Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mark's thoughts: What's up with Pope Francis?: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense"

When a Christian church has over a billion members, the actions of her leader carry great weight and have far reaching implications.  For the second time recently, Pope Francis has done an interview with an atheist in Italy.  Francis continues to make statements that cause deep concern about his approach toward Christianity, and issues of life and sexuality. 

I recognize that the media seizes upon every opportunity to try to make Francis into a revolutionary figure who is speaking in the way of the world.  It is important to read what he actually said, and not listen to their second hand reports that are often receiving a great deal of spin. The following is an English translation of an important part of the interview:

And here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: "Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me."

It's a joke, I tell him. My friends think it is you want to convert me.
He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."

Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?
"Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good."

Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that's one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
"And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place."

Is the Church doing that?
"Yes, that is the purpose of our mission: to identify the material and immaterial needs of the people and try to meet them as we can. Do you know what agape is?"

Yes, I know.
"It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one's neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good."

Love your neighbor as yourself.
"Exactly so."

Jesus in his preaching said that agape, love for others, is the only way to love God. Correct me if I'm wrong.
"You're not wrong. The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God. Abba, as he called the Father. I will show you the way, he said. Follow me and you will find the Father and you will all be his children and he will take delight in you. Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes."

There are, I am sure, ways to try to explain the Francis’ language.  But I find it very difficult to square it with our Lord’s words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).  In particular this is the case because Jesus is not the way, the truth and the life in some general sense of revealing love and brotherhood.  Instead, he reveals God’s love in his death and resurrection.  Later in the interview Francis speaks about the importance of St. Paul:

Can I ask you, Your Holiness, which saints you feel closest to in your soul, those who have shaped your religious experience?
"St. Paul is the one who laid down the cornerstones of our religion and our creed. You cannot be a conscious Christian without St. Paul. He translated the teachings of Christ into a doctrinal structure that, even with the additions of a vast number of thinkers, theologians and pastors, has resisted and still exists after two thousand years. Then there are Augustine, Benedict and Thomas and Ignatius. Naturally Francis.

However, the spirit of Francis’ words  have almost nothing in common with Paul’s focus on Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen One.  Paul engaged a pagan culture, and for that very reason he could not speak about Jesus apart from the cross.  As he says in 1 Corinthians:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ESV).

As a Lutheran, I recognize that there is a foundation for Francis’ language in Roman Catholic theology, especially in developments that came to fruition in Vatican II.  What is disturbing is to hear Francis speak so openly in ways that do not reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed in God’s Word.

The full interview can be found at: la Repubblica Pope Francis interview

1 comment:

  1. Mark, I agree. What is most disturbing to me is not the line about proselytizing: clearly introductory remarks and assuring the interviewer that it won't be a debate, but the talk of conscience without Christ. Yes, Christians are to follow our conscience, and what we believe sin is sin for us and so forth, but to speak all this without reference to Christ and His Cross? It is very sorrowful...