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Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis, The Church, And Moral Politics

Father Brophy had a very clear idea about morality – keep your hands to yourself – and so every Sunday Tom Furrier, his family, and the good Catholics of St. Maurice’s parish were subjected to the old priest’s fevered sermons about moral rectitude as epitomized in chaste celibacy.  Morality started and ended with sexual abstinence.  Temperance was for the weak of spirit and faint of heart. Paul was right when he suggested to the Ephesians that marriage was not all it was cracked up to be; women were the way to the Devil; and without a hectoring, pecking spouse, the way to Jesus would be a lot easier.



If you are married, he told his new Christian followers, by all means stay married and avoid the temptations of Sodom and Gomorrah; but if you have not taken the new sacrament of marital union, then by all means, stay away.

Father Brophy and his colleagues were never accused of sexual abuse, for the Fifties was an era of sexual innocence – or ignorance, as many critics have offered – and few of his parishioners would have ever even imagined anything untoward happening in the sacristy, vestibule, or rectory.  It was a much more innocent age.

The Catholic Church in the Fifties was very much Father Brophy’s church – absolute, conservative, and determined.  The difference between right and wrong had been determined two millennia ago; and there was no mistaking the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul.  Spiritual salvation was a function of absolute faith in Jesus Christ, election was in his hands, and the parables were mankind’s only guide to right living.

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Of course it was far more complicated than that, and theologians duked out their differences for over three centuries. Were Jesus Christ and God one being? Or did God generate his ‘son’? And what was the Holy Spirit? An essence that had existed forever even before God? Or was it also an emanation of God, just like the Son?

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        Origen, www.en.wikipedia.org

No one except academics care any more about the doctrinal disputes of the early church. Most of the Catholic faithful in the pews of St. Maurice church listening to Father Brophy knew only a few essential principles – the Catholic Church was the one true Church; Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation; and all other religions were heretical and apostate. 

“What about the Jews?”, Lavely Trimble asked her mother after Sunday Mass when Father Brophy had laid into the Jews as never before.  They were the ones who doubted, condemned, and crucified Our Savior; the ones who slavishly worshipped The Law and the Torah, who ignored the good news; and who have persisted in their ignorance for two thousand years. “I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they don’t seem that bad.”

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Recent Popes have tried to soften the Catholic ‘Christ-killer’ line and adopted a more ecumenical approach to religion. Yet it is hard to ignore the cold, hard facts recorded by the apostles.  It was Jews who cried for Jesus’ death; Jews who had persecuted him since his first appearance in the Temple at age 12; Jews who saw him as a dangerous meddler in Jewish politics.  Jews wanted Christ dead, purely and simply.

Father Brophy recited the many verses of the New Testament which attested to the complicity of the Jews in Jesus’ death.  Pilate wanted to exonerate him, for he didn’t see anything wrong with Jesus’s evangelism; but the mob insisted and Pilate, always the ruler, acceded to their wishes rather than risk civil unrest. 

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Aware of potential charges of anti-Semitism, but understanding the zeitgeist of the Christian Fifties, Brophy went on.  Raising his eyes to heaven, clasping his hands in prayer, and crying out in an ecstatic voice, he admonished his faithful, “ Believe in the Lord.”

A generation and more have passed since those simpler days. Critics from the Left and the Right are revisiting the Bible and re-interpreting it within the perspective of race, gender, and ethnicity.  The Jews really weren’t that bad after all.  They were put up to their defiance by the Pharisees just as the mob had been roused by the political rivals of Coriolanus. Jews were not the problem. The arrogant, venal, power-hungry, and self-protective upper classes were.

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From these fundamentals it was easy to re-interpret the rest of the Bible. The fact that both Old Testament prophets and New Testament evangelists condemned homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ meant nothing.  The ancient Middle East, locked into a patriarchal, social conservatism, nativist and interested only in the procreation of the Christian species, could embrace no other philosophy.  The fact that Jesus, the evangelists, and Paul not only celebrated the traditional family but described it as the expression of Divine spirituality and that it should be understood as an expression of the Greco-Roman-Early Christian world and not the modern one, has been lost.

There is no doubt that Christ had sympathies for the poor but a careful exegesis of his words suggest that he was addressing the interests of the rich rather than the poor. Divesting oneself of one’s material goods and distributing them among the poor was for the benefit of the giver not the recipient.  Hinduism, Buddhism, and ascetic Christianity have all understood and preached that the pursuit of material good detracts one from the pursuit of Heaven.

Enter Pope Francis, the only pope within recent memory who supposedly has challenged Catholic orthodoxy.  Maybe gay marriage is not such a bad thing.  Perhaps the definition of ‘family’ has some give and flexibility.  Love of Jesus and love between couples regardless of their sexual orientation might well be consistent.

Most Catholics know that Francis is in no way giving ground to diversity, inclusivity, and moral relativity. While one might have compassion for homosexuals and admit their civil rights, there is no way that a pontiff, schooled in the New Testament, the writings of Augustine, Origen, and Thomas can possibly admit that a uni-gender union is what God has intended.

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Francis is the consummate Catholic huckster and silver-tongued world leader.  He has confirmed the righteousness of traditional heterosexual marriage, concern for the poor, and the importance of spiritual renewal without offending anyone.  Just as theologians have parsed the words of the New Testament for 1500 years, so has Francis used doctrinal looseness to his advantage; and in so doing, strengthened a Church badly damaged by accusations of sexual abuse and buggery.

The Catholic Church has always been political; but unlike today Renaissance popes had might behind oratory. Henry VIII was only the last English monarch to dispute the authority of Rome. His ancestor Henry II fought with St. Thomas à Becket for supremacy over the Church. Henry VI rifled the treasuries of the monasteries as his right. Urban II was able to amass the armies of the French for the First Crusade.

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Francis, and popes before him had only residual power and influence. They could only rely on moral suasion. John Paul II was outspoken in his criticism of godless Communism, Benedict was insistent about the restoration of the Church’s moral authority; and now Francis believes that the weight of the Church can be applied to ‘socially moral’ issues.

Francis has been persuasive and eloquent in his embrace of the sanctity of life – a concept which includes both the unborn child and the rainforests of Brazil. This inclusive view of ‘life’, little different from the Hindu, and similar to that of  New Age proponents of Maia, is irresistible.  Francis is a winner.

“Should we vote for Pope Francis?”,  Lavely Trimble asked her mother.

“No, dear”, her mother replied. “He is subject to the will of the College of Cardinals; but don’t worry about such procedural issues. Your prayers are like votes.”

Everyone in Washington felt satisfied after Francis’ visit (September 2015).  He, like every savvy and talented politicians, had pushed the right buttons. Environmentalists claimed victory because of his focus on climate change. Pro-life activists saw in his embrace of ‘the sanctity of all life’ an affirmation for the rights of the unborn,. His defense of marriage was seen by traditionalists as a commitment to the heterosexual family; but liberals saw in his statements a sanctification of marriage regardless of the gender of the couple. 

Francis has been brilliant.  Never once has he compromised the precepts of the Church; but found ways to revalue his Liberation Theology past, reinterpret Christ’s words in a doctrinaire way, and establish himself within the groupie tradition of the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham. 

Pope Francis has been very astute in crafting his own, very personal morality.  He has managed to meld Liberation Theology, Augustine, and Western ‘diversity’ into his own Canon.  The genius of it all is that he is not socially liberal at all.  Dry, unproductive, selfish homosexual unions will always be anathema to Christians. The right to life will always trump the ethos of abortion and contraceptive expediency.  Secular works will always be secondary to expressions of faith.

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Lavely Trimble, her mother, and her two sisters waited two hours on Massachusetts Avenue to get a glimpse of Pope Francis as he made his way to the Capitol from the Vatican Nunciature.  Hindus called it a darshan, a viewing of a holy one which subtracted years from circling on the Wheel of Becoming.  The Catholic Church offered plenary indulgences, time off from Purgatory. In any case, Lavely knew that the visit of the Pope was very different from that of the Premier of China or the President of Chad; so she waited patiently, cheered when his motorcade went passed, blessed herself, and kissed her mother. 

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