Monthly Archives: December 2013

Pope Francis, the Church, and the Culture

Pope Francis made headlines recently with his critical remarks on capitalism and the “economy of exclusion.” It did not take long before pundits accused the Pope of supporting radical ideology. Politicians rushed to enlist him in support of their agenda. (Rush Limbaugh called him a Marxist; President Obama cited him in a policy speech.) What are we to make of this? What exactly did the Pope say, and what should it mean for Catholic political and social discourse?

Francis and Marx

The Pope’s remarks came in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a document about how to present the Gospel to the world. At the outset, the Pope made clear that his primary objective is to “invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” According to the Pope, the greatest contemporary obstacle to that encounter is consumerism, “the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

According to the Pope, the Gospel is primarily about this encounter with Jesus Christ. He saves us from this covetous heart, desolation and anguish: “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.”

The Pope identifies a number of “false gospels” that we must shun. One of these is Gnosticism: “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas.” In other words, our experience of Christ must take us out of ourselves. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” Salvation is not a purely private affair. “Our redemption has a social dimension,” writes the Pope.

In light of this context, the Pope goes on to identify a number of social realities that cannot fail to elicit the concern and compassion of Christian people. According to Pope Francis, the world economy today has contributed to massive social disruption, “masses of people [who] find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Notably, Francis identifies the unborn with these masses of poor. “The Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [abortion],” he writes.

In response to these social realities, it is not enough merely to proclaim the magic of the marketplace, or to assume that economic development for its own sake will necessarily relieve this suffering. And the market itself can deaden us to the needs of the poor: “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
When writing the exhortation, Francis anticipated the public reaction we have seen. He does not want to be read as offering specific policy suggestions (he specifically denies this), but rather as calling Christian (and non-Christian) society to a higher goal, to profound reflection on the dignity of the person and the common good. The Pope writes:

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-centered 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.

Since the days of Pope Leo XIII, the Magisterium has singled out two errors that can be held about the Church’s approach to social questions. The first is to identify the Church with a specific political program or agenda, to consider the Church useful only insofar as it supports some purely secular conception of human development. The other error is to consider the Church’s role as purely “spiritual,” or otherworldly. As if the Church had nothing to say to concrete, social realities. As if the incarnation of the Son of God were a purely private affair.

Pope Francis warns against both these tendencies. From the first days of his pontificate, he cautioned that “The Church is not an NGO.” Her primary mission is to preach Christ. But at the same time, the Pope urges that “no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.” Pope Francis has in no way departed from the history of magisterial teaching on social questions. Throughout the document, the Pope refers us to the social encyclicals of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. He urges us to study the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church.

To Share in the Sufferings of Christ

For non-Catholics, one of the strangest aspects of Catholic faith is its doctrine of suffering. It is not strange that Catholics should concern themselves with suffering. Suffering is a universal human problem. Some religious traditions (like Buddhism) are almost wholly concerned with the problem of suffering: how to eliminate it, endure it, or even deny it. But Catholics seem strange because, at times, they embrace it. “I rejoice in my sufferings,” says St. Paul. (Colossians 1:24)


To be clear, Catholics really have a two-fold view of suffering. On the one hand, the Catholic Church has done more to eliminate suffering than any organization in history. In her hospitals, schools, and charitable works, the Catholic Church literally invented the modern institutions of benevolence. And at the interpersonal level, Catholics see Christ in the suffering of the other. Their faith compels them to show empathy and compassion. “Religion that is pure and faultless, says St. James, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” (James 1:27)

But the really mysterious aspect of Catholic faith comes in confrontation with one’s own suffering. Every human being faces a choice: we can view suffering as a meaningless evil, something to be avoided at all costs, or we can accept – on faith – that it just might be part of a rich and meaningful existence. That there is a good to be found in suffering that we would not have found otherwise. And here, the Catholic faith is clear: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Even the fall of man plays into God’s mysterious design. “Oh, happy fault!” we pray at Easter Vigil.

In Catholic faith, these two aspects of suffering are bound together in a marvelous way. The greatest act of love, the greatest compassion we can perform, is to willingly embrace suffering for the good of another, freely to give up something of value – to incur some personal loss – for the sake of another. In the religious sphere, when this suffering is ordered to God, this is what we mean by sacrifice. We accept loss or hurt for the sake of God, in thanksgiving or in reparation.

This aspect of Catholic faith offers a way to turn every act of suffering into sacrifice, to make that which seems senseless and absurd into something that is meaningful. Our model here is Christ himself:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him. (Philippians 2:5-6)

Some non-Catholic Christians have a different view of Christ’s death. For them, Christ suffered so that we don’t have to. (One often finds this view among Pentecostal Christians.) But they fail to see that this denudes Christ’s death of its greatest value: to transform us into his very image and likeness, to make us into vessels of love who would willingly embrace suffering for the good of another. Indeed, for St. Paul, salvation consists precisely in this – that we might share in the sufferings of Christ:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

We hear often that the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of the Catholic faith. This is because the Eucharist is at the heart of this transformation through suffering. The Eucharist is the Sacrifice of Christ, re-presented to God in thanksgiving and reparation. But we share in that offering of Christ. We bring all our “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” to the Mass. Through the Mass, the most seemingly meaningless toil can become an act of religious beauty.

Everyone has to confront the problem of suffering. The great question is whether we find meaning in it or not. Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the U.N., beautifully described his own confrontation with this mystery:

I don’t know Who — or what — put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone — or Something — and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

I don’t know much about Hammarskjöld’s Christian faith. I am puzzled by his ignorance of “The Questioner,” though I am moved by how clearly he grasped “The question.” Do we embrace life as given, replete with suffering and toil, as meaningful? I think St. Paul would say to Hammarskjöld: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23) The Questioner has a name, and He has given us the answer: “Lord, be it done to me, according to Thy Word!”

Why the Gospel is Good News

I had a religious discussion recently with someone who does not share my Catholic faith. The topic was comparative religion and the relative merits of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and so forth. I made the point that many religions acknowledge one God (or one source, or origin, or ground of all being) from which moral and spiritual demands flow. I noted that sometimes these religions come to remarkably similar conclusions about those moral and spiritual truths. This common heritage is what we call the Natural Law: the ethical and spiritual truths we can discover by reason alone.

JP2 and Dalai Lama

My reason for raising the point was to counter an amoral, atheistic, or materialistic view of the world. The common witness of humanity points to a transcendent dimension to human life. Meaning, mind and morality are not mere accidents, but true features of reality that must be accounted for. But my companion quickly arrived at another interpretation: “If natural reason can arrive at these philosophical and moral truths, then why not stop there? What’s the point of adding in all the dogmatic content of Christianity? The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and what not?”

Underlying his question was an unspoken assumption: All this “extra stuff” about Christianity makes it literally “bad news.” For my friend, Christianity is “bad news” precisely because it is not part of that common human witness. It is unique and takes its origin in a particular historical and cultural context. This would make Christianity seem like a message of exclusion. If the common philosophical core of humanity is not enough, if you need that “something else” that Christianity offers, then doesn’t that count as bad news for people who don’t get the memo?

There are many things we can answer. The most important response is that the Gospel is good news because it promises something beyond the natural capacity of man. Reason alone may be able to learn that there is a God and a moral law. But we have no natural capacity to enjoy that God forever, much less to “know him fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Reason may point to a transcendent horizon, but reason promises nothing of the sort. Hope is not a natural virtue.

But what of the problem of exclusion? “Yes,” my friend might say, “but what of those who don’t attain to that vision of God? Doesn’t Christianity propose hell as the alternative? How, in God’s name, can this be Good News for humanity unless everybody makes it? And doesn’t the actual history of Christianity reveal exclusionary tendencies in practice? A tendency to take one’s spiritual status for granted, and to look down on one’s ‘unenlightened’ neighbor?”

My friend’s thoughts on these questions are informed, to a large extent, by a version of Protestantism (Calvinism) that presents the Gospel in exactly this way. In our shared Presbyterian/Calvinist background, we once divided the world into two – the saved and the damned – and we clearly identified “the saved” with “our set,” those who believed like us. The Division was not along moral or ethical lines, but along ideological or creedal ones. And evangelism meant, above all, “making everyone think like me.”

Against this background, I took up the Pope’s new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I was surprised at how directly the Pope addresses my friend’s concerns. The Pope avoids the relativistic tendency to reduce all religions to a generic core, but he also rejects the Calvinist tendency to write off the rest of the human race. Above all, the Pope reminds us that salvation is not just about accepting a doctrinal proposition (however important that doctrine may be), but about “an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The Gospel is about rising to a new, supernatural quality of life, to “become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.”

With that end in view, the Pope proposes the Church and the Catholic faith as the “Sacrament of salvation offered by God.” In the Church, the truth and clarity of doctrine shines forth, and her sacraments possess a “meaning and efficacy” which is not found in other religions. But at the same time non-Christians may, in a way known only to God, be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.” “When they are faithful to their own consciences,” the Pope says, they “can live justified by the grace of God.” This has implications for how we evangelize. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, says the Pope, but “by attraction.”

The Gospel is “Good news” because it proposes a supernatural end to man. It offers something that we could never attain by our own resources. The Sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church are ordered to that end in a unique way – in a way given by divine authority. And the gospel is good news for all of humanity because it proposes a supernatural vocation for everyone. This is the foundation for the dignity of the human person. And so the Gospel brings us back around to the Natural Law. In the light of the Gospel, this “common witness of humanity” takes on an even greater depth and beauty. As St. John says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)