Religion Today

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

‘Thinking with the Church’: The Pope Engages the People

Pope Francis is an impressive guy. Impressive not in the sense of his “wow” factor, coolness, charisma or even power, but impressive in his calm inner humility. It is not what he shouts that is gripping, but what he speaks in a whisper (to borrow Frank Bruni’s characterization).
In a recent interview in the Jesuit publication “America,” the Pope characterizes himself as a “sinner.” And then, realizing how that remark will be interpreted, he goes on to say, “This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
When he thinks about his church -- and as a Jesuit he emphasizes “thinking” -- Pope Francis sees the overwhelming problems it faces. To solve them, he wants to “think with the church,” the “people of God.” Why? Because the people of the church “considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief.” Of course, as a Catholic leader, he means the “‘holy mother, the hierarchical church,’…the church as the people of God, pastors and people together,” not some form of “populism.”
This “thinking with the church,” in the Pope’s view, can and should lead to changes in “human self-understanding.” He spoke of slavery and the death penalty as mistakes from which humanity and the church have learned and changed. And what test indicates when a past understanding is no longer valid? “When it loses sight of the human, or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself.”
In that light, the Pope sees each individual human being as more important than the church’s doctrine. The message of salvation for all should be its front and center, not its doctrinal condemnations. While Pope Francis does not want to change church doctrine, he does want to alter how church leaders present it.
The church has sometimes “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” When talking about divorce and remarriage, abortion and homosexuality, he almost turns folksy, giving several anecdotes emphasizing a loving attitude toward individual humans, “sinners” and their life choices.
Instead of condemning sinners, the church should do triage. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.”
Francis repeats this phrase, “Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds.” The church needs to return to the world and “accompany” the people who live there, wherever they live: in poverty, in sickness or in spiritual need. He points particularly to the bishops, who should not only support the “movements of God” among their flock, but should “accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”
“Finding new paths” seems to apply to Francis’s thoughts about women and their place in the church. “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed … the church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church.” He even states, “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman … the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
Unfortunately, the tone has suddenly changed here. No more anecdotes. No love of the individual. Instead, dealing with women directly, the church should create a generalized “theology of women.”
But a theology of women is not what the 2 billion women and men who belong to the Catholic Church need. A “theology of women and men together” would be a better idea, since Catholicism exists in a world that men and women increasingly share as equals.
Most adults have a wide experience of the opposite sex. In marriage, women and men are partners, working together in the most intimate ways: companionably, intellectually, emotionally and sexually. Together, they create and raise families, loving their children with a bond and strength only they can experience.
In today’s workplace, men and women work together more and more: as colleagues, workers, members of a team, as subordinates and as supervisors. Increasingly, over the decades, women and men have grown accustomed to working with each other in these different roles.
A theology is not what is needed, but a practical guide for the relationships and community dynamics of people’s daily lives; a guide through which the hierarchy can learn how church members live their lives, lives that the priestly, celibate commitment to the church prevents them from experiencing directly.
Pope Francis is bold to challenge himself and the church’s leadership to “think with the Church,” with all the people of God. For their sake, I hope he truly sees and enacts the full potential of his goal.
Note: The interview with Pope Francis appears online at America Magazine:

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Down with the Tyrants! Liberty, Enlightenment and Islam

Two and a half years ago, the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East. In some countries, the people deposed their single-party governments in an attempt to bring about democracy. In others, the government prevented such takeovers. In Syria, the people’s protests degenerated into civil war. Furthermore, it seems that every week, the media reveal new atrocities committed in the region. Syrian forces gas innocent civilians. The Egyptian military shoots hundreds of peaceful protesters. Tunisian gunmen murder politicians. Iraqi Sunnis attack Shiites during religious observances.
It is not surprising that the American public has little appetite for confronting Syrian President Assad. Many Americans think that the Middle East is suffering from insanity. “They just keep fighting each other.”
The people of the Middle East are not insane; they are suffering from too many societal transformations happening at once. The three major ones shaping events are: reformation, enlightenment and liberty. These three terms take their meaning from Western history.
The Protestant reformation began in the 16th century with Martin Luther, John Calvin and others leading theological revolts against the dominant religious organization, the Catholic Church. As Protestantism spread among the people, including the monarchies and rulers, violent clashes led to nearly 150 years of war between different nations, as well as civil wars and persecutions of religious groups within nations.
It was, in part, the enlightenment movement that began in the 17th century that provided a way out of this morass. It championed the belief that humans could govern themselves, both individually and collectively, and not be ruled by one set of divine dictates or another. This led to tolerance among religious groups and to democracy. The latter led to revolutions (e.g., America) and civil wars (e.g., France) in which the people strove for liberty, violently replacing rule by tyrants with democratic governance.
These three movements largely took place sequentially, but they led to such incessant fighting that an outside observer would have said, “They just keep fighting each other.”
In today’s Middle East, all three movements are happening at the same time. The enlightenment arrived in the 19th century, with the advent of Western imperialism. It brought science and technology, most obviously in the form of military weapons, but also in health care, education and manufacturing.
The modernity brought by Western enlightenment helped create, in Middle Eastern countries, a secular section of society by largely going around Islam. Islam was irrelevant to technology and, so, was not part of the transformation.
The Muslim equivalent of the reformation began only in the 20th century, with Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They took the notion that humans should govern themselves and produced theologies in which individual Muslims were seen as responsible for the relationship of themselves and their societies to Allah, a concept surprisingly like Martin Luther’s idea that individual humans are directly responsible to God and not through the Church.
So today’s Islamist movements, from radical to civil, are the Muslim equivalent of the Protestant groups of the 16th century. They are trying to establish a new divine order of society in opposition to its current organization. The main difference is that, instead of struggling against societies dominated by a religious body (e.g., the Catholic Church), they have been fighting against societies ruled by secular, single-party tyrants.
The Arab Spring, however, was not brought about by the Islamists, but by the secular wing of society in Middle East countries. Their fight has been for liberty, whether from secular tyrants or from religious leaders pushing divinely ordained rule. Given that the tyrants suppressed the formation of political parties for decades, the only other organized groups in these societies are religious ones.
In Egypt, for example, this has led first to the creation of a democratic state, in which the Muslim Brotherhood was the only group that could act enough like a political party to win a majority of the nation’s votes. When its elected leaders took steps to introduce their religious beliefs into the state, however, the secularists saw their liberty being hijacked. They turned away from democracy and called upon the remaining institutions of the tyrannical state, the army and the judiciary, to overthrow them.
In other words, the secular section of society created from enlightenment principles turned to tyranny to overturn a democratically elected government -- democracy, of course, being an enlightenment concept.
So, we in the Western world should not be surprised at the ongoing difficulties in the Middle East, which will probably last for decades. They stem from three major social transformations happening at the same time. In our own culture, these three transformations took centuries to process, and much of that processing happened through violent means. We cannot expect Middle Eastern cultures to do it better than we did.

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