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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Spirit of John Chrysostom

You know, I *LOVED* Benedict's writing, but Francis is an even better, clearer writer than Benedict. He drumbeats the concern for the poor that Chrysostom had, drives home Chrysostom's theme about the important role women have to play in the Church and outlines why the dignity of work is the major problem facing the world today.

He really gets it. 

I've been pro-life since my atheist days, got arrested in front of abortion clinics on two separate occasions, got into adult formation largely because I saw it as the only way to stop abortion, but Francis understands the abortion problem better than I do.

Both men and women seek dignity even more than they seek a paycheck. They will settle for low pay if their work can give their lives meaning. The mission to give dignity back to the poor, those who image Christ... this is central to the exhortation. We do this by giving them the Gospel. 
204. 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.
This is NOT an attack on capitalism, nor is it an endorsement of statism or government as the best solution. 
202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. 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,[173]no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
It is not the inequality of wealth that concerns him, it is the inequality of dignity.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church all agreed that physical poverty wasn't the biggest problem, rather, it was spiritual poverty, the poverty of not knowing the Gospel. Insofar as someone doesn't know the Gospel, they don't know their own worth or their own dignity. They don't know how deeply central they are in the eyes of God. 

So, when Francis speaks of the lack of employment being the biggest problem, he isn't thinking that a job at McDonald's for every teenager is the solution. Rather, he sees the solution as being a society which recognizes the dignity of the McDonald's worker to be equal to the dignity of the CEO. When the dignity of work is recognized, then inequality will have been conquered. This is not just recognized by paycheck, but by giving honor to everyone employed in work, especially vocational work.

And this is the central problem that creates abortion. Women reject motherhood because they don't see it as a vocation, a job, a work of mercy and grace, a place of honor and status. They don't see it as a way to gain dignity, instead they believe the world, which tells them that motherhood is disgusting and worthless. It tells them pregnancy is a violation of who they are and what they can be.

When Francis speaks of jobs for the poor, he doesn't just envision paychecks for the men, but motherhood for the women. Men and women need to understand God has called them to the lifetime job of being parents. Women especially must realize that the unborn child calls them to service, that the child is the one who will pay them rich wages: a life of love, honor and dignity. That's a message many, many women will respond to. 

He's calling the wealthy not just to throw money at the poor, rather, he's asking the wealthy to find room in their lives to employ the poor, to honor them with the sacred trust of a job. He calls the rich to give the poor dignity, treat them as equals in their humanity. This encyclical isn't about money or economic systems. It's about practicing the presence of God. 

The theme of the dignity of every human person, and the means by which this dignity is recognized both by us and by the poor themselves, runs like a ribbon through the whole encyclical. Pope Francis is a master of Scripture and the four senses of Scripture. It's a brilliant piece of writing, in part because it is so unaffected, clear, unpretentious. Writing that way is incredibly hard, especially with the number of footnotes he brings in, and he makes it seem easy. 

He's making me understand what a lousy Catholic I am. 

Islam Means "Submission"
Now, some people have been disconcerted by his remarks on Islam, a word which means "submission." First, let's notice that he spends no small amount of time chastising Muslims. 
253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! (emphasis added)
This is a tremendous slam on the Muslims. He's essentially saying that Muslims currently do not acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns of others or understand anyone else's beliefs. He explicitly points out that Christians are currently not received or respected in Muslim countries. But what gets everyone upset is the next sentence:
Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence. (emphasis added)
Read by itself, this sentence would seem to indicate that Francis is incredibly naive about Islam. But before we draw that conclusion, let's look at one other statement he makes, a quote from the CCC from the immediately preceding paragraph that is very, very illuminating:
252. Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”.[198]
First, 252 contrasts the way Christians receive Muslims (they can freely worship and become fully a part of society) with 253 and how Muslims receive Christians (we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat...). He intentionally contrasts the two treatments to remind everyone that Christians are being much more generous than Muslims. 

Second, keep in mind that the CCC passage he quotes in 252 is, itself, a repudiation of Muslim teaching. Muslims do, indeed, teach that Jesus is the judge on Judgement Day, but they do not believe that Jesus is God. Thus, when the CCC says that the Muslims "together with us... adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day", that same CCC is deliberately telling the Muslims that Islam is wrong: Jesus IS, in fact, God. 

And Francis certainly knows this. So, he simultaneously quotes the one sentence in the CCC that both embraces what Islam gets right (Jesus is judge) and corrects the error that Islam makes (Jesus IS God).  Since paragraph 252 closes with this quote that carries both this carrot and this stick, it is not a mistake to read the closing sentence in paragraph 253 as if it carried the same parallelism.

How does it work? Pope Francis says that insofar as Islam is authentically telling the glory of God, it is "opposed to every form of violence", but insofar as Islam teaches violence, it is not authentic. In short, he's calling Islam (as it has been violently practiced by Mohammed and his disciples through the ages) a false, inauthentic religion. By insisting that the only authentic religion is a peaceful religion, he is simultaneously calling all Muslims to renounce the violence inherent to their faith and embrace authentic "Islam", authentic submission. That is, he is calling them to submission to the peace of Christ. 

How do I know I'm correct to interpret it this way? Because Pope Francis says as much in the very next sentence:
254. Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”,[199] and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”.[200]
Now, Francis knows perfectly well that Islam adamantly rejects the paschal mystery (which consists of the crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension). Islam insists that Jesus was never crucified. So, by linking non-Christians both to their conscience (which has inscribed upon it the 10 Commandments, including "Thou shall not kill") and to the Paschal Mystery in the very next sentence, he is emphasizing the same parallelism: insofar as it is peaceful, it is authentic because it lives the peace of Christ's Paschal Mystery and the natural law written on our hearts. Insofar as it is violent, it is no religion at all, just a travesty. 

Francis is not proclaiming that Islam is peaceful, he is proclaiming that true religion is peaceful. He's pulling the same stunt that the Fathers of Vatican II pulled in the CCC when they talked about Islam. St. Francis of Assisi reportedly challenged Muslim imams to walk through a fire with him in order to see whose religion was best. The Muslims declined the challenge. Pope Francis raised a 21st century version of the challenge - "Treat us as well as we treat you. Can you do it?"

Every time I read that passage in the CCC, I smile. 
Pope Francis just made me smile again. 


Kwabena said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I profited from the angle of your understanding.

Gods peace to you and yours!

Dale Day said...

Thanks for a well thought-out post on a delicate subject. Liberals are going nuts trying to announce this as a papal attack on free enterprise and capitalism.

You clearly deal with this great man's views of the roll of the church and how society must elevate the dignity of the poor by giving them better chances to improve their own lives.

I am not a Roman Catholic but have become a great fan of this humble man in a high position.