Friday, 28 March 2014

The brawl

Meissonier la rixe s

The Church is often criticized for requiring mindless obedience and for seeking uniformity instead of fostering an exploration of alternatives in pursuit of greater understanding and insight.

Well, I’d say that recent events ought to lay such prejudices to rest. Instead of singing from the same hymn sheet, in robotic unison, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church look more like a bunch of brawlers than the yes-men of a pontifical monarch. Instead of being of one voice, these princes of the Church are engrossed in an escalating game of fisticuffs where argument and counter-argument are generously interlaced with genteel-sounding, but under-the-hood, razor-sharp ad hominem jabs.

Before we look at the implications of this verbal brawl, or jump to its denunciation, let’s take a quick look at some of the punches that have been thrown so far. The examples I’ll refer to next all come from the run-up to this year’s synod on the family, in the context of which there is a particularly controversial topic - whether those who got divorced and subsequently civilly re-married could be admitted to the Eucharist, which sustains and strengthens, while also expressesing unity. I don’t mean to go into the question itself here,1 but it is useful to have at least an idea of the topic for the following quotes to make some sense.

The scene for our brawl has been set by Pope Francis himself, when - in the off-the-cuff interview on the flight back from the World Youth Day in Rio - he indicated a desire to look at “the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage,” including the “issue of giving communion to persons in a second union.” At the same time as making these remarks, Francis also pre-announced the family as the theme of the next bishops’ synod.

As soon as word came out about Francis’ desire to review this topic, the German diocese of Freiburg published a set of guidelines that essentially assumed that divorcees will be admitted to the Eucharist (while later denying such an interpretation and arguing that they were merely making a “contribution” to the discussion ...). In any case, a couple of days later, the the then-Archbishop (now, by Francis’ choice a cardinal - make a mental note of this) Müller published an extensive article on the “care of remarried divorcees” in L’Osservatore Romano, where he sets out the teaching of the Church as it stands, doing - in my opinion - a great job of being very clear, structured and direct, while also compassionate and seeking new solutions.

It is this article by Müller that lit the fuse of our verbal brawl - probably best thought of as a drawing of a line in the sand rather than a flying chair, but nonetheless very much part of the proceedings.

The first punch to kick off the brawl proper then comes from Cardinal Maradiaga - head of Franics’ council of eight cardinals, who had the following to say when asked about Müller’s move in an interview for the German daily Kölner Stads-Anzeiger:
“Yes, I have read it. And I thought: “OK, maybe you are right, but maybe not.” I mean, he is a German - yes, I have to say it, and he is a Professor on top of that, a German professor of theology. With his mentality there is only right and wrong, that’s it. But I say: “The world, my brother, the world is not like that. You should be a bit flexible, when you hear other voices, so that you don’t just listen to them and say, no, here is the wall.” So, I believe, he’ll get there, to understand other views. But now he is just at the beginning, he listens only to his advisers.”
Yikes! Next, Maradiaga is quickly backed up by Cardinal Marx - another of the council of 8, saying that Müller “cannot stop the discussions.”

A couple of months later, a new pocket of altercation starts, following a talk by Cardinal Kasper addressed to the college of cardinals, on the behest of pope Francis, in which he outlines possible conditions under which remarried divorcees might be admitted to communion. As an aside, with these two texts - Müller’s exposition of the current status and Kasper’s speculation about possible new alternatives, both of which were made to order by the pope, Francis nicely brackets the discussion in the upcoming synod, ensuring both a clear picture of where we are and making sure that there are courageous new proposals in play.

Hot on the heels of Kasper’s talk, Cardinal Caffarra states, in an interview for the Italian Il Foglio, that Kasper’s proposal “negates the foundations of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.”

And finally, pulling an ace from his sleeve, Cardinal Müller (now no longer Archbishop), puts his foot down one more time, in response to a question from Vatican Radio about where he stands in the debate about remarried divorcees:
“I don’t participate [in this debate] as a private theologian, but by exercising my office. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [whose head Müller is] is the only Roman congregation that participates immediately in the pope’s magisterium, while others, who join in here, even if they are cardinals, simply speak for themselves personally and cannot make official pronouncements.”
Take that, Maradiaga! [Just kidding, your Eminence.]

This may not sound like much, but recent decades have seen nothing like any of the above direct jabs of one cardinal at another. While a possible reaction is horror and disappointment at a lack of unity among the cardinals, I would like to argue that the above is not in itself negative and may even be positive. The stakes are high here as there is an opportunity for the Church to better transmit God’s mercy, while having to ensure that she doesn’t, in the process, trample on the treasures handed to her by Jesus. That cardinals feel passionate about one alternative versus another is, I believe, a good thing, as is the fact that they are being serious about thinking the alternatives through. This is certainly not a show trial, or a staged “conversation” - the players mean it and that is as it should be. It is also good that the discussion spills out into the media, since the cardinals have an opportunity here to give an example for how serious discussion among peers should be conducted. If they just kept themselves out of the open, the result would appear simply as a dictate, received from the pope and blindly recited by his minions. Like this, we at least see a bit of the process in action. And finally, the only caveat to these differences of opinion being a good thing that I’d like to put on the table comes from Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium:
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. 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.” (§40)

1 For its discussion see an earlier post, as well as two posts on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to the latest consistory of cardinals here and here.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Francis fights fundamentalism

20110311 gor chakhal

A new book by Pope Francis, entitled “Beauty will teach the world,” was published today in Italian and the daily La Repubblica has already released an excerpt. There Francis speaks out against fundamentalism, and while his thoughts are very much along the lines of the understanding of truth that he laid out in the letter to Scalfari, their freshness and forcefulness expand the scope and intensity of the previous sketch. Since I haven’t found an English translation yet, the following is my own, rough attempt.

In the published excerpt, Francis starts with an analysis of fundamentalism, portrayed as a flavor of insecurity and cowardice:
“What is apparent is the fact that during the course of history there has been an explosion, and there continues to be an explosion also today, of fundamentalisms. At their heart, these systems of thought and conduct are absolutely outdated, mummified, and serve as bunkers. Fundamentalism grows from the rigidity of a single thought, inside which a person protects itself from sources of instability (and from crises) in exchange for a certain existential calm. Fundamentalism does not allow for shades of meaning or second thoughts, simply because it is afraid and - specifically - it is afraid of the truth. The person who hides in fundamentalism is someone who is afraid to set out on a journey in search of truth. They already “possess” the truth, they have already acquired it and used it as a defensive means; therefore they experience each discussion as personal aggression.”
Francis then presents an alternative view of the truth - not as defense mechanism and aggression, but as a shared gift, very much reminiscent also of Dr. Slipper’s paper on “cognition by mutual reflection”:
“Our relationship to the truth isn’t static, because the Supreme Truth is infinite and can always be known better; it is always possible to immerse oneself into greater depth in it. The apostle Peter asks of Christians to be ready to “give an explanation”1 of their hope; which means that the truth, on which we base existence, must open itself to dialogue, to the difficulties that others show us or that circumstances present us with. Truth is always “reasonable,” even when I may not be, and the challenge is to remain open to the point of view of the other, without turning our convictions into an immovable whole. Dialogue does not mean relativism, but a “logos” that is shared, reason that offers itself in love, to build together a reality that is more and more liberating every time.”
Dialogue therefore fosters a sharing in truth and freedom, built on mutual openness, and Francis proceeds to project the consequences of such an attitude even further, calling it a “virtuous cycle”:
“In this virtuous cycle, dialogue uncovers the truth and the truth is nourished by dialogue. Careful listening, respectful silence, sincere empathy, an authentic making oneself available to the stranger and the other, are essential virtues that are to be fostered and transmitted in today’s world. God himself calls us to dialogue, he calls and summons us by his Word, the Word that has abandoned every nest and shelter to make itself human.”
Dialogue is presented here not only as something that is a good thing to do, but - for Christians - as a direct call from God and an example set by Him, which in turn opens new dimensions:
“As a result, three, intimately interlinked, dimensions of dialogue appear: one between the person and God - the one that we Christians call prayer, one among human beings themselves, and a third one, of dialogue with oneself. Through these three dimensions the truth grows, consolidates itself and extends over time. [...] At this point we have to ask ourselves: what do we mean by the truth? Seeking the truth is different from finding formulae for possessing and manipulating it to one’s own liking.”
An aspect of the above that I particularly like is the order in which Francis presents the dimensions of dialogue: God, others, self ... With this framework in place, he proceeds to emphasize the role of humility in the quest for truth:
“The search involves the totality of the person and of being. It is a journey that fundamentally involves humility. With the firm conviction that no one is sufficient for themselves and that it is dehumanizing to use others as means for being sufficient for oneself, the search for the truth embarks on this laborious journey, often artisanal, with a humble heart that refuses to quench its thirst with standing waters.

A fundamentalist “possession” of the truth lacks humility: it tries to impose itself on others by a gesture that, in and of itself, is self-defensive. The search for truth does not quench the roaring thirst. An awareness of “wise ignorance”2 lets us continually restart the journey. A “wise ignorance” that, with life’s experiences, becomes “learned.” We can affirm without fear that the truth isn’t had, is not possessed: it is encountered. For us to desire it, it must cease to be the one that can be possessed. The truth opens itself, uncovers itself to those who - in turn - open themselves to her. The word truth, precisely in its Greek sense of aletheia, suggests that which manifests itself, that which uncovers itself, that which reveals itself by means of a miraculous and gratuitous apparition. The Hebrew sense, instead, of the term emet, unites the meaning of the true with that of the certain, stable, that which does not lie or deceive. The truth, therefore, has a dual connotation: it is a manifestation of the essence of things and persons, that in their opening up of their innermost selves give us the certainty of their authenticity, the reliable proof that invites us to believe in them.”
How does such a concept of certainty mesh with the humility Francis called for earlier on?
“Such certainty is humble, because it simply “lets the other be” it its manifestation, and does not subject it to our needs or demands. This is the first justice that we owe others and ourselves: to accept the truth of what we are, to tell the truth of what we think. Our painful political history has tried many times to gag them. Very often the use of euphemisms has anesthetized us or made us fall asleep before her. But, the time has come to rejoin, to twin ourselves with the truth that needs to be announced prophetically, with justice authentically restored. Justice only springs forth when the circumstances, that we are betrayed and deceived by in our historical destiny, are called by their names. And by doing this, we accomplish one of the principal services of responsibility due to future generations.”
The above seems very clear to me: the need for dialogue and humility that Francis starts out with is motivated by the need for an honest understanding and acceptance of reality, whose denial and distortion otherwise go against the good of all. To conclude the excerpt, Francis pulls back from truth, to reveal her sisters - goodness and beauty:
“The truth is never found by herself. Together with her there are goodness and beauty. Or, better put, the Truth is good and beautiful. An Argentinian thinker used to say: “A truth that is not entirely good always hides some goodness that is not entirely true.” I insist: these three go together and it is neither possible to find nor seek one without the others. It is a reality that is very different from the simple “possession of truth” claimed by fundamentalism: they take formulae in and of themselves as valid, emptied of goodness and beauty, and they try to impose themselves on others with aggression and violence, doing evil and conspiring against life itself.”
As soon as a proper translation becomes available, I’ll point to it here, but I hope that even my broken attempts at rendering Pope Francis’ thoughts in English will give you a sense of his concerns and his positioning of the truth as part of a set with goodness and beauty and as a gift received with others in response to openness, dialogue and a journey shared.

1 “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15)
2 I guess this is in reference to the Socratic: “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Plato, Apology 21d)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Serra: space in the flesh

Serra threats of hell

[Warning: long read - again]

It might seem strange to start a post about the sculptor Richard Serra by referring to Pope Francis’ homily from last Friday morning, but I hope you’ll bear with me while I do it anyway and that you won’t interpret it as an attempt to imbue Serra’s work with religious motives, which I believe it does not have. Instead, my reason for starting out with the following quote is that I believe both Richard Serra and Pope Francis give great importance to physicality, as is apparent from the examination of conscience proposed here by the pope and as I will try to spell out in greater detail with regard to Serra’s work:
“Am I embarrassed by the flesh of my brother or sister? When I give alms, do I let the coins fall without touching his hand? And if by chance I touch him, do I do this? [he asked mimicking a gesture of repulsion with his hand] When I give alms, do I look my brother or sister in the eyes? When I know a person is sick do I visit him or her? Do I greet them with tenderness?”
That the pope emphasizes physicality - using the word “flesh” 13 times last Friday morning - is, I believe, motivated by a desire to counter the ever-recurrent dualist distortion of Christianity that considers only the spirit to be good while equating matter with evil. This is categorically not Jesus’ message and, to my mind, Serra’s work is a great way also for a Christian (and everyone else too) to understand why, in an experiential rather than a moral or intellectual way.

What Richard Serra does, in my opinion, is to heighten the potential for an immediate experience of space, mass, scale, orientation and matter in a way that is difficult to be had directly in nature, where these experiences are admixed with those of other properties or qualities. The result can be awe and an experience of profound beauty (that is not to be sought only in the superficially aesthetic), which - while, as far as I can tell, not intended by their author - make Richard Serra’s work precisely what the composer James MacMillan pinpointed as the key feature of art: “a window on to the mind of God.”

To begin with, speaking about Richard Serra’s work faces the same challenges as appreciating any piece of art, in that no verbal account is going to suffice as a surrogate for direct experience. In fact, Serra himself argues this point very starkly, when asked to describe his “Delineator” (shown next):1

Serra delineator
“What happens with Delineator is that the only way to understand this work is to experience the place physically, and you can’t have an experience of space outside of the place and the space you’re in. Any linguistic mapping or reconstruction by analogy, or any verbalization or interpretation or explanation, even of this kind, is a linguistic debasement, in a sense, because it isn’t even true in a parallel way.”
Nonetheless, Serra does say more about Delineator elsewhere, which highlights some of his concerns and the mental model he uses for thinking about his own work:
“The sculpture defines a definite space inside the room. [...] The juxtaposition of steel plates forming this open cross generates a volume of space which has an inside and an outside, openings and directions, aboves, belows, rights, lefts - coordinates to your body that you understand when you walk through it. Noe you might say that that sounds quite esoteric. Well, one of the things that you get into as you become more in tune with articulating space is that space systems are different than linguistic systems in that they are nondescriptive. The conclusion I’ve come to is that philosophy and science are descriptive disciplines, whereas art and religion are not.”
So, if you haven’t seen any of his work and tried to circumnavigate and “inhabit” it, I would very much encourage you to try to do so, if you get a chance. Personally, I have had experiences akin to what Serra speaks about above, when I saw his “Seven plates, six angles” (below) at the Gagosian in New York. The overwhelming sensation I had was of a heightened awareness of scale, volume and proportion, but also - unexpectedly - of space and mass. In some sense, my extensive use of photos in this post is futile - like showing you images of alien foodstuffs that you have not tasted, so, please, consider them tokens or bookmarks - i.e., pointers for your own future experience.

Serra 7 plates 6 angles

When asked about the relation of one of his pieces, shown at the Tate in London, to the building it was exhibited in, Serra made another important observation about what his work intends to be (and one that rang very true to me in retrospect):
“I did not want to enter into an affirmative dialogue with the building. I did not want to mirror face-value language, the physiognomy of the architecture. I wanted to deal with the volume, weight, mass and directionality of the space. [... I] wanted to make a sculpture out of the whole volume [...] I wanted to make the volume of the space tangible, so that it is understood immediately, physically, by your body.”
The idea that the sculpture is not solely the object Serra created, but that it is that object in relation to the space it is situated in, is a paradigm shift and the key to understanding his insistence on making site-specific work even in the case of indoor sculptures. And even when a piece is shown in multiple locations over time, its placement in every one of those spaces results in multiple sculptures involving the one Serra-made object (that naïvely might be identified as the sculpture in full).

Beyond the paradigm shift from objects to entire spaces, Serra also broadens the palette of sculptural considerations:
“There’s a difference between walking into a telephone booth and a football stadium. If you take those two extremes and make the idea very subtle, then you can say there’s a difference between walking to the left and walking to the right, between the experience of the concave and convex, between something leaning right and something leaning left. How do you know that to be a different experience in terms of your daily life? And if it is, is it meaningful? The degree of meaningfulness depends on the limitations of the viewer. I think it is very difficult to introduce large-scale works into the public arena inasmuch as I am not interested in complicity or affirmation.


Compared to that of vertical sculpture, the ideas of sculpture existing horizontally are basically different concepts about construction, are basically different concepts about how we live in the world. On a simple, perceptual level, a modular unit extending above your eye-level becomes foreshortened as it rises, while the horizontal modular unit implies an infinite vanishing point. [...] The cultural symbolic iconography of verticality versus horizontality is most apparent in the cross, where the vertical expresses transcendence and the horizontal expresses materiality.”
While Serra is clear about his interests being “nonutilitarian, nonfunctional” and declaring that “any use [of sculpture] is a misuse,” as well as anticipating limited audience appreciation (likening it to “poetry and experimental film” :)), he at the same time has a profound message behind his work:
“We are all restrained and condemned by the weight of gravity. [...] The constructive process, the daily concentration and effort appeal to me more than the light fantastic, more than the quest for the ethereal. Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight. We face the fear of unbearable weight of repression, the weight of constriction, the weight of government, the weight of tolerance, the weight of resolution, the weight of responsibility, the weight of destructions, the weight of suicide, the weight of history which dissolves weight and erodes meaning to a calculated construction of palpable lightness.”
In many ways, the above strikes me as having affinities with Christianity, where Serra’s “Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight.” can be seen as a complement of Jesus’ “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:33).

A further aspect of Serra’s weight versus lightness statement (made in 1988) is its echoing of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” published only four years earlier, where its author too makes a play for weight over lightness:2
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
What, you may ask, is my point though? I hope that the above highlighted a couple of aspects of Serra’s work, which I have found to be deeply engaging and appealing. First, that he has invented a whole new concept of sculpture whose building blocks are not only form, texture, composition and proportion, but also mass, space, directionality and orientation, rendering an entire space a sculpture. Second, that his work is deeply rooted in the entirety of art and philosophy, without these being prerequisites for its appreciation and experience. Third, that experiencing his work, which explicitly shuns religious motives, does shed light on deeply Christian concepts and is therefore also of spiritual value to a Christian viewer at least.

As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, when I tell you that Richard Serra is probably my favorite sculptor (alongside Michelangelo, Rodin and Giacometti) and I hope that you will appreciate his work too when you next see one of his pieces.

1 All Richard Serra quotes here are from “Writings/Interviews.”
2 Both, probably, derived from Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, where the permanent (heavy) is contrasted against the fleeting (light).

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Kasper’s family: the domestic church

City of churches 1918 1 jpg HalfHD

[Warning: long read]

Even though I only meant to translate from and comment on the first half of Cardinal Kasper’s talk at the extraordinary consistory of cardinals two weeks’ ago, I realized that its middle part - where Kasper focuses on the sacrament of marriage and then speaks about the family as domestic Church - has not received much coverage either (with all attention being directed at the two scenarios he sketched out that constitute a 5% of what he said ...). With that in mind - and assuming you are interested in what follows, I would recommend you to take a quick look at the previous post, which covers the general framework in which Kasper then gives thought to how the family could be better welcomed by the Church.

Following the presentation of the principles of how the Gospel is to be understood, how the concept of a gift is central and how God places trust in man and woman and of the subsequent Scriptural exegesis both of the ideal and reality of the family, covered before, Kasper moves on to discuss why marriage is indissoluble:
“[T]he doctrine of the indissolubility of the marital bond [...] persists also where, humanly, marriage breaks down. Many today have trouble with understanding it. This doctrine cannot be understood as a kind of metaphysical hypostasis beside or above the personal love of the spouses; on the other hand it isn’t fully accounted for by reciprocal affective love and doesn’t die with it. It is Gospel, or definitive word and permanently valid promise. As such, it takes humans and their freedom seriously. It is precisely due to human dignity that definitive decisions can be taken. These belong in a permanent way to the history of a person; they characterize it in a lasting way; it is not possible to take them back and pretend as if they had never been made. When they are broken, a deep wound results. Wounds can be healed, but the scar remains and continues to trouble; but one can and must continue to live even if that requires effort. Similarly the good news of Jesus is that, thanks to the mercy of God, those who convert can be forgiven, healed and start anew.”
Wow! I have never heard the indissolubility of marriage tied to freedom in this way, or to mercy. It is an understanding of faith like this that makes Pope Francis’ choice of Kasper very clear ...

Next comes the passage where the family - based on the indissoluble bond of marriage - is likened to the Church and where Kasper introduces the “law of gradualness” that he then builds on in later parts of his talk:
“Just like the Church is on a journey of conversion and renewal, so marriage too finds itself on the way of the cross and of resurrection, under the law of gradualness of continuing to grow in ever new ways and greater depth in the mystery of Christ. This law of gradualness1 seems to me something of great importance for the life and for the pastoral care of marriage and the family. It doesn’t mean a gradualness of the law, but a gradualness, which means growth, in the understanding and putting into practice of the law of the Gospel, which is a law of freedom (James 1:25, 2:12),2 but which has today become often difficult for many of the faithful. They require time and patient accompanying along their journey.”
Next, Kasper outlines what he sees as the sources of the current crisis of the family:
“[T]he nuclear family, which developed only during the 18th century from the extended family of the past, has ended up in a structural crisis. Modern conditions of work and accommodation have resulted in a separation between accommodation, places of work and places where free time is spent and therefore have lead to a break-up of the home as the social unit. For work reasons, fathers are often away from the family for prolonged periods; women too, for work reasons, are often only partly present in the family. Due to current conditions being hostile to the family, the modern nuclear family finds itself in difficulty.”
What is the answer to these challenges? Is Kasper suggesting some sort of return to the pre-18th-century model? Not quite (and this was to be expected given his thoughts in the opening parts of the talk):
“What we need are extended families of a new kind. For nuclear families to survive, they need to be inserted into new family units that span generations and in which it is above all the grandfathers and grandmothers who take on important roles, into inter-familiar circles of close ones and friends where children can find refuge in the absence of their parents and where single old people, the divorced and single parents can find a kind of home.”
Kasper suggests that the above extended families and “circles” have hints of a “domestic Church” that he further elaborates on next:
“How to define these domestic Churches? They are a Church in miniature inside the Church. They make the local Church present in the concrete life of the people. In fact, where two or three meet in the name of Christ, he is in their midst (Matthew, 18:20). [...] Through the Holy Spirit, they have the sensus fidei, the sense of faith, an intuitive sense of faith and of living according to the Gospel. They are not only object but also subject of pastoral care for families. Above all by their example, they can help the Church to enter more deeply into the word of God and to put it into practice in a way that is more full of life. Since the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church in its entirety, they mustn’t isolate themselves in a sectarian way from the broader communion of the Church. This “catholic principle” preserves the Church from disintegrating into single, autonomous, free Churches. Through such unity in multiplicity, the Church is also a sacramental sign of unity in the world.”
One thing that strikes me as important in the above is also how Kasper positions the domestic Churches - families as being important for the Church as a whole - even in core aspects like the growing understanding of the word of God. It is not like the Church in its entirety is putting itself into a position where it knows best and is the source of support for families. Instead, the relationship is very much reciprocal, which is further highlighted in the following passage, where Kasper also returns to the importance of accompanying those who suffer from the break-down of the family:
“Families need the Church and the Church needs families for the sake of being present at the center of life, where modern life takes place. Without the domestic Churches the Church is a stranger to the concrete reality of life. Only through families can it be a home where people are at home. Its being understood as domestic Church is therefore fundamental for the future of the Church and for the new evangelization. Families are the first and best messengers of the Gospel of the family. They are they way of the Church. [...] Thinking about the importance of the family for the future of the Church, the rapidly growing number of broken families appears as an even greater tragedy. There is a lot of suffering. [... W]e must change the paradigm and must - like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) - look at the situation also from the point of view of those who suffer and ask for help.”
It is only at this point that Kasper starts talking about the challenges of divorce and re-marriage and proceeds to sketch out two scenarios of how the Church could handle them differently. But, that will have to remain for another time. For now, let me just flag up one of Pope Francis’ morning sermons (from last Friday), where he again emphasizes the key in this context:
“When [... the] leaving [of] one’s father and mother, and joining oneself to a woman, and going forward ... when this love fails – because many times it fails – we have to feel the pain of the failure, we must accompany those people who have had this failure in their love. Do not condemn. Walk with them – and don’t practice casuistry on their situation.”

1 As far as I can tell, this “law of gradualness” comes from John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (§34): “Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will.”” Although I also found it in the I Ching here, where it says: “[The] principle of gradual development can be applied to other situations as well; it is always applicable where it is a matter of correct relationships of co-operation, as for instance in the appointment of an official. The development must be allowed to take its proper course. Hasty action would not be wise.”
2 “But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.” and “So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.”

Monday, 3 March 2014

Kasper’s family: beauty in the battlefield

Comedy 1921 by Paul Klee 011

[Warning: long read - again.]

While the family is a constant and core feature of human existence that has the potential to strongly shape its members’ lives, the forms it takes today are more diverse than they have probably ever been. At the same time, the Church, at least seemingly, presents a single one of the many alternatives in practice today as the ideal and even penalizes the others. This, undoubtedly results in distance being put between the Church and those whose family lives don’t conform to its ideals, which is a serious problem for the Church, whose mission is to be close to all.

As a result, Pope Francis has put a process in motion to study the current situation of the family and explore ways of the Church being more open and welcoming, while at the same time - and here lies the true challenge - remaining faithful to Jesus’ teachings and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The form taken by the process are two bishops’ synods - one this year and one next year - where the subject will be discussed and proposals put to the Holy Father for approval. To begin with, a questionnaire has already been circulated to dioceses around the world, in which both priests and lay faithful were asked to provide feedback on a wide variety of questions to do with the family in a broad sense. Many of these surveys have already concluded, with some bishops’ conferences even choosing to publish their result that so far consistently show a gap between Church teaching and practice by the Church’s members. An unsurprising result, but one whose openness and honest is nonetheless a positive sign.

Beyond the questionnaire, the next significant step taken by Pope Francis has been to ask Cardinal Walter Kasper to prepare an address to the extraordinary consistory of cardinals that took place in the Vatican two weeks ago. The resulting two-hour talk was greatly praised afterwards by Pope Francis, by referring to his work the next day as “doing theology on one’s knees.” The first thing to note here is that Cardinal Kasper is not in any formal way related to the family - he is neither in charge of the Pontifical Council for the Family nor the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose heads would have been the obvious choices if the criterion had been about formal scopes or responsibilities. Instead, Francis picks one of his favorite theologians (as he said already during the first Angelus after his election) - a retired Cardinal, who had previously been in charge of working towards Christian unity and who has played important roles in improving relationships with Jews. Second, it is worth being aware of the fact that Kasper’s speech was initially not meant for publication and was instead intended only for the cardinals present at the consistory. Nonetheless, ten days after he delivered it, and following extensive media coverage of its summary and some leaked passages, the full text is now available in Italian.

Instead of attempting a detailed commentary on Kasper’s words, I would like to focus on passages from the opening parts of his speech, where he lays out the basic principles and reflects on what is immutable versus what can (and has been) changed during the Church’s long history as far as the family is concerned. Kasper then proceeds to sketch out two ideas of what could be done differently for civilly remarried divorcees - if that is what you are interested in, there has been plenty of coverage of their details, and an English translation of the relevant passages is available here.

To my mind those two proposals are the least interesting part of Kasper’s thought, since, as he states from the outset, his aim is only to provide a “kind of overture that leads towards the theme, in the hope that in the end we will receive a sym-phony, or a harmonious whole of all the voices in the Church, including those that at the moment are partly dissonant.” Kasper wants to set the scene and provide a framework in which all can come together.

The first, to my mind beautiful and lucid, insight regards an understanding of what the Gospel is and of how it relates to the Church’s teaching:
“The Gospel, believed in and lived by the Church, is the source of all truth, of salvation and of practice. This means that the teaching of the Church is not a stagnant lake, but instead a torrent that springs from the source of the Gospel, in which flows the experience of faith of the people of God of all the ages. It is a tradition that is alive and that today, as on many other occasions during the course of history, has arrived at a critical point and that, in view of the “signs of the times,” requires continuation and deepening.

What then is this Gospel? It isn’t a legal code. It is the light and strength of life that is Jesus Christ. It gives what it asks for. Only in its light and in its strength is it possible to understand and observe the commandments. [...] Without the Spirit that works in our hearts, the letter of the Gospel is a law that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6).1 Therefore the Gospel of the family does not want to be a burden, but instead, as far as being a gift of faith, an uplifting news, light and strength of the life of the family.”
The second cornerstone is about the nature of the sacraments and their interdependence with faith:
“The sacraments, including that of marriage, are sacraments of faith. [...] The Second Vatican Council [... says about the sacraments:] “They not only presuppose faith, but [...] they also nourish, strengthen, and express it.” (SC 59) The sacrament of marriage too can become efficacious and be lived only in faith. Therefore, the essential question is: how is the faith of the future spouses? [...] Many persons are baptized but not evangelized. Put in paradoxical terms, they are baptized catechumens, if not baptized pagans.”
These may sound like harsh words - and they are! - but I believe they, sadly, express a widespread reality whereby there is broad lack of understanding about faith among Catholics.

The third opening consideration brings together the dynamism of the Gospel and the indispensability of faith, and relates them to how God participates in our lives:
“God is a God of the journey: in the history of salvation he has journeyed with us. Today he has to walk the Earth again with the persons of the present. He doesn’t want to impose faith on no one. He can only present it and propose it as a way of happiness. The Gospel can convince only by means of itself and by its profound beauty.”
In summary, I see Kasper as setting a scene in which the Gospel is a source of joy, where it is through faith and with open eyes that it guides and delights the followers of Jesus. It is not to be imposed, nor is it to be read as a rule-book, and taking its consequences out of context is lethal.

Next, Kasper proceeds to lay out the basic principles of the ideal family, all by reference to the first book of Genesis:2
  1. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Here Kasper focuses on the relationship between man and woman and on it being based on the concepts of love and gift: “Man and woman are given as gifts by God one for the other. They have to complement and sustain each other, delight each other and find joy in each other. Both, man and woman, inasmuch as they are image of God, have the same dignity. There is no room for discrimination against the woman. But man and woman aren’t simply equal. Their equality in dignity is based on creation, just like their diversity. [...] The equal dignity of their diversity explains the attraction between the two [...] Wanting to make them equal on ideological grounds destroys erotic love. The Bible understands this love as union for the sake of becoming one flesh, which means one community of life, which included sex, eros and human friendship. In this complete sense, man and woman are created for love and are an image of God, who is love (1 John 4:8). [...] When a partner deifies the other and expects that they prepare heaven on earth for them, the other necessarily feels that too much is being asked of them; they can do nothing but disappoint. Many marriages fail as a result of such excessive expectations. The community of life of man and woman, together with their children, can be happy only if they see each other as reciprocal gifts that transcend each one of them.”

  2. “God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) Kasper’s focus here is on God’s trust: “Responsible parenthood has a more profound meaning than that which is usually attributed to it. It means that God entrusts the most precious gift he can give, which means human life, to the responsibility of man and woman. The can decide responsibly the number and timing of the birth of their children. They have to do it responsibly in front of God and by respecting the dignity and the good of their partner, responsibly with regard to the good of their children, responsibly in view of the future of society and while respecting human nature. The result though isn’t a casuistic, but instead a form whose specific putting into practice is entrusted to the responsibility of man and woman. They are given the responsibility over the future. The future of humanity passes through the family.”

  3. “[F]ill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) becomes interpreted by Kasper as a call to filling the world with a culture of love: “These words are not meant as submission or violent domination. The second creation account here speaks about cultivating and caring for (2:15). [...] With this cultural mission, the relationship between man and woman transcends them again. It isn’t mere sentimentalism that revolves around oneself; it mustn’t close itself in on itself, but open itself towards a mission for the world. The family is not only a private community of persons. It is the fundamental and vital cell of society. [...] It is fundamental for the birth of a culture of love and for a humanization and personalization of society, without which it would become an anonymous mass. In this sense it is possible to speak about a social and political role of the family.”
The family, as presented here by Kasper, is an exciting and grand participation, of humans as God’s partners, in the life of God, which is called to bringing love both ad intra and ad extra.

As soon as Kasper presents the ideal of the family, he is quick to point out that this ideal is “not the reality of the family [and that ...] the Bible knows it.” The root cause is that “the alienation of man from God has as its consequence alienation in man and among persons,” which also projects onto the family:
“The first alienation happens between man and woman. They experience shame, one in front of the other (3:10). This shame demonstrates that the original harmony between body and spirit has been disturbed and that man and woman are alienated from one another. Affection degenerates into desire and domination of man over woman (3:16). They reproach and accuse each other (3:12). Violence, jealousy and discord creep into marriage and the family.”
Kasper also points out that the marital infidelities that the Bible recounts are even part of Jesus’ family tree, which “includes two women (Tamar and Uriah’s wife) who are considered sinners (Matthew 1:3). Jesus too had ancestors who didn’t come from a “good family,” and whom it would have been preferable not to speak about. The Bible here is very realistic, very honest.” He then goes on to warn against a distorted, idealized view:
“When we speak about the family and about the beauty of the family, we mustn’t start from an unrealistic, romantic image. We must also see the hard realities and participate in the sadness, the worries and the tears of many families. Biblical realism can in fact offer us a certain consolation. It shows us that what we lament is not something of today and that it has always been like that. We mustn’t give in to the temptation of idealizing the past and then, as happens in many cases, see the present merely as a history of decadence.”
To conclude his reflection on the family, which starts out from the ideals derived from Genesis, chapter 1, and then proceeds through the failures catalogued in both Old and New Testaments, Kasper finishes on a positive note, again derived from Scripture:
“In the end, the third chapter of Genesis kindles a light of hope. Throwing man out of paradise, God gave him hope for accompanying him on his journey. That which tradition defines as the protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), can also be understood as the protoevangelium of the family. From its descendants a Savior will be born. The genealogies of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 1:1-7; Luke 3:23-28) witness that from the sequence of generations, even with its jolts and jerks, in the end a Savior is born. God can write straight even along crooked lines. Therefore, when we accompany people along their journeys, we mustn’t be prophets of doom, but instead bearers of hope, who offer consolation and who, even in difficult situations, encourage people to go ahead.”
The picture here is very much of hope with eyes wide open and of pursuing a great ideal even in the midst of failure and weakness. In the second half of his talk (that’s right - the above are just a couple of pieces from the first half!), Kasper then proceeds to look at how the various painful situations that families find themselves in can be approached, with a focus on how those who got divorced and the subsequently civilly re-married could be accompanied and included. Since this second half of Kasper’s talk is receiving good coverage in the media, I will limit myself to the above framework that I translated from the Italian full text and commented on above. To give you a sense of where Kasper is going in the second half of his talk, let me just quote one line from it: “The Church must be a home for all, in which all must be able to feel at home and like in a family.” Amen!

[UPDATE (4 March 2014): I have changed my mind and have continued with translating passages from and commenting on the second part of Kasper’s talk here. There he takes us through his analysis of the indissolubility of marriage, of the causes of the breakdown of the nuclear family and proposes the domestic Church as the way forward.]

1 “[W]ho has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.”
2 Here he is in good company with John Paul II’s “theology of the body” whose conclusions are also well reflected in Kasper’s thought.