Pope Francis

To Wash Or Not To Wash

First, my apologies to William Shakespeare.

Rome is called the
“Eternal City”. Originally it was a political concept springing from a self-possessed people. But over time the term has come to mean more. For example, the Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome, technically the Vatican City State. And the church moves with such tortoise-like alacrity, that eternal has frequently been used to designate the speed of change. Then came Francis.

Not since John XXIII has a pope so energized the church with the gifts of the spirit, in particular, the spirit of humility. In Catholic theology there is a built in tension between the institutional church (tradition) and the movement of the spirit (charism). The church is neither singularly pentecostal, nor can it be fossilized in an authoritarian past. That tension keeps the church in balance. The progress may be slow, but it is steady. With a few hitches.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week. And Thursday evening begins the Triduum, the most sacred three days in the Christian calendar when we commemorate the Last Supper, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Although symbol is core to all the rituals of the Catholic Church, perhaps the most powerful and inspiring one occurs on Holy Thursday when the priest washes the feet of parishioners, a reenactment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Enter Pope Francis and his universal vision.

It is not overstating the case to suggest that Francis is a rare person. A Pope with the wisdom to acknowledge his own limitations and the humility to admit that he does not know everything. Unfortunately, not all his bishops share those traits.

Last year, Francis modeled Jesus, not just by washing feet, but washing the feet of women. And not just women, but a Muslim woman. It was so moving that one could be forgiven for thinking this model would be followed by others. And, indeed, some have. But in Wisconsin there is a bishop who defies not just the example of the Pope, but also the fact of evolution.

Robert Molino, the bishop of Madison, is stuck in the past. Irretrievably. He has ignored the Pope’s example in his own life and has also prohibited any priest in his diocese from washing the feet of any woman in any church. He seems to have confused his role with that of the universal shepherd. Sadly, this has caused enlightened pastors in his diocese to skip this profound symbol altogether.

I understand that the twelve Apostles were all men. But the Scriptures do not say that only men were in attendance at the Last Supper. And if women were present, washing their feet would have been an even more profound demonstration of Jesus’ humility and fully consistent with the meaning of his action.

It is so tempting to say Molino is misogynistic. But that is too kind a word. It is more accurate to suggest he is Neanderthal. But that is an insult to our ancestors. No, I’m afraid that Bishop Molino is an archeological phenomenon. He simultaneously proves and disproves evolution.

By contrasting him with Pope Francis one can prove that evolution takes place and at the same time prove that evolution is not inevitable. Francis embraces women as the equal of men and all men as equal to each other. Molino embraces only his own kind.

Of course it is possible that the contrast proves divergence. Francis, like most of humanity, is continuing to evolve. Molino, like some, is devolving. Either way this is not as comical as I pretend. It is tragic. Tragic that women in the Madison diocese are so demeaned. Tragic that the Catholic Church has a pope who has been to the mountaintop and a bishop who is still swinging in the trees.

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.

Democracy in the Catholic Church

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a moment. We’re not there, yet. Pope Francis has asked that every parish, meaning every practicing Catholic, weigh in on significant issues of faith—same-sex marriage, birth control, divorce, to name just three. He’s taking a poll. But what does this mean?

First of all, it signifies that all the people have a voice in church teaching. Now before conservatives get too worked up, this is not really radical. Merely unusual. For too long, there has been a tendency to confuse the “Church” with the Vatican, or its institutional structure; a tendency to confuse the authority of the pope and bishops with the “faith” of the church. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the church is the people of God. Underlying every Catholic doctrine is the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the people. In the simplest of terms, this means that the entire people cannot err in faith—they cannot believe something contrary to the truth. An individual, a parish, a diocese, even an entire country can be in error, but not the whole people. Collectively they have been given the deposit of faith.

Although possibly only an academic distinction, it should be noted that not even the pope can declare something infallible that the people themselves do not believe.

It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares that the keys of the kingdom belong to Peter. But in context, Jesus places Peter in charge as “first among equals”. It was not a power play. Peter was to be the source of unity, who would exercise authority in order to hold the church together. Scholars note that in all the Gospels, when any list of apostles is given, Peter is always mentioned first and only Peter speaks for the entire group. That indicates the position Peter enjoyed among the twelve. But even then, it was not absolute.

In the Acts of the Apostles we see that Paul, also an Apostle—though not one of the twelve—challenges Peter. He does so not to usurp the authority of Peter. He does not even attempt to. Rather, Paul makes sure that Peter exercises his authority correctly. That he embraces the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Catholic theology, the pope is the successor of Peter. So he possesses that same role of authority and unity. But there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the authority. A good example is the church’s teaching on birth control. Pope John XXIII established a commission to examine whether or not artificial contraception was intrinsically evil. Following his election, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72.

It remains a sad historical reality that at the conclusion of the study two reports were presented to Paul VI. The official report was signed by 65 members—including every lay person on the commission, hence anyone who had received the Sacrament of Marriage. Their conclusion was artificial contraception is not intrinsically evil. But there was a minority report (isn’t there always?). The minority report was signed by 7 clerics (4 priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops), none of whom was married. Paul VI promulgated the minority report. Where was the sensus fidelium in 1967? By the way, for any Americans reading this blog, we have additional reason for shame. Two American priests drafted the minority report!

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that Paul VI was wise enough not to claim infallibility! That would have been a mess, for the best studies indicate that the number of married Catholics who practice artificial birth control may be as high as 80%. Pope Francis has decided to give proper weight to the sensus fidelium.

Does this mean the Catholic Church will become a democracy? Perhaps not. But for the long suffering, this is the same excitement that stirred in people from the American Revolution to the Arab Spring. Pope Francis has welcomed the Holy Spirit back to Rome after far too long a vacation!