Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Back to the Future with Pope Francis to Vatican II

In case you haven't noticed, dear reader, I like to keep a weather eye on Rome from the obscurity of the study in the old manse. Like it or not, what happens in Rome shapes the landscape in which all Western churches must work. It has been very interesting, then, to learn in recent months that Pope Francis has a less ambivalent, more embracing attitude towards Vatican II than Benedict XVI, who was a theological advisor to the Council but famously later took a decisive personal stance against the abuses which flowed from it. The recent speech on the state of the church by the Pope's primary advisor, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, can be read as an attempt to put some flesh on the bones of Francis's plans for the Roman church for English speakers (the speech was delivered by the Cardinal in English, a language in which Francis is not proficient). You can read or listen to the speech _here_ (the usual caveat applies).

Is that a DeLorean?
Note the Cardinal's determination to follow through on the Council's "unfinished business", which must inspire nightmares about_ liturgical dance and giant papier mache puppet heads _among the conservative Catholics I know.  It is nothing if not a passionate speech, although there seems to me to be a distinct lack of a sense of God's transcendence about it, as though that has all been swallowed up by His immanence in the world.*

It appears that in the Cardinal's mind the eschatological hope can be hastened into existence through political action in which the church works alongside the poor in their struggle for economic and social justice. But in a balanced theology God's transcendence and immanence both need to be maintained in tension until the parousia resolves them. If anything, God's immanence in this fallen world is experienced only from the perspective of the Cross and is therefore always ambivalent unless mediated by His Word (the sacraments being visible Words, following Augustine's terminology).  There is mention of the need for personal conversion but only in two sentences at the end, as if an afterthought. There are also hints of the usual naivety of churchmen in regard to economics and how the poor of the world might best be helped - in that matter the road to hell is paved with the good intentions of clergy. 

From the Lutheran perspective, Vatican II was like the curate's egg: good in parts. The question which interests us then is which parts will Francis promote most strongly? So far Francis seems to be more given to praxis than theoria, at least in his public pronouncements. That might give the impression of being effective for a time, but sooner or later the content of the "new evangelization" must be filled out for our time with more than pious exhortations to hold a "preferential option for the poor". In terms of that content, Rome appears to be suffering amnesia in regard to what could learn from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, flawed though that document is. Failing a review of the doctrinal content of the Gospel based upon Biblical studies (might the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation provide an impetus to that?), I'm afraid the Roman Catholic church at the end of Francis's tenure as Pope may look much like it did in the mid-1970s during the final years of Paul VI's pontificate - polarised, demoralised and rankly synergistic in its proclamation of the Gospel.

*  The Cardinal even condescends to call the Kingdom of God Jesus' "program", as though our Lord were a politician elected on a reform platform. Later a South American episcopal document is quoted which refers to the need for the church to side with the poor in their (political?) struggles. It was this sort of enthusiastic but naive talk which, in the 1970s, led to the attempted synthesis of South American Catholicism and Marxism known as Liberation Theology, which was roundly criticised by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1983. Among Ratzinger's criticisms was the playing off of "the people of God" against the hierarchical church  - I wonder if Papa Benny is experiencing deja vu as he reads the Cardinal's speech?  


SCEcclesia said...

I am glad that you had the opportunity of hearing that speech - I wonder how you came across it? My wife and I also listened to it while washing the dishes the other day (I couldn't download it since I only found it on Soundcloud and so had to listen while connected to wifi). I found it quite refreshing actually, and my wife approved of the emphasis on Lectio Divina (an encounter with the word of God that I thought you might approve of, Pastor!). I have had the good fortune to meet and briefly work with Cardinal Oscar when he visited Melbourne before World Youth Day back in 2008. While listening to the speech, I thought again what crossed my mind at the last conclave - he would have made a good pope! (His ability to speak English in an inspiring way was part of my thought on this). I don't know about your thoughts on how the "preferential option for the poor" - I would have thought that Cardinal Oscar was as good an authority on this as possible, given he comes from the Third World and was head of Caritas for a while. As for the Vatican II thing - you seem to have fallen into the same mistake that many others have, namely that Benedict and JPII were not "Popes of the Council". In actual fact, Francis is the first pope we have had in 50 years who was NOT actually a participant in the Council. All of the Popes since the Council have been strong proponents of the Council decrees - although perhaps not all giving the same emphasis (the Council issued many decrees, and like any large collection of documents - including the Book of Concord - it is easy to interpret them from different standpoints). You can argue about the relative merits of Gaudium et Spes compared to, for instance, Dei Verbum or Lumen Gentium. Benedict clearly had a soft spot for DV, just as JPII had a spot for LG. Perhaps Francis is a GS kinda guy. What does it matter? The Council as a whole and in all its parts remains a settled part of Catholic magisterium. If anything, most expect that the polarisation of the Church on these matters will become less, not more, accentuated during the pontificate of Francis. Overall, I would have thought that had any protestant heard a speech such as that which the Cardinal recently gave in Dallas fifty years ago, he would have been overjoyed and amazed at the way in which the "Church of Rome" had been grasped by the Gospel!

Mark Henderson said...

"Overall, I would have thought that had any protestant heard a speech such as that which the Cardinal recently gave in Dallas fifty years ago, he would have been overjoyed and amazed at the way in which the "Church of Rome" had been grasped by the Gospel!"
There's certainly been some progress, David, but not enough for me to be overjoyed. As you know, the Roman doctrine of salvation remains unchanged since Trent.

the Old Adam said...

The Roman Church remains semi-Pelagian to the core.

Of course they deny it, but that denial is meaningless based upon their doctrine of co-operative salvation.

Mark Henderson said...

Which is why, old Adam, I'm mystified when Lutherans become Roman Catholics and explain the decision along the lines of "Roman Catholicism completes/fulfils my Lutheranism". It does not - Rome has a different doctrine of salvation which contradicts the Lutheran doctrine (JDDJ notwithstanding). Fair enough if you come to accept the Roman doctrine and consequently reject the Lutheran doctrine - I can understand that even if I disagree - but most conversion stories I've read don't include that explanation.

the Old Adam said...


I think people who convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism never liked the freedom. But instead they love and yearn for "religion" (the project and the pomp).

Mark Henderson said...

Yes, old Adam, in the conversion stories I have read I think I do detect (dare I say it?) a want of faith in God and His oversight of the world and the church for which Rome becomes the substitute (cf. Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable). I say this not to denigrate these converts but because I think it is an influential factor which must be named for what it is and which even they sometimes acknowledge and wrestle with.

Mark Henderson said...

Of course, Steve, "religion" can be a substitute for faith or a crutch for a weak faith, but on the whole I'm not averse to using the term in Lactantius's sense of the bond of piety that binds us to God, which for the Christian is faith and the means of grace which create it, which must of necessity be presented to us as rites accompanied by ceremony. In short, I don't go in for the "religionless Christianity" thing. Just sayin'!

the Old Adam said...

I know what you mean.

I was using the word in the "trying to ascend to God...to please God by what we do, or don't do" definition.

As opposed to trust in what He has done, is doing, and will yet do, for us.