CDF:
    “The aspiration for ‘liberation’, as the term itself suggests, repeats a theme which is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments. In itself, the expression “theology of liberation” is a thoroughly valid term: it designates a theological reflection centered on the biblical theme of liberation and freedom, and on the urgency of its practical realization. […] The warning against the serious deviations of some “theologies of liberation” must not be taken as some kind of approval, even indirect, of those who keep the poor in misery, who profit from that misery, who notice it while doing nothing about it, or who remain indifferent to it. The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by the love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might.”
  3. Instead of this being a change brought in by Francis, the re-visiting of the position taken with respect to Liberation Theology escalated when Benedict XVI appointed Müller as the head of the CDF in 2011 - Müller, who was known to be a personal friend of Gutiérrez, whom he considered as his mentor and whose summer lectures he has been attending annually since 1998 in Peru.

  4. While the new attitude is a change version previous positions, it is not a change as far as Marxist-based flavors of Liberation Theology go. Instead, it is a sign of support for those strands of Liberation Theology that have presented social justice and a focus on the poor on a wholly Christian basis. Fr. Juan Carlos Scannone, one of Pope Francis’ former professors puts it as follows: “In the Argentinean Liberation Theology, social Marxist analysis is not used, but rather a historical-cultural analysis, not based on class warfare as a determining principle for the interpretation of society and history.”

To get a sense of why Müller, who is clearly the catalyst behind the rehabilitation of some strands of Liberation Theology, took an interest in it, it is worth taking a look at the speech1 he gave at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in 2008, when it awarded him an honorary doctorate.

There, Müller starts by admitting that he had read expositions of Liberation Theology as well as their criticisms by the CDF, before meeting Gutiérrez, but that his engagement with them was purely theoretical. His initial attitude was one of skepticism and concern about both a danger of leading to violence and a naïveté with regard to the application of Marxist principles. Attending a seminar lead by Gutiérrez then turned him “from academic reflection on a new theological concept to experience with the men and women for whom this theology had been developed.” From the start, Gutiérrez emphasized that Liberation Theology was about theology and not politics, with the aim “to understand the world, history and society and transform them in light of the God’s own supernatural revelation as savior and liberator of man.” The “point of departure” is very clearly put by Müller as follows:
“How one can speak of God in the face of human suffering, of the poor who don’t have sustenance for their children, or the right to medical assistance, or access to education, who are excluded from social and cultural life, marginalized and considered a burden and a threat to the lifestyle of the wealthy few.

These poor are not an anonymous mass. Each one of them has a face. How can I as a Christian, priest or layman, whether through evangelization or scientific theological work, talk about God and His Son who became man and died for us on the cross and bear witness to Him, if I don’t want to build another theological system in addition to the existing one, except by saying to the specific poor person face to face: God loves you and your inalienable dignity is rooted in God. How does one make Biblical considerations real in individual and collective life, when human rights originate in the creation of man in the image and likeness of God.”
Müller then moves on to what I believe is the core of his message, when he speaks about not only attending courses about Liberation Theology in various Latin American countries, but also their being accompanied by:
“long weeks of pastoral work in the Andean region, especially in Lares in the Archdiocese of Cuzco. There the faces acquired names and became personal friends, this experience of universal Communion in the love of God and neighbor, which must be the essence of the Catholic Church. Finally it was a deep joy for me when in 2003, in Lares, in the Archdiocese of Cuzco, being already a bishop, I could administer the sacrament of Confirmation to young people whose parents I had already known for a long time and whom I myself had baptized.

Hence I have not been speaking of liberation theology in an abstract and theoretical way, much less ideologically to flatter progressive church groups. Similarly I have no fear that this may be interpreted as a lack of orthodoxy. Gustavo Gutiérrez’s theology, regardless of which angle you look at it from, is orthodox because it is orthopractic and teaches us proper Christian action because it comes from true faith.”
Müller’s assessment of Liberation Theology comes not only from a reading of and reflection on its teachings, but from him personally having put it into practice and experienced its fruits. It is these fruits that reinforce the truth of its principles, whose flowing from “true faith” can be inferred from them. It is a “see, judge, act” process, which Müller says “has been decisive in my own theological development” and which follows Jesus’ own words as regards orthopraxy:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20).
UPDATE (13 September 2013): The Catholic New Service has just tweeted that the Vatican has confirmed that a meeting between Pope Francis and Fr. Gutiérrez took place two days ago.

1 The original, Spanish version can be found here. Note that the English text used above includes my adjustments based on this original (e.g., at one point “imperdible” is translated as “amazing” in the English referred to above, while I render it as “inalienable”).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The sickness of the Pharisees

Abstract joy

Pope Francis’ homilies yesterday and today are a pair of true gems and since they have filled me with joy, I’d like to share their highlights here with you.

This morning Francis starts out by warning against various flavors of Christianity that don’t have the person of Jesus at their center - in other words, that are not honest! - and that get bogged down in paraphernalia. Their first type is what I’d call headless Christians:
“The Pharisees of today’s Gospel (Luke 6:1-5) make so many commandments the centre of their religiosity. [… T]hose who have the sickness of the Pharisees and are Christians that put their faith, their religiosity in so many commandments, so many. ‘Ah, I have to do this, I have to do this, I have to do this. Christians of this attitude … ‘But why do you do this?’ – ‘No, it must be done!’ – ‘But why?’ – ‘Ah, I don’t know, but it must be done.’ And Jesus – where is He? A commandment is valid if it comes from Jesus: I do this because the Lord wants me to do this. But if I am a Christian without Christ, I do this and I don’t know why I have to do it.”
Then Francis warns against what I’d say are procedural Christians:
“There are other Christians without Christ: those who only seek devotions … But Jesus is not there. If your devotions bring you to Christ, that works. But if you remain there [in those devotions], something’s wrong.”
Finally, there are the Christians 2.0 who seek novelty for its own sake:
“[Then there are t]hose who seek things that are a little uncommon, a little special, that go back to private revelations, while Revelation concluded with the New Testament. Such a spectacle of revelation, to hear new things [is misguided. Instead,] take the Gospel!”
With the wrong approaches ridiculed, Francis turns to how to tell whether one is on the right track:
“‘But Father, what is the rule for being a Christian with Christ, and not becoming a Christian without Christ. What is the sign of a person that is a Christian with Christ?’ The rule is simple: only that which brings you to Jesus is valid, and only that is valid that comes from Jesus. Jesus is the centre.”
A consequence then of such a centeredness on Jesus is joy:
“The Christian is fundamentally joyful. [… To be sure], there are truly moments of crucifixion, moments of pain – but there is ever that profound peace of joy, because Christian life is lived as a celebration, like the nuptial union of Christ with the Church.”
Getting rid of the clutter that has accumulated around following Jesus and seeking to imitate Him honestly and consciously will not annihilate difficulties, but will lead to profound peace and joy. I wish this for myself as much as I wish its consequences for everyone - especially those who endure the most difficult circumstances in war-torn parts of the world.