Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pope Francis' Understanding of Catholicism: An Orchestra in Which All Can Play!

When I was a little boy growing up in Australia, my introduction to an orchestra was through two things. The first was the Little Golden Book, Animal Orchestra. I loved all the different animals in this orchestra and how they all played so happily together!

The second thing that introduced me to the idea (and actually sounds) of an orchestra was a 45 rpm recording of Danny Kaye's Tubby the Tuba. It's quite a sad little tale at first, as poor Tubby never feels as though he's really listened to or appreciated for who he is by his orchestra. He longs for a melody of his own but is constantly told by the other orchestra members that that's simply not possible.

Then one day a friendly bullfrog helps Tubby get in touch with his own special melody. The next day a kind conductor allows Tubby to play it. The hearts and minds of the other orchestra members are opened and soon they are all playing along. The result is something harmonious, beautiful and new. (But, hey, don't just take my word for it. You can hear for yourself the recording of Tubby the Tuba that my brothers and I listened to by clicking here!).

The pope's orchestra

I was reminded of both Animal Orchestra and Tubby's story when I recently read a commentary by Terence Weldon at his always informative and insightful blog, Queering the Church. In this particular post, Terence shares his thoughts on a Vatican Information Service report on Pope Francis' October 9 general audience address. The pope's central message in this address is that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are eroded by the pursuit of uniformity. Following, with a couple of additional links, is what Terence has to say about this . . .

If the Catholic right has already been surprised by our new pope, following remarks during his in – flight press conference in July, confused by his long September interview with Jesuit magazines, in a state of panic at the thought of the planned extraordinary synod on the family, how will they respond to this?

As part of the catechesis in a general audience, Wednesday October 9th, Pope Francis flatly contradicted a central tenet dearly held by what I think of as rabidly orthotoxic Catholics – those who are convinced that the deposit of faith is precisely defined (in terms exactly matching their own understanding, especially of all matters sexual), that all true Catholics are required to believe and follow absolutely every detail of this deposit as specified in the Catechism, and presented by the Vatican, and that failing to follow these rules, endangers one’s hopes of eternal salvation – and that questioning their validity counts as heresy. For that reason, they believe, it is their solemn religious obligation to correct and rebuke those who differ in their opinions from their own, deeming such rebukes an act of mercy, saving their miserable souls from damnation.

This view of course, ignores the facts, that embedded in the Catechism itself, and in numerous Vatican documents, are numerous references that contradict this narrow view. There is explicit recognition of the importance of conscience, not all elements of teaching are of the same level of importance, and not all require the same degree of assent. A close reading of the Catechism, furthermore, exposes elements that are self – contradictory (especially on matters of human sexuality). In effect, it is impossible for every Catholic to follow meticulously every line of the Catechism, every detail of every Vatican decree, or for every Catholic to interpret and apply these in the same way, as orthotoxic Catholics expect.

So what will they make of the pope’s very clear statement that their expected uniformity, of practice and belief, is simply NOT a mark of Catholicism, after all? Instead, in describing three meanings of the term “Catholic”, he gave the third as inclusive of diversity. Elaborating, he used the image of a symphony orchestra, in which different notes and tone colours of the many different instruments combine in glorious harmony. The challenge for the right is acute: for them it is an article of faith that the pope, guided by God, must be right – so what are they to make of papal pronouncements that contradict their central conviction that Catholicism requires absolute conformity? Or that their own desire to impose uniformity “erodes the gifts of the Holy Spirit”?

It is not clear from the Vatican Information Service report exactly what characteristics he was referring to, but it is likely that he was thinking in terms of practice and belief, rather than demographics – where many measures of diversity are self-evident. LGBT Catholics however, can reasonably take these words to heart as including sexual, gender and family diversity – and certainly, applicable to diversity of interpretation, on Catholic sexual theology.

What Terence says reminds me of the insights of historian Gary Macy, insights I've previously shared at The Wild Reed. Basically, Macy, in his book, Treasures from the Storeroom: Medieval Religion and the Eucharist, reveals the long-held theology within the Church that recognizes and celebrates “each generation of Christians as equally graced by God, each striving to fulfill God’s will as they understand it. Each generation failing, misunderstanding, or succeeding as much as we do [today].”

“If this theological approach is correct,” says Macy, “then the past seems not so much a simple path leading (how reassuring!) right to our doorstep, but rather many paths attempting to find their way to God. Perhaps not surprisingly, seen from this perspective, the past may well be more tolerant of diversity than some scholars have led us to believe.”

Diversity: Our true tradition

According to Macy, “the discovery of such diversity suggests two theological conclusions. First . . . is the well-founded belief that our true tradition is diversity itself.”

“To be tolerant is a substantial part of our better Christian heritage,” insists Macy. Furthermore, “If there was diversity in the past, and that diversity was tolerated, then the best way to truly honor the past is to foster such diversity in the present.”

“Secondly,” continues Macy, “this understanding of the history of Christianity frees us in the present from a tremendous burden. If the past did not lead ineffably to us, then the future does not absolutely depend upon us ‘getting it right’ either (whatever that might mean to different groups). We are surely called to do and live by, to the best of our ability, what we determine to be God’s will (just as those in the past were supposed to do).”

Macy also notes that “in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a truly autocratic notion of Church was propagated with great success and then read back into the rest of Christian Catholic history. [In the] twenty-first century we are still wrestling with this terrifically successful campaign of misinformation.”

Here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minnesota we have an archbishop, John Nienstedt, very much committed to this “autocratic notion of Church.” The previous pope encouraged such a notion. Not so Francis. Were does that leave prelates like Nienstedt? One thing's for sure, he's still very much opposed to dialogue and diversity. Yet what is the theological basis for such opposition? It’s certainly not reflected in the example of Pope Francis, nor is it to be found in the theology of our forebears, who, as Macy documents, embraced a theological tradition which recognized “each generation of Christians [as being] equally graced by God, [and] striving to fulfill God’s will as they understand it.”

No, the theology that Archbishop Nienstedt and other so-called "traditionalists" embrace is far more narrow, prescriptive, and authoritarian. Macy describes it as the ‘Big Book of Doctrine’ school of theology.

“This strange form of authoritarianism,” says Macy when describing this particular school of theology, “fomented both by the ultra-montanism of the late nineteenth-century papacy and by Enlightenment anti-clericalism, understands Roman Catholicism as fundamentally an attempt to provide the definitive answers to all questions, usually in one ‘big book of doctrine,’ whether it be Thomas’s Summa, Denzinger’s Enchiridion, or lately the Roman Catechism of the Universal Church.”

Of course, I'm well aware that the church is nowhere near as accepting of diversity, and thus the gifts of all, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, as I'd like it to be. But I continue to be pleasantly astounded at how much of what Pope Francis says and does moves things in the right direction.

Related Off-site Links:
From Today's Office: Doctrinal Development is Inevitable – Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, October 11, 2013).
The Pope's Radical Whisper – Frank Bruni (New York Times via The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 22, 2013).
Pope Francis Breathes New Life Into Bernardin's Contested Legacy – David Gibson (Religion News Service via National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2013).
Conservative Catholics Question Pope Francis' Approach – Michelle Boorstein and Elizabeth Tenety (The Washington Post via The Progressive Catholic Voice, October 15, 2013).
With New Pope, a More Open Church? – Michael O’Loughlin (Religion and Politics, October 15, 2013).
Casual Pope Puts Vatican on Alert with Quips – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, October 9, 2013).
A Big Heart Open to God: An Exclusive Interview with Pope Francis – Antonio Spadaro, S.J. (America, September 30, 2013).
The Pope: How the Church Will Change – Eugenio Scalfari (La Repubblica, October 1, 2013).
Dueling Worldviews – Paula Ruddy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, August 19, 2013).
Pope Francis is Unsettling – and Dividing – the Catholic Right – David Gibson (Religion News Service, August 6, 2013).
It's Time for Real Authority for Women in the Church – Editorial Staff (National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2013).
The Wounds Will Not Heal If the Teachings Remain the Same – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 2013).

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