Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Science in Evangelii Gaudium

The apostolic exhortation published by Pope Francis yesterday has received widespread scrutiny already, with two foci being its critique of unbridled market capitalism and its equally sharp-tongued critique of the Church’s shortcomings and a call to greater mercy and closeness to all. Both of these topics are close to my heart and I hope to return to them in due course.

Instead, I’d here like to focus on the references to science that Francis made in Evangelii Gaudium - effectively as a follow-on to an analogous analysis I applied to his interview given to Jesuit publications some months ago. As I noted there, Francis placed science on par with theology, both as informing the Church from within, and I was curious to see how that - to my mind daring - positioning would hold up in this formal exposition of his vision for the Church.

The first mention of science comes up early on in the document and is well in line with the sketch from “the” interview:
“The Church [...] needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help “the judgment of the Church to mature”. The other sciences also help to accomplish this, each in its own way.”
Science - in fact, “the sciences” - is placed explicitly among the sources of understanding that the Church needs to take advantage of, even in the context of making sense of revelation. Francis follows this up by stating that:
“Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”
The sciences and their “differing currents of thought” are shown here to lead to a nuanced, varied understanding of a multi-faceted reality. In fact, towards the end of the exhortation, Francis makes a very important point about the Gospel - and by extension reality too - being like a polyhedron:
“Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”
Returning to the presentation of science in Evangelii Gaudium, the strongest point is made about half-way through the document, where science is even positioned as “an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world,” in the context of its capacity to shed light on Jesus’ message. This is very strong stuff and, I believe, part of a much broader move by Francis to emphasize the ubiquity of God’s speaking to us. Also in the context of inter-religious dialogue, Francis proclaims that non-Christian religions too “can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up” - again a very bold claim, like in the case of science. In effect, Francis is saying not to look for God only in the zones explicitly demarcated for it, but to realize that He can be accessed in many more ways. In fact, his words about non-believers round out this picture very clearly: “We consider [all who sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty] as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation.”

Next, Francis returns to the key point from “the” interview - that theology and science need to work in tandem:
“It is not enough that evangelizers be concerned to reach each person, or that the Gospel be proclaimed to the cultures as a whole. A theology [...] which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups.”
However, it is a relationship among equals that he is after - among all the sciences and rational modes of equiry and thought, which is in contrast with an absolutization of positivist science in the form of scientism:
“Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other.”
Again, this is not a new position - drawing explicitly on John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio - but an important facet of Francis' vision of how science is part of a Christian world-view.

Finally, Francis re-iterates the fundamental compatibility of Christianity and science, by underlining the goodness of scientific progress. At the same time he warns against an ideologisation of science too and against a jumping to conclusions or an overconfidence in emerging theories:
“The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue.”
In summary, I find Francis’ views on science deeply positive and see them as both building on his predecessors’ emphasis on rationality and going beyond even the extent to which they saw science as a good. To declare science as an instrument of the Holy Spirit is to give it the highest possible accolade.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Joy of the Gospel - an Anthology

Evangelium gaudii

[Very long read - but way shorter than the full Evangelii Gaudium :)]

Pope Francis has published his first extensive piece of writing as pope today - the apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" - "The Joy of the Gospel."1 It is a 48K+ word text, written originally in Spanish and hailed by many already as the blueprint for his papacy, and all I'd like to do for now is just share with you some of my favorite parts of this text, to which I am sure to return many more times. I will not attempt to be comprehensive and will certainly skip also important parts of this document, which I encourage you to read in full. Instead, the following will be an anthology - a collection of flowers - that most immediately spoke to me.
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. (§2)

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. (§6)

Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. (§7)

The heart of [the Gospel] message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ. (§11)

Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”. (§14)

[I don't] believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”. (§16)

Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: “You will be blessed if you do this” (Jn 13:17). An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. (§24)

Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. (§32)

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. [... To] reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing. (§35)

[I]t needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching. For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word. (§38)

The Church is herself a missionary disciple; she needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help “the judgment of the Church to mature”. The other sciences also help to accomplish this, each in its own way. (§40)

[T]oday’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. “The deposit of the faith is one thing... the way it is expressed is another”. There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning”. (§41)

Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way. (§46)

Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. (§47)

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. [...] More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). (§49)

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. (§53)

True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness. (§88)

A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. [...] In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of self-help and self-realization. It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution. The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed. (§94-95)

[W]e waste time talking about “what needs to be done” – in Spanish we call this the sin of “habriaqueísmo” – like spiritual masters and pastoral experts who give instructions from on high. We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people. (§96)

God save us from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings! This stifling worldliness can only be healed by breathing in the pure air of the Holy Spirit who frees us from self-centredness cloaked in an outward religiosity bereft of God. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the Gospel! (§97)

The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel. (§114)

When properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity. The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, transforms our hearts and enables us to enter into the perfect communion of the blessed Trinity, where all things find their unity. He builds up the communion and harmony of the people of God. The same Spirit is that harmony, just as he is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. It is he who brings forth a rich variety of gifts, while at the same time creating a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony. (§117)

We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ. (§118)

A theology [...] which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups. (§133)

[B]oth [the faithful] and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! (§135)

If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention. (§138)

Dialogue is much more than the communication of a truth. It arises from the enjoyment of speaking and it enriches those who express their love for one another through the medium of words. This is an enrichment which does not consist in objects but in persons who share themselves in dialogue. A preaching which would be purely moralistic or doctrinaire, or one which turns into a lecture on biblical exegesis, detracts from this heart-to-heart communication which takes place in the homily and possesses a quasi-sacramental character. [...] In the homily, truth goes hand in hand with beauty and goodness. Far from dealing with abstract truths or cold syllogisms, it communicates the beauty of the images used by the Lord to encourage the practise of good. (§142)

Whenever we stop and attempt to understand the message of a particular text, we are practising “reverence for the truth”. (§146)

If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; if it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news. (§147)

In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. The kerygma is trinitarian. The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (§164)

Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. (§167)

To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity”. To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a social dimension because “God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men”. To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable”. Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit. The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fulfilment or salvation purely by our own efforts. (§178)

We know that God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfilment in eternity, for he has created all things “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17), the enjoyment of everyone. (§182)

Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual. (§189)

The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat”, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf. Mt 25:5ff.). (§197)

No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: “Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbour, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone”. (§201)
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills. (§202)

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded. (§204)

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (§208)

I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour. Let us not look the other way. (§211)

Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life. (§213)

[T]ime is greater than space. This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. (§222-223)

The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. [...] Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. (§235-236)

Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other.(§242)

As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation. (§257)

Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection. (§276)

On the cross, when Jesus endured in his own flesh the dramatic encounter of the sin of the world and God’s mercy, he could feel at his feet the consoling presence of his mother and his friend. At that crucial moment, before fully accomplishing the work which his Father had entrusted to him, Jesus said to Mary: “Woman, here is your son”. Then he said to his beloved friend: “Here is your mother” (Jn 19:26-27). These words of the dying Jesus are not chiefly the expression of his devotion and concern for his mother; rather, they are a revelatory formula which manifests the mystery of a special saving mission. Jesus left us his mother to be our mother. Only after doing so did Jesus know that “all was now finished” (Jn  19:28). (§285)

Blessed Isaac of Stella: “Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul”. (§285)

Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves. (§288)
There will be much to reflect on here,2 but for now, let me just say: Thank you, Pope Francis!

1 Note, that his previous encyclical - Lumen Fidei - was mostly written by Benedict XVI.
2 For now, let me just make one observation: I'd say at least 80% of what is here is either directly from Francis’ morning sermons at the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ or very much an elaboration on them. If you ever needed any more reasons to follow them, it's this: they are previews of his future encyclicals.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A Year of Faith

Yof wordle

The Year of Faith, that triggered my writing this blog is coming to an end this Sunday, which makes this a good moment for retrospective. The last 17 months have been a great opportunity for me to reflect on my faith, seek to understand others and to look both for the reinforcement of good, wherever it came from, and an attempt to debunk confusion, emanating from a full spectrum of sources.

The 31,800 times that my blog was viewed have meant a sense of connection for me both with those of you whom I know to be my readers and who are also my friends in "real life" and those whom I have never met and am unlikely to ever meet. More than half of you have accessed my blog from the US, with the UK, Slovakia, Spain and Russia being the next most frequent sources of readership. Having readers from Germany, Latvia, Poland, Italy and France has also been a surprise and a source of joy.

Having had two of my posts picked up by Luke Coppen at The Catholic Herald in the UK, having triggered lively discussions following some post and having had great face-to-face chats with friends in response to my posts, have been highlights in terms of "customer relations management" (eurgh - I'll have to wash my mouth now!).

Looking at the ten most-read posts (from among a total of 179 - all of which you can download as a single PDF here), also shows a satisfying mix of faith, art, maths, sanctity and science:
  1. Pope Francis’ letter to non-believers (1132 views - picked up by The Catholic Herald, reflecting on Francis’ letter to Scalfari)
  2. Pope Francis: Pope Francis: "Brothers and sisters, good evening!" (355 views - written during the night after his election, translating a sermon he gave as Cardinal and quoting from his book with Rabbi Skorka)
  3. Camus on dialogue, revolt, beauty and love (332 views - picked up by The Catholic Herald, collecting fragments from a variety of Camus’ writings)
  4. An atheist creed (306 views - a critique of Dawkins’ The God Delusion that triggered great dialogue and a sincere appreciation of atheists on my part)
  5. Contemporary art and its enemies (292 views - in revolt against an argument in favor of returning to past church-architectural and artistic forms)
  6. A universe from nothing (207 views - an argument for the compatibility of latest scientific theories on cosmogenesis with Church teaching)
  7. Does the word “infinity” make you uncomfortable? (189 views - one of a series of counterarguments against the Faith and Reason column in the Our Faith on Sunday leaflets)
  8. Igino Giordani: the oxymoron of a catholic party (180 views - reflections on the memoirs of a great Italian politician, writer and saint-in-the-making)
  9. What is a holy person like? (162 views - a synthesis of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ great talk about saints)
  10. Ascending the mountain (153 views - on the last days of Pope Benedict XVI in office)
Even though the Year of Faith is coming to an end, I shall continue with my occasional blog posts here, since I have found writing them to be a good way for me to order and clarify my own thoughts and since I know some of you have found them not displeasing.

Thank you :)

Faith in science


A couple of days ago I saw Prof. Steven Pinker tweet about an article (“No Faith in Science”) by Prof. Jerry Coyne, who argues that science does not involve faith. I was curious to see whether Coyne would come up with a convincing argument or whether the piece was going to be a rather ill-informed rant against religion (as has been the case previously).

My summary of Coyne’s argument - and do read it in full if you are that way inclined - is the following:
  1. Religious faith is “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person” (Walter Kaufmann), “involves pretending to know things you don’t” and is “wish-thinking.” The term “faith” used in the context of science is “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.” In other words faith when applied to religion is delusional pretense while when applied to science it is rational confidence. “The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.””
  2. Confidence in a scientist’s statements “is based on the doubt and criticism inherent in science (but not religion): the understanding that their expertise has been continuously vetted by other [scientists]. In contrast, a priest’s claims about God are no more demonstrable than anyone else’s. We know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago.” Science is advancing while religion is arbitrary and static.
  3. Science is built on evidence while religion can’t be: “There is strong evidence for the Higgs boson, whose existence was confirmed last year by two independent teams using a giant accelerator and rigorous statistical analysis. But there isn’t, and never will be, any evidence for [religious claims].”
  4. “The orderliness of nature—the set of so-called natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation.”
  5. In summary - and in Richard Dawkinswords - Coyne argues that “There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.”
Since I completely disagree with the above, let me try to be explicit about my reasons, which will be made from my perspective as a Catholic (and scientist), but many features of which also apply to believers of other religions (and practitioners of other rational pursuits):
  1. Let’s first look at the Kaufmann definition: religious faith as “usually confident” and insufficient to “command assent from every reasonable person.” Here I’d first like to point to the pervasive presence of doubt in Christianity - starting right with the apostles themselves (Thomas being the obvious choice, but the rest of them were an equally incredulous lot too, much to Jesus’ frustration :) and explicit in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in its opening paragraphs says: “Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. [...] We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations” (§40-42). Far from being over-confident, this opening caveat sounds eminently transparent and humble to me. Turning to the second feature of the Kaufmann definition, I struggle to think of many things that “command assent from every reasonable person” - least of all new scientific theories or even observations of phenomena that appear contradictory of the accepted science of the day. One could argue that such an attitude - of cautious assent - is good and is a feature of being critical. That is all well, but then it becomes problematic to use it as a test of reasonableness of faith. Finally, let’s look at the claim that scientists don’t make statements like “I have faith in evolution.” That may well be, but slight variants like “I believe evolution to be true,” or “I consider evolution to be a likely mechanism accounting for the variety of changing life-forms on Earth” are much easier to come by. Is Coyne arguing that the specific grammar and vocabulary of “I have faith in ...” has some special features that its alternative formulations don’t?
  2. Next, there is the juxtaposition of “unevidenced belief” with “justified confidence.” Here I’d like to argue that beliefs, assumptions, working hypotheses, views, etc. of both scientific and religious nature can easily fall into these two categories. As a scientist, my adherence to theories whose consistency with observation I have not tested can be as much based on authority and tradition (I read them in text books and other scientists also hold them to be true), as those of a religious person with regard to the teachings of their faith. Conversely, many of my beliefs are very much backed up by evidence: that the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7), that walking an extra mile (Matthew 5:41) or welcoming strangers (Matthew 25:35) are sources of joy, or that the pinnacle of love is self-sacrifice (John 15:13). I believe these not because someone has tricked me or made me believe them, but because I have experienced their truth. This is not to say that religious faith and the beliefs that form part of science are the same - they are not - but just to argue that the line is not between the two but among different beliefs in both.
  3. The claim that “we know no more now about the divine than we did 1,000 years ago” may well be true for a “we” that includes Coyne, but certainly not for a “we” that includes me or a vast number of Christians. Christianity is in constant flux and if a Catholic from 500 years ago time-travelled to the present day, they would be stunned by many of the features of present-day Christianity. The Church’s teachings change constantly based on the experiences of her members trying to put Jesus’ words into practice. For a simple, but very specific, example, see a previous post, and for a greater variety, just take a look at a number of statements made by Pope Francis over the last months - causing a stir with regard to atheists, homosexuals, the poor, etc. - even the cross he uses is a source of controversy, which couldn’t exist if Catholics were just a bunch of nodding sheep. To look at all that and say that there is no change in religion is plain irrational.
  4. Arguing from “giant accelerator[s] and rigorous statistical analysis” is just scarily naïve. Statistics is all about compliance with assumptions (about populations, sampling, distributions, ...) and the scale of a device has no bearing on its capacity to access the truth. The scary thing to me here is the underlying naïveté by virtue of which observation is considered to be about the “given” (data) instead of realizing that it is all about the “taken.” There is no observation without theory (language itself being theory laden) - what you are looking for, how you measure, are a consequence of what your expectations are and the result can either be consistency or inconsistency (where in the latter case the theory can be revised or the content of observation questioned). This is not meant as a criticism - the process leads to progress and great understanding, but just as an emphasizing of observation and measurement not starting from scratch or being an independent entity with respect to theory.
  5. Finally, let’s look at the claim that the “orderliness of nature is not an assumption but an observation.” Beyond the implicit challenges of observation, I’d ask about what observation or observations result in the belief in orderliness, repeatability, the uniformity of the laws of nature? For this universally-quantified claim to be attributable to a finite set of observation, requires an assumption or even a belief in finite observations lending credence to the nature of other observations of greater cardinality and holding under conditions for which no observations were made (e.g., in the past) or for which no observations can be made (e.g. the future). Again, this is not a criticism of science - making the assumption of orderliness and repeatability is a useful and rational thing to do (it is inherent to rationality itself), but it is not a consequence of observation. Instead, it is a precursor. Without such a belief or assumption, observation would be pointless.
Ultimately it is up to you to decide for yourself whether my arguments above - the arguments of a Catholic - are “intense, usually confident, belief[s] that [are] not based on evidence,” “supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation,” or whether they make recourse to “evidence and logic” and can therefore co-exist happily with scientific convictions.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Grayson Perry: the stealth spirituality of art

4 our mother by grayson perry1

Before I say anything else, I have to come clean and declare that I am a huge fan of Grayson Perry both as an artist and as a thinker (and I don’t mean to suggest that those are separate facets of Perry, but only to emphasize the prominence of reflection in his work). I have first encountered his pottery when he won the Turner Prize in 2003, then I immensely enjoyed his three-part Channel 4 series “All In The Best Possible Taste” - where I was not only impressed by the tapestries he created as the product of his analysis of the tastes of different classes in British society, but very much also by his ability to relate with such immediacy to all he met in the process - and finally I have delighted in his Reith lectures both due to their tremendously entertaining form (the whip-cracking sounds of the second lecture, his pronunciation of Duchamp [DushomP] and his jovial laughter being highlights) and their partly ironic/satirical and partly sincere, profound, spiritual content.

If you have any interest in art whatsoever, I highly recommend the lectures, which can be found at the BBC 4 website both in audio an transcribed textual form. There, Perry will take you through his thoughts on what art is versus is not, what makes good art, what the position of art and artist is in contemporary society and what it is like to become and be an artist. If you are looking for formulaic answers or even definitions, you’ll be disappointed, but if you are willing to be lead through the warren of insights into and critiques of the “art world” that Perry masterfully moulds together, you will come away greatly enriched.

Instead of attempting a synthesis or even just a walk-through of my favorite bits, let me only focus on a single aspect of Perry’s Reith lectures: the tension between the irony of the art world and the sincerity that is the source of art. Both are effected by artists, yet they stand in opposition to each other.

In Lecture 3, Perry first presents the pitfalls of irony (whose application copiously peppers all four of his lectures):
“[D]etached irony has become the kind of default mode of our time in the art world. And you know I think it can be problematic. [... Tracey Thorn describes the problem of irony as follows:] “It is difficult for people in the arts to be entirely sincere about things without looking like they have not thought about it properly.” The problem with irony is that it assumes the position of being the end result, from having looked at it from both sides and have a very sophisticated take on everything. So the danger of eschewing irony is that you look as though you’ve not thought hard enough about it and that you’re being a bit simplistic. [...] Me, I have to sort of protect myself against this because when I’m out in the evening and I’m with my mates and I’m being terribly cynical and ironic; but when I want to look at art, I want to have a sincere one to one experience with it because I am a serious artist. I’ve dedicated my life to it. So I go to exhibitions in the morning on my own when I can go, hmn, and you know maybe have a little bit of a moment. (LAUGHTER) I have to protect my tender parts from that wicked irony. And perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity.”
By considering irony to be a sign of reflection and careful though, it becomes an expected feature of an artist’s response to art. Yet, at the same time, irony is an inhibitor of sincerity and to the forming of genuine connections with art or with others. The artist is expected to be externally ironic while internally sincere and the danger of the former taking over and stifling the latter is a concern for Perry.

Towards the end of Lecture 4 and then in response to a question from the audience, Perry elaborates further:
I have a list of banned words: passionate, spiritual, profound. I mean these are all words I could describe - this tender part of me, the tender part that many artists have, you know what keeps them going - but I have an acute allergy to cliches [...] and I have to protect that part of me from becoming a cliché. [... Jennifer Yane expressed it by saying:] “Art is spirituality in drag.” [... It’s] the idea that it’s a kind of performance of spirituality, it’s a dressing up, and it’s kind of like a way to accessing spirituality perhaps by stealth almost - you know being tricked into all the colour and loveliness of the art. You know we look at it and suddenly we’re having a spiritual moment, you know. But, like I say, I’m not allowed to talk … [...] But the metaphor that [...] best describes what it’s like for me being an artist is a refuge, a place inside my head where I can go on my own and process the world and its complexities. It’s a kind of inner shed in which I can lose myself.
There are a couple of points that I really like about what Perry says here. First, that it is the “tender,” inner part of his self that drives his art, which very much reminds me (no, not of Martin Parr) of Kandinsky, who characterizes art as the consequence of an inner necessity. Second, that Perry is protective of this innermost tenderness and sincerity, since he considers their expression to be of importance - to be serious. Third, the at first jarring expression of art being “spirituality in drag”1 actually makes great sense, as explained by Perry: aesthetics and the superficial, at-first-sight are the means by which the profound, innermost, spiritual are smuggled past irony, much like Odysseus’ strapping sheep furs on his back let him escape the cyclops Polyphemus’ abattoir. In many ways, Perry himself comes across as a personification of this definition of art, with a form that has an element of wink-wink, nudge-nudge and hyperbole, but with a substance that is tender, spiritual and profound.

1 Grayson Perry being a transvestite (in a tradition whose roots reach back at least to Ancient Greek theatre, where all characters of the period’s seminal tragedies and comedies were played by male actors, via the pepperpots of Monty Python fame) adds to the poignancy of this definition.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A week in the Early Church

San felipe

A return to Her earliest times has been a recurring theme throughout the history of the Church, who periodically realizes that deviations have crept into Her life and in whom a desire wells up to regain Her initial purity, authenticity and simplicity. This does not have to mean a traditionalism or a denial of the Holy Spirit's action in the present, and can instead be a push forward and the legitimate wish to embody Tertullian’s epithet of Christians: "See how they love one another," which echoes Jesus’ own words: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35).

While I have always thought of the above as a parallel to what Kuhn refers to as paradigm shifts in the development of science, this last week has shown me that the Early Church is alive and well today too. The week spent with my überbestie PM, attending masses at the church of San Felipe de Neri in Old Town Albuquerque has been an experience of participating in the life of a Church, who is family and community and among whom Jesus walks today. I am careful not to call it a journey back in time, since this community was very much tuned into the present, and I'd say it was more like a journey into the future by the Early Church of the apostles and their followers instead.

What made the profound nature of this community come to the fore was a tragic event early last week, when one of the parishioners arrived before mass in great distress. From what I could gather it may have been her husband's death or the loss of another loved one that made her suffer. What happened next moved me very deeply: One by one almost all the other parishioners approached her, embraced her, kissed and hugged her and exchanged a couple of words of consolation with her. Among the first was the wife of a married deacon, whom I saw read the Gospel the previous Sunday, who not only went to console the grieving parishioner, but who then proceeded to pass by several others - stroking their backs, greeting them, smiling at them. The deacon too approached her and made sure that the parish priest knew about the death and prayed for the deceased during the Eucharistic prayer.

The next day saw a similar scene, of the whole parish gathering around Her suffering member, enveloping her with warmth and love.

I felt a tremendous sense of intimacy among the parishioners, the kind of which I have never seen in a parish. Yet, there was no sense of exclusivity and I felt like a part of the family instead of the stranger who I objectively was.

To avoid giving the sense that the above is a rose-tinted, lyrical view of last week's events, let me be clear: I did not think this parish was perfect. There was plenty to be critical of: some of the sermons, some of the readers' theatrics, some of the off-key singing (including my own :), the esthetics of the church building and more besides.

None of that mattered though as this was as close to experiencing the Mystical Body of Christ as I ever have in a parish context. Being filled with an acute sense of the sacred is the dominant memory I'll take away with me, as is the determination to strive towards building relationships like the ones I saw last week in Albuquerque in my own parish.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Death and resurrection

FrancisFerula3 zpsc3324b49

Imagine what the most offensive, sacrilegious and vile depiction of Jesus could be. Now look at the staff (a “ferula”) that Pope Francis holds in the above photo. Is that what you expected? I hope not, but if you googled “pope francis new ferula,” all you’d find is outrage, offence and adjectives like “misconceived,” “bizarre,” “ugly,” “offensive,” “nasty” and “profane.” Not only would these be outliers further down the search results, but it would be literally all you’d find - and I spent a couple of days trying to find anything positive at all about this new liturgical object used by Pope Francis.

So, why is it that this staff causes so much offense? If you abstract away the, sadly, harsh language of the reactions published so far, by sources who self-apply the “traditionalist” label, the root of the outrage is the depiction of the risen Christ instead of the crucified one. In most cases this is presented as being self-evidently an aberration, and one of the sources points to an encyclical by Pope Pius XII and quotes the following fragment:
““ would be straying from the straight path ... were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings” (Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, par. 62).”
When I saw this, I immediately thought: “Great! Finally something specific and something that is likely to be usable against the new staff’s detractors.” As with most fanatics, their quoting of scriptures or other texts tends to be very selective and even just the immediate neighborhood of their snippets is likely to be their undoing. The same scenario applies here, if you look at the expanded quote below, still just staying within paragraph 62 and the opening sentence of paragraph 63 of Pius XII’s Mediator Dei:
“Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings [...] 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.”
Before looking at the point about crucifixes that vexes Francis’ detractors, let’s just look at Pius XII’s categorical denunciation of traditionalism! The Holy Spirit is constantly active in the Church and more recent elaborations of teaching supersede older ones. By his own words, Pius XII is setting the scope of his own teaching to expire upon being superseded by that of his successors, so even if his words had been in conflict with Francis’ staff, Francis actions would take precedent and would do so by Pius XII’s own teaching.

Now, let’s think about what Pius XII actually said about crucifixes, where he objects to them being “so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings.” Is he saying that the risen Christ mustn’t be depicted? Not at all. Only that the corpus shall show the traces of crucifixion torture, which early crucifixes did not show. Up until the early 5th century, only crosses and not crucifixes (i.e., crosses with a corpus) were used - and even those only sparsely. The next period then saw depictions of Jesus’ body on crosses, but in the form of unrealistic representations, like the following one, which is among the earliest ones:

Crucifixion earliest narrative rep ivory casket 420 30 rome brit museum

Here Jesus is upright, looking ahead, showing strength. What is Pius XII saying though? That our 5th century brothers and sisters were “straying from the straight path”? Certainly not! Only that if we imitated them in the misguided belief of the past having been a truer, purer, more genuine Christianity, we would be the ones straying and denying the Holy Spirit.

So, my reading of Pius XII is that we are to be open to the Holy Spirit now and that he underlined the importance of depicting the signs of the crucifixion horrors in crucifixes. Let’s now take a closer look at Francis’ new staff - the “crux gloriosa” and examine more closely the choices made by its author, the Roman sculptor Maurizio Lauri:

Papa francesco croce cimasa cera 3

From the above wax cast of the staff, it can clearly be seen that Jesus’ body bears the “trace[s] of His cruel sufferings” - his wrists are pierced,1 his side shows a swollen stab wound, his hands look mangled. This is not the Christus victor depiction of the first nine centuries, but instead a form that incorporates the “Christus mortuus” features whose importance Pius XII insisted upon too.

I believe the crucifix on Pope Francis’ new ferula displays a great degree of continuity with the last two millennia of depicting Jesus’ passion (incidentally, in a particular way with the San Damiano cross through which St. Francis heard Jesus speak to him). While clearly showing that Jesus’ execution on the cross was barbaric and crushing, it also depicts the inexorable link between this suffering, which Jesus underwent out of love, and the resurrection that followed it and that engenders mercy, hope and joy. Rather than in any way negating the monumental scale of Jesus’ suffering, the Lauri ferula projects it towards the resurrection that followed His excruciating death. It seems to me like Lauri was giving form to St. Paul saying: “we do see Jesus crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death” (Hebrews 2:9).

Finally, I have also been struck by the provenance of the materials used for making the Lauri ferula. The staff and crucifix atop it are made of mahogany, bronze and silver, where the metals were mined by Goldlake - an Italian company operating in Honduras and working to explicitly ethical standards, in partnership with local churches in both countries. During the presentation of the ferula to Franics, the CEO of Goldlake - Giuseppe Colaiacovo, explained: “Your holiness [...] we would like to present you with this object, made from the materials of the earth, which therefore are poor materials, but which then become transformed by the artistic spirit.” Not only do I see a tremendously orthodox and historically grounded theology behind the form of the ferula, but its material provenance itself bears a positive message in itself.

1 A fact worthy of note by itself, since it is in agreement with recent research that shows how Jesus was nailed to the cross not by his palms, as is typical in depictions of the crucifixion, but by his wrists.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Divorced from reality


[Warning: long read, again :)]1

Starting this post is turning out to be more difficult than I anticipated, so, please, forgive my meta-cop-out for its opening line. I have now deleted four alternative openings - all failed attempts at arriving at the question that has been occupying me during the last several weeks. In fact, as framing the question (which tends to be halfway to answering it anyway) is the problem, I’ll tell you about its history for me instead.

One of my very best friends, SH, has once asked me (during the course of about a year’s worth of the most fantastic, enlightening - at least for me - and profound conversations) whether he, an agnostic, ought to want to believe in God. My immediate intuition at the time - and a view I still hold - was: “No.” I felt that it would be insincere to make oneself want to believe (if such a thing were even possible) and I was instead convinced that my friend was already living a life that was following Jesus’ example and if he were to become a believer it would not be as a result of setting out to do so. Put in other terms, I was not worried about my fiend and in fact considered him to be an example to me in orthopraxy (even with his lack of orthodoxy). This is the first marker in the landscape I would like to sketch out for you - an agnostic who lives by the Gospel.

Next, I’d like to bring in another strand that leads to my central question today. For a long time now I have felt a keen sense that the Church (i.e., me included!) must be open to all, welcoming of all, transmitting what Pope Francis refers to as the “warming of hearts” that Jesus’ presence effects. As a consequence, I have been very pleased by the Church’s openness towards atheists and agnostics (e.g., see Franics’ letter to Scalfari), by Her fresh attempts at engaging with homosexual persons (e.g. in Francis’ interview with Jesuit magazines) and by Her apparent concern for all who today are at Her periphery, including divorced and re-married persons (e.g., see Francis’ impromptu interview during the flight back from the Rio World Youth Day). All of this is a great source of joy to me and its opposites, which sadly still exist in the Church, pain me.

The third strand that leads to what I would like to talk about today is the perennial tension in the Church between safeguarding Jesus’ original, explicit teaching and listening to the Holy Spirit’s ever-new guidance in every present moment. Being a Christian is not about taking a piece of 2000-year-old text and solitarily reading it as a self-help book. Instead, it is membership in a body that has Jesus as its head and a vast throng of individuals - both alive today and already past their earthly pilgrimage - as its members. Starting from the apostles themselves, who saw, touched and lived with Jesus, through their followers and their followers’ followers down to the present day, this body - animated by the Holy Spirit - is the Church through whom Jesus walks the Earth today. What Jesus’ message is in 2013, is to be found here - in the Church. This means both that it is alive and dynamic and that it is - simultaneously - the same, one message that Jesus shared with his followers 2000 years ago: love your neighbors as yourself and God above all else (cf. Mark 12:30-31), give your life for your friends (John 15:13), feed the hungry, quench their thirst, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, visit prisoners (cf. Mathew 25:35-36), be peacemakers, merciful, meek (cf. Matthew 5:3-12), be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).

The fourth strand is another tension that is part of the very fabric of the Church: Her perfection set against the flaws and failings of Her members. Here it is neither my weakness that makes aiming high futile, nor the holiness of Jesus that makes Him inaccessible. Instead I can choose to allow God’s love into my life without deluding myself into taking credit for its effects or thinking of myself as superior in any way. Dr. Sylvie Barnay put this beautifully in the opening chapter of the book “La grande meretrice” (co-authored with 6 other female historians and looking at the history of the criticisms typically leveled at the Church):2
“The Church remains [...] on a journey towards sanctity, a sinner by nature, with the potential for being made perfect by grace. She is therefore neither the Church of the pure, nor a prostitute Church. She is the human Church who hopes to become divine.”
The fifth strand then is a specific confluence of the above four and gets at the specific topic that triggered this post: the challenge of how a person who got married, divorced and then (civilly) re-married participates in the life of the Church. They are not free to receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church, since they are in a state inconsistent with the indissolubility of marriage that Jesus himself taught explicitly and categorically. As such they don’t live according to, or share with the Church in terms of, an important aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. As a consequence they cannot participate in the sacrament that is both the expression of and means to the unity of the Church. This is a very painful situation for remarried divorcees who desire union with the Church in its most profound gift - the Eucharist - as it is for the whole Church, and Pope Francis has dedicated the first synod of bishops of his pontificate to it and the topic of the pastoral care of families in general.

Francis’ attention to the suffering of remarried divorcees has already lead to a lot of discussion and even to the misinterpretation of a German diocese’s contribution to this discussion as an actual permission for remarried divorcees to receive the Eucharist (immediately followed by the Vatican calling for patience ahead of the coming synod). A couple of days later, Archbishop Müller (head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) published an extensive treatise on the subject in L’Osservatore Romano. The gist of the argument is a categorical “no” to the idea of remarried divorcees receiving the Eucharist, and not only that, but a systematic closing-down of a number of potential counter-arguments and loop-holes. Müller essentially says: marriage is indissoluble as Jesus himself told us so directly and unambiguously. As such, those who act as if the sacrament of marriage were dissoluble are objectively at odds with the Church and can not participate in the sacrament that “effects and signifies” Her unity.

At first I was quite puzzled by Müller’s piece (while simultaneously being hugely impressed by the beauty of the argument’s exposition and the clarity of his thinking!) - not because I disagreed with it, on the contrary, everything he says is (as befits his job) highly orthodox and I am in full agreement with him, but because it - prima facie - flies in the face of Francis’ consistent message on this subject.

As is often the case with at-first-sight appearances, there is typically more beneath the surface. As I read Müller’s arguments, I started realizing what he is doing - he is crystalizing what the sacrament of marriage is, exposing its rock-solid foundations and being categorical about its value and centrality to Jesus’ teaching. Between the lines I hear him insisting: “The sacrament of marriage is indissoluble. Don’t look for answers to warming the hearts of remarried divorcees here. Look elsewhere!” To come up with an innovative solution, which the next synod will be devoted to and on which I believe both him and Francis are already at work, it is first essential to ensure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, that we don’t dilute Jesus’ teaching and the immeasurable treasures it contains.

In fact, reading Müller more closely also shows that he is very much concerned for remarried divorcees and for all at the Church’s periphery:
“Clearly, the care of remarried divorcees must not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist. It involves a much more wide-ranging pastoral approach, which seeks to do justice to to the different situations. It is important to realize that there are other ways, apart from sacramental communion, of being in fellowship with God. One can draw close to God by turning to him in faith, hope and charity, in repentance and prayer. God can grant his closeness and his salvation to people on different paths, even if they find themselves in a contradictory life situation.”
Far from just slamming a door shut, Müller calls for a broader view of the situation, which is also in line with another of Pope Francis’ hints on the subject. In his interview on the flight from Rio he quoted his predecessor in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Quarracino, as saying: “I consider half of today’s marriages to be invalid because people get married without realising it means forever. They do it out of social convenience, etc …” In other words, the sacrament of marriage is indissoluble, but not all that looks like sacramental marriage is - or indeed ever was - sacramental marriage. In light of this angle, Müller’s demarcation of marriage and reinforcement of its absolute indissolubility make great sense, as part to a new approach to determining whether in a given instance marriage was ever entered into or not.

I have to say I feel greatly encouraged by all of the above developments and by other statements that Pope Francis has made recently, underlining the sacramental, vocational nature and profound value of marriage. In fact, speaking to a group of young people in Assisi about a month ago, he was very explicit: “[Marriage] is a true and authentic vocation, as are the priesthood and the religious life.” I wholeheartedly agree, but I also think that this statement points to an elephant in the room: if marriage is a vocation like the priesthood and religious life, how come there is such a vast gap between how one prepares for it versus the other vocations. Entering a religious order involves years spent in preparation, passing through various forms of novitiate, being followed by a spiritual director, with the outcome not being a guaranteed admission to the order. Preparation for the priesthood is equally lengthy, with years of study, practical and spiritual preparation and discernment being exercised both by the candidate and the Church’s hierarchy. Marriage instead can be had within a matter of weeks (months at most - if we include the challenges of booking the reception venue :|) and after attending a variable number of “preparation” sessions with a total duration in single digit hours. Yet, once the sacrament is enacted, it is binding for life! No surprise that great suffering can come from such a lopsided and inadequate process.

I clearly don’t mean to say that no couple properly prepares for the sacrament of marriage, since I know many who have, but only that if it does, it is so independently of the marriage preparation provided by the Church. Maybe it would be better for fewer marriages to be entered into and for these to be the result of a couple’s response to a call from God to follow Him as a family, instead of the easy access + heavy penalties model in place today. While writing this, I hear alarm bells in my head though, reminding me that it is imperative for the Church to be open and welcoming to all and the challenge remains of how to achieve such openness while following the path Jesus has shown us.

1 Many thanks to my überbestie, PM, for the great chats we have had about this and related topics.
2 The crude translation from Italian here is all mine, as the book is, sadly, not available in English.