It’s been a little quiet here. There are several reasons. One is busy-ness – nothing overwhelming, but enough to be distracting. Another is our neanderthal internet connection, which happily (as of yesterday) has entered the 21st century. Another is hayfever: this year it is excruciating. After a sneezing fit on Thursday afternoon I lost my voice, which has partially returned and as a deep rasp when speaking, and erratic squeaking when I try to sing. Curiously, my brethren have not lamented my reduction to relative silence. How strange…
Yet another reason is the Pope. In the immediate wake of his election I wrote that he would be the pope of our punishment. Some three months later that assessment seems ever more valid. His papacy is a punishing one for more than one reason. Since to wallow in such punishment verges on the masochistic, it has seemed better to not to do so. In general, one notes each occasion, and moves on. Given that every priest, and in fact every Catholic, should have a sincere devotion to the office of the pope, and a high regard for his person, the incentive to silence is even stronger, if only to give time to allow the shape of his pontificate and his general approach to become clearer.
Pope’s Francis’ pontifical style and approach have become clearer and, to be honest, they are disturbing. For all the commitment to humility and simplicity imputed to him, it is a struggle to see humility in his repeated refusal to submit to the nature of the papal office. Of course, papal trappings should not be confused with the papal office, but where does one draw the line? Living in the Domus Sanctae Mathae, effectively an hotel in the Vatican grounds, rather than the papal apartments may have merits. It may indeed allow him to feel freer of curial bureaucracy. But the apartments have the advantage of security and allow space for a pope to have personal staff close at hand with the facilities they need. No doubt there has been some expense resulting from making the Domus similarly secure and practical. Right from the start Pope Francis eschewed the apartments, suggesting prior thought, which then suggests that his election did not come as quite the surprise to him as we have been told.
Similarly unsettling has been his style of daily Mass, in the chapel of the Domus. Daily Mass - fantastic! Mass with Vatican staff of the less exalted ranks – wonderful! But a papal Mass served by, say, gardeners in their gardening kit – is that humble or just inappropriate? His general refusal to wear on big occasions the vestments that fill the sacristy (covering the range from simple to elaborate), and restrict himself to the same simple (fast becoming monotonous) style, the latest examples of which are being freshly produced at extra expense – is this humility or willfulness? Certainly the Pope has a right to set the tone of his papacy, but it is emerging very much a papacy the theme song of which could be Sinatra’s I did it my way. Strong – yes; humble – not so certain? Perhaps if this hermeneutic of humility were to be laid aside I would find his style not quite so disturbing.
The most disturbing aspect of this new humble style is Pope Francis’ constant speaking and preaching off the cuff. This is fine for a parish priest, and in some contexts it would be reasonable in a diocesan bishop. However, Francis is not a parish priest, and no mere diocesan bishop. He is successor to St Peter, holds the highest teaching authority in the Church, and needs to remember that his words now have a significance they never had when he was a priest or a diocesan bishop. Humility is also served when one adapts to the demands of one’s office. It does not serve his role as supreme teacher that the Vatican is having constantly to catch up with his unscripted words and try to record them and make them available. Vatican Radio has tried giving summaries, which is not satisfactory: we need the full text and the full context. Even the Vatican website can only manage summaries.
Already we have seen more than one gaffe from his papal impromptus. There was the controversy about his words that seemed to imply that everyone is saved, atheists too. Certainly that is what the press made of it – just Google it! Here is what Pope Francis said on 22 May that has caused so much trouble:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, what about the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us first class children of God! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, with everyone doing his own part; if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of meeting: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good! We shall meet there.”
Technically, and I mean technically, there is no formal problem here. We are in fact all redeemed by the blood of Christ. Absolutely. However, redemption and salvation are not synonymous, their meaning is not co-terminous. Redemption is a gift offered to all humanity; a person is saved only when s/he accepts that gift and makes it operative in his or her daily life. Redemption is universal but salvation is not. Redemption is not a magic wand that makes all of us good and saved. Which is surely why the Pope goes to such lengths to talk about doing good. He is attempting to show that redemption allows us to change our lives in the power of his grace, to grasp salvation by faith, which is expressed in and built up by the doing of the works of love – doing good, as Pope Francis puts it.
If only he had said something along those lines. Instead his words allow the easy inference that an atheist need only do good to be saved. The Pope’s context, on closer inspection, seems to be world peace and creating a “culture of meeting”. In other words, he is talking about the doing of good as something connected with changing the world and not so much with personal salvation. But that is not exactly clear. Not at all. In fact it is so theologically muddy, and has been so misinterpreted by the media, that his words had to be clarified and explained. When someone has to explain what the teacher is teaching, especially when he is trying to teach in accessible, man-in-the-street terms, there is a problem.
Part of the problem is the Pope’s emphasis on doing good works, even outside the context of faith (ie by atheists). His words lend themselves to the easy imputation of Pelagianism. Given this sad fact, another of his unfortunate impromptus takes on an added sting. In a meeting with the conference of Religious for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLAR) he made remarks that were recorded by those present (not an unreasonable thing). They have caused a storm both in the secular media and in the Catholic world. The secular media was more concerned with his admission of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican curia. This, he implies, is one of the problems that will be addressed by the commission of eight cardinals he erected to reform the Curia.
For the Catholic media, there was the added matter of his remarks equating a spiritual bouquet with Pelagianism:
I share with you two concerns. One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me; when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting… And these groups return to practices and to disciplines that I lived through – not you, because you are not old – to disciplines, to things that in that moment took place, but not now, they do not exist today…
There are so many problems with this passage. There is the tone, which appears patronising and condescending as he looks down on (and resists the temptation to laugh at) those who might offer a spiritual bouquet of rosaries for his ministry. Any pope before him would have been delighted. Far worse is his equation of this spiritual bouquet with Pelagianism. Spiritual bouquets are good works, which these devout people apparently spoil by counting them. But is this Pelagian? Can praying for another, not least the Pope, and using the supremely approved method of the rosary, ever be Pelagian? Pelagianism is concerned with an individual’s good works and accruing of merit for himself. The Pelagian basically says I can save myself. But these now-ridiculed faithful were praying for another, the Pope, not trying to save themselves. As Dr Shaw points out, if the counting was his problem, we might ask how else could they convey the scale of their corporate act? The number reveals that goodly number of people prayed a goodly number of roasries – for the Pope!
Moreover, how does one reconcile these remarks with his advocating atheists to do good works in the context of Christ’s blood having redeemed all humanity, even atheists? Spiritual bouquets for another are labelled as Pelagian; but advocating that atheists merely do works to be (it can be inferred) under the umbrella of Christ’s redemption – is that not more like Pelagianism? I am sure he did not mean it to be. The Holy Spirit will protect him from formal error, but it will not necessarily protect him from indiscretion
It is all very confusing, and a pope should not be in the business of confusion. He should not need help in making his remarks susceptible of orthodox interpretation. When in the next paragraph he makes a good point about pantheist/gnostic sisters who do “not pray in the morning, but … spiritually bathe in the cosmos”, all its force is lost by the problematic words immediately preceding them.
So it is then I have been trying to keep quiet. He is the pope; I am a mere footslogging monk/priest, little more than a pimple on the world’s posterior, so who am I to take him to task. But really, Pope Francis needs to start acting like a pope, however lacking in humility it might feel. He need not wear mozettas and nice vestments (though by eschewing the symbols of office, he weakens the strength of its voice); but he does need to start preparing his speeches and homilies, having them checked by his theologians, and then sticking to the texts. Behaving like an outspoken parish priest will not do for much longer. Frankly, the Church deserves better and certainly needs better. That said, I am confident he is capable of it.
So, at the risk of Pelagianism, let us fervently pray for Pope Francis. He needs prayer no less than we do.
**UPDATE – do please read the latest on this matter here. **