Good News

Rushing the Pope

Every pope has to deal with throngs of people. They crowd St. Peter’s Square, the streets along papal routes, and push past each other for at least a view, if not an opportunity to touch. But Pope Francis has to fend off more than any of his predecessors, for he has been “rushed”, a.k.a. “Limbaughed”. Yup, the same. The talk show host who, in his own mind, is larger than life.

In my more sane moments, I believe that it is better to ignore people like Limbaugh. So much of what he says is spoken out of ignorance—in the true sense of the word. He lacks knowledge. Giving him more attention runs the risk of expanding his already immense ego. However, he has a large following, turning the old aphorism into a truism: He knows just enough to be dangerous. On top of which he seems to be a touch schizophrenic. First he liked Francis, now he despises him. All within seven months.

For the first few months Limbaugh waxed ineloquently about the pope, assuming he was a conservative who would make the liberals—both in and outside the church—squirm. When answering questions and consenting to interviews, the pope mused about equality and acceptance. Still, he did not fundamentally alter church teaching. He even promulgated a document mostly written by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Then came Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. This is an almost overwhelming document. It is not written in typical ecclesiastical language. Nor is it an academic treatise from an ivory tower. It is the result of a life lived among God’s people. It is very readable, personal, even tender in style. But it is also uncomfortable in its call to joy and in its challenge to the economic principles and individualism that have seduced many a believer and obscured the teachings of Jesus. Hence, the title.

This is all about the Gospel. It is not an economic document, but it recognizes that the Good News of Jesus Christ must be applied to every facet of life, even the economy. In fact, given the desire for wealth, the drive to maximize profit at the expense of human beings, The Joy of the Gospel is profoundly applicable to the economy. That’s what bothers people like Limbaugh.

Like many others who have criticized Pope Francis’ Exhortation, Limbaugh rants against the application of the Gospel to economics. As if the economy is somehow exempt from the Good News, from the call of Jesus. As if capitalism is a competing gospel. Sadly, for many an American I suspect it is.

Limbaugh probably doesn’t know that the term capitalism is of relatively recent coinage. It is anachronistic to suggest that it is the economic principle on which this nation has built. As an economic system, it can only claim our allegiance if it advances the principles of the Gospel. Unfettered capitalism certainly does not.

Jesus came to free us from sin. However, that terminology has become almost meaningless in today’s world, because while we easily condemn one another, we rarely look to the sin in ourselves. We do not bother to question what drives us on a daily basis.

Perhaps capitalism is not inherently evil. But no system that places profit over people, that dismisses the downtrodden or disperses inequality can simultaneously advance the Gospel. Dependence has been imbued with a negative connotation in the capitalistic world. Yet Jesus calls us to be dependent on God. It is not for nothing that he cautions us, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Popes are not always right. And there is room for dialogue and even disagreement. But one has to wonder why so many apostles of capitalism are so uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ apostolic letter. They seem more reactionary than dialogic in their dissent—squirming as the Gospel inches ever closer to their raison d’être.

I am reminded of a scene in John’s Gospel in which Jesus’ teaching makes many of his listeners uncomfortable, causing even some of his disciples to abandon him. He then turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you wish to leave also?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Rush Limbaugh and his kind turn their backs and leave, I think I’ll stay for awhile.
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Desperately Seeking Satan

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is on a quest. That’s OK. Most Christians are. The difference is that, while most are seeking the kingdom of God, Paprocki is seeking the devil. Same-sex marriage has come to Illinois and on November 20, 2013 he held a Mass of exorcism in reparation for the state’s new marriage equality law.

He appears to draw his inspiration not from Jesus, but from the French poet Charles Baudelaire who once wrote: “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” That’s clever and lends itself to the drama of Hollywood screenplays. But does it convince?

There is no question that evil exists and that it is the opposite of good. The problem seems to originate with the personification of evil as “Satan” or the devil. That is simply simplistic. The result of creation myths attempting to explain the existence of evil. However, casting evil as a person, while not fully exonerating us, lessens our culpability for making poor decisions. It also tends to remove the nuance of many of those decisions. Not everything is right or wrong.

Nor is opposing evil the same as pursuing good. It is a question of focus. If one over-emphasizes evil, good is diminished. Paprocki’s crusade against same-sex marriage is on point. In Christianity, as in most religious traditions, love is a good to be sought. As I have commented in the past, the most profound statement about God occurs in the First Letter of John when he writes: “God is love.”

In fact, the second time he writes those words, in chapter 4:16, he states: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Because Paprocki is opposed to homosexuality, his screed against same sex-marriage actually diminishes love and in the process diminishes God.

Reducing love to sexuality and/or sexual orientation makes it elusive, as even many heterosexual couples have discovered. Love is greater than sex. But when sex is an expression of love the presence of God is unveiled. And revealing the presence of God should not be shunned. After all, it cannot help but make the world better.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God, cannot be about condemnation. Jesus, himself, cautions Paprocki—and the rest of us—“do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” Jesus could not be any clearer than his statement: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There is value in looking to poets for inspiration. Paprocki turns to Baudelaire. I am tempted to invoke Shakespeare. Perhaps Paprocki protests too much? History is also a good teacher. From that perspective the bishop from Illinois reminds me of the 1950’s senator from Wisconsin. Joseph McCarthy was looking for Communists under the mattresses of every American. How poetically comical that Paprocki is also looking in people’s bedrooms. This time, however, it is to find the devil under the sheets.
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