In his recent sermon on Nov. 28, Pope Francis, speaking about the persecution of the end times, pointedly asked his hearers: “Do I adore Jesus Christ, the Lord? Or, a little half and half, do I in some way play [the] game of the prince of this world?”
It is a great question, and one that we in Christendom should be constantly asking ourselves. As we Lutherans like to point out, we have been in the “end times” since Christ’s ascension, even as things will indeed progress (regress).
This brings me to today’s critical evaluation of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, focusing on two areas of critique in particular. I submit that in spite of the Pope’s better judgment, which is in evidence in his recent sermon, the second large problem with the encyclical is that Francis eschews the hard words of Christ about the division he brings.
Francis identifies religious dialogue (along with concern for the poor) as one of two things that are “fundamental at this time in history”, since he believes that “[it] will shape the future of humanity”. One of the reasons for this is so that
“we can then join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should become a basic principle of all our exchanges. A dialogue which seeks social peace and justice is in itself, beyond all merely practical considerations, an ethical commitment which brings about a new social situation.” (250)
One can certainly appreciate Francis’ political instincts and desire for all persons of different faiths to live with one another as neighbors who are eager to love one another – this is one aspect of the the “revolution of tenderness” Francis rightly calls for. It seems to me that no Christian should think otherwise. Further, when Francis speaks of religious dialogue, he does evince some highly intelligent and necessary nuance. For instance, in paragraph 251, he wisely says that “a facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters”, and
“What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says ‘yes’ to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with others.Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.”
And yet here is where we must go further to deal with spiritual realities. It will not do to simply insist, in the case of the Jews, for example, that “we [do not] include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9)” or that “with them we accept his revealed word” of “the one God who acts in history” (247). How does this not run roughshod over some of the extremely difficult words that Jesus spoke in chapters 5, 8, and 10 in the book of John for example?
Yes, Jesus was undoubtedly a man of peace and yet said some difficult things about the spiritual conflict His message inevitably revealed – and brought – as well. So one glaring issue with his encyclical is this: Francis speaks little or perhaps not at all of the division and sword Christ brings. Many of the words he speaks are beautiful and both portray and adorn the Gospel of Christ, and yet, overall, it lacks the kind of balance that is befitting for Christ’s message. The Gospel is good news because we are saved from sin, death, and the devil – and this includes all who set themselves up against Christ and His people as well – those who “do not have the love of God in their hearts” (see John 8)
How can we hold up Jesus Christ as Francis does – is He not beautiful? Is He not mighty? Thank God Jesus is God! – and simultaneously refuse to make explicit that those gods who are not Him are false? That they do not add to life, but take away from it? That the True God does not so much work through other religions, but in spite of them?
Simply put: It is not charity to give persons false comfort about their insufficient conceptions of the deity – their false gods which cannot save. One must not think that by inviting noble pagans to the table apart from faith in Christ, as Zwingli did Socrates, that one will remain at the table. Darkness and light will not have communion with one another.
Francis’ message strikes a definite Gospel tone – it is a message that would not be possible apart from the strong love of Christ – and yet it is also a mitigated Gospel, a compromised Gospel, one that does not give full–throated glory to God and the reign of His Christ. Yes, if anything good happens in the world it is from Christ. That said, Christ also speaks harshly to those false gods who would displace him – He is not at war with “their” people, but he is at war with them. Why? Because He is at war with all that is not explicitly related to Him and His saving work – the only Source of Light, Love, and Life.
Even more disturbing, and connected with the last post that dealt with faith and works, is this statement from Francis:
“Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”,and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”. But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God (254).”
I cannot help but conclude that this kind of teaching is deadly to both Christians and non-Christians, and will not encourage authentic evangelization at all. Strange as it may seem, this perhaps more “militant” model of proclamation I am putting forth here is not opposed to what Francis says when he speaks of Mary as a model of evangelization:
“This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others, is what makes the ecclesial community look to Mary as a model of evangelization. We implore her maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of a new world.”
The valid insight regarding Mary as a model of evangelization must go hand in hand with the clear word of Christ that His message was bound to cause stumbling and division. They are one in the same cloth – as much as the world would have us separate these things, fearing a more manly, confident, and intransigent proclamation of Christ and His work. For this reason, we look to Him – and pray to Him – for the word’s evangelization. Not to her, as Francis does to end his encyclical (288).
I am confident Mary would have it no other way.
The third and final concern I would like to bring up briefly is that Francis sometimes seems to pit a love for the lost against salutary traditions to which the faithful might cling. There is no doubt that it is easy to criticize the tactless and insensitive actions of some of the members of the Society of St. Pius X (see “A Profanation Protesting Profanation“). Here, his words in paragraph 94 perhaps should come to mind: “It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity”. That said, what about more traditional believers who are far less radical? Really, what prevents the Catholic church from having joint worship services with rabbis, for example, as much as possible? Why not do so if they will simply refrain from condemning out loud the message of Christ? Why would a refusal to join in worship with them not also be intolerant and divisive – even “aggressive”?
Francis is at his best when he talks about the freedom we have in Christ to be open to others and creative in the ways we reach out to them. That said, I sense that his thinking is less developed when it comes to dealing with the questions dealing with difficult issues of having a beneficial sense of order in the church (see 41, 94, 95, 118, 131). For example, these words seem a bit hard: “In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.” (95)
In a marriage, there are certain things that a man might do that are not sinful in and of themselves, but nevertheless become genuine failures of love – which lead to tension in the relationship – when done in that context. Here, as one dares to evangelize as much as possible, one must not ignore or disregard one’s brothers’ concerns, particularly the ones one deems to be weak in faith.
George Weigel says of Francis: “He is not afraid of criticism, he learns from his mistakes, and he wants his collaborators to challenge him when they think he’s wrong.”
I hope that is true of both him and folks like myself – by the grace of our merciful Christ, who is always eager to strengthen, and if need be restore, us to the peace we have with the Father in Him (Romans 5:1) – that we may know we have eternal life (I John 5:13).
To pass on the joy.
*”In his daily homily Pope Francis reflected on the end times, saying that faith will be increasingly pushed out of the public square and that persecution of Christians is a “prophecy” of what is to come…
These worldly powers which seek to destroy God, noted the Pope, also manifest in the contemporary desire to keep religion as “a private thing,” alluding to the fact that today many religious symbols have become taboo.
“You must obey the orders which come from worldly powers. You can do many things, beautiful things, but not adore God. Worship is prohibited. This is at the center of the end of time.”
Once we “reach the fullness of this pagan attitude,” the Pope continued, “then yes, he will come…’ truly the Son of Man will come in a cloud with great power and glory.’”
Christians who “suffer times of persecution, times of prohibition of worship” because of their beliefs, are a prophecy of what will happen to us all,” he emphasized.”