Friday, March 22, 2013



For those tempted to draw an overly sharp distinction between Pope Francis and his predecessor, the new pope offered a clear reminder Friday that he may have a different style than Benedict XVI, but on substance, he's cut from much the same cloth.

In a speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Friday, Francis lamented not only the material poverty of the early 21st century but also its "spiritual poverty," meaning a rejection of God and objective standards of morality.

In that regard, Francis quoted Benedict's famous critique of a post-modern "dictatorship of relativism," delivered during a homily for the Mass in 2005 that opened the conclave that elected him pope.

(In its English translation of the pope's remarks, the Vatican actually rendered the term as "tyranny," but the idea is the same. Francis said it "afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously.")

The message seemed clear: Pope Francis will try to live up to his namesake, Francis of Assisi, as a man of the poor and of peace, but that doesn't signal any retreat from the moral and cultural positions associated with the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

"There is no peace without truth," Francis told the diplomats.

"There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth."

References to universal human nature are often shorthand in Vatican discourse for defense of traditional teaching on matters such as sexuality, marriage and the family.

Francis spoke Friday morning to representatives of 180 nations, leaving just 15 internationally recognized countries that do not have formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Francis said he hoped today "will also be an opportunity to begin a journey" to establishing relations with those remaining nations, which include China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

Noting that one of his titles is "pontiff," meaning "bridge builder," Francis pledged to try to create "real spaces of authentic fraternity" among peoples and cultures. He said religions have a special role in that regard: "It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God," he said. But he said the opposite is also true: "It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people."

In terms of hints of his foreign policy agenda, Francis placed special emphasis on dialogue with Islam, fighting poverty (both material and spiritual), building peace, and protection of the environment.

In his brief remarks, delivered in Italian, Francis did not address any specific global hot spots such as Syria, where the country's embattled Christianity minority is struggling to hold on amid a bloody civil war and rising currents of Islamic radicalism. He also did not come off the cuff, as he has often done during his first week in office, sticking entirely to his prepared text.

Friday's headline, however, is probably less about Francis and foreign policy than about Francis and ecclesial policy.

Based on Friday's speech, at least, anyone who saw his election as a repudiation of the broad philosophical and theological outlook of Benedict XVI probably has another think coming.

From the Moynihan Letters, Dr. Robert Moynihan writes the following:

March 22, 2013, Friday -- Holding to Benedict

"But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, the dear and venerated Benedict XVI, called the 'dictatorship of relativism'..."

(Original Italian: "Ma c’è anche un’altra povertà! È la povertà spirituale dei nostri giorni, che riguarda gravemente anche i Paesi considerati più ricchi. È quanto il mio Predecessore, il caro e venerato Benedetto XVI, chiama la 'dittatura del relativismo'...")

--Pope Francis, March 22, 2013 (today), in the Vatican, speaking to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, citing words spoken by Pope Benedict XVI eight years ago on the eve of the previous Conclave


Folks, Pope Francis has done it.

He has taken his stand.

He did it this morning, about three hours ago.

And his stand is with... Pope Benedict, his predecessor, with whom he will meet tomorrow.

The importance of Francis's words today cannot be overestimated.

Francis today took his stand with the essential spiritual vision of Pope Benedict. (And note: in this talk, unlike in several previous talks, Pope Francis adhered strictly to his prepared text; he made no "off the cuff" remarks. So, this was thought-out in advance and intentional.)

If one were to summarize in a phrase, one might say that Francis today said: "I stand with Pope Benedict."

But on what, precisely?

Francis today said he stands with Pope Benedict on the Christian conception of truth: that the truth of the Christian faith, the truth of the Christian vision of man, leads mankind toward life, more abundant life, toward justice, toward true joy.

What Francis said today was critical, and should be read carefully by all who want to understand "where he is coming from."

So far, the "pundits" -- and really, all of us -- have been "circling" Pope Francis, like the group of blind men circling the elephant, one touching the rope-like tail, one the smooth, sheet-like ear, one the hard, ivory tusk, all "seeing" only a small part... none seeing the whole.

One pundit notes the Pope's simplicity, his actual poverty, his love for the poor, and says (wrongly): "He is the people's Pope, the Pope of the poor, so... he is a liberal, he may very well be a social revolutionary, a 'liberation' Pope... and perhaps also breaking with Church teaching on sexual matters..." Another pundit notes that Francis has strongly defended Church teaching on the family, on sexual morality, and says (wrongly) "he is a conservative, he won't 'rock the boat' at all..."

Francis cannot be captured by these political categories.

He transcends them.

As Jesus transcended all categories, reaching out to sinners -- and all are sinners -- but also, asking them not to sin. Loving the sinner, but not the sin...

As Pope Benedict transcended all categories. Ceaselessly reminding all of us that our destiny transcends all worldly categories, that we are made for eternity, not just for time...

Perhaps it is time that we should all say that there are not "conservative" and "liberal" or even "traditional" and "orthodox" Catholics at all, just simply "Catholics" in a universal Church, stretching backward to the first days of the Church and forward to the end of the world in time, and global in space, unable to be described rightly by these secular categories.

So today, Pope Francis, powerfully, set his course, transcending the "left" and the "right" and pointing all of us toward higher things.

It was the first, great "programmatic" discourse of his pontificate.

His central thrust today was: (1) don't try to confine me, or reduce me and my message, to worldly categories; and (2) don't try to separate me from my predecessor, Benedict.

These messages were powerful, fundamental and... needed.

The "signature phrase" today was that there is spiritual poverty as well as physical poverty -- a central message of Christianity, and a central message of Pope Benedict.

Pope Francis said there is truth, a truth which gives life and light, a truth which relativism obscures, leaving confusion, darkness, and ultimately, death (as Pope John Paul II put it, creating a "culture of death").

Eight years ago, on April 18, 2005, this same thought was at the heart of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's homily to the cardinals as they were about to go into the Conclave that elected him the next day. Here are those essential, historic passages, just for the record, with the phrase "dictatorship of relativism" (in the original Italian the phrase was "una dittatura del relativismo") bold-faced. Remember, these are the words of Pope Benedict just before he became Pope:

"How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves -- flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,' seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.

"We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An 'adult' faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.

"We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith -- only faith -- that creates unity and is fulfilled in love." (Link: April 18, 2005 homily)

By using this same phrase today, "dictatorship of relativism," Pope Francis was linking his own thought, and faith, and the direction of his pontificate, to these words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger eight years ago.

Two other points are very important in Pope Francis's discourse this morning:

(1) the new Pope's desire to engage in dialogue with Islam, something he expresses in very clear terms, and so something many western powers, which since September 11, 2001, have entered into a seemingly endless conflict with large parts of the Islamic world, will certainly note with interest; and

(2) the new Pope's concern for creation, that human beings take care not to "hurt the earth" by poisoning it; this is a strong emphasis toward the end of this speech.

A final point: Pope Francis expresses a clear desire that "those few countries that do not yet have diplomatic relations with the Holy See" -- like China -- may soon establish relations.

So, today's talk to the diplomatic corps is an important, "course-setting" talk for the new helmsman of the "barque of Peter."

And tomorrow, Pope Francis will meet with the old helmsman, Pope Benedict, at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo...


rcg said...

I do hope Pope Francis is finding a way to prove that Pope Benedict's initiatives can be expressed in a manner appealing to the soft sciences folks. There is a great misconception that Pope Benedict was indifferent toward the poor, ignoring them during his papacy. I hope Pope Francis sees to explicitly correct this misconception in more opportunities.

I certainly support Pope Francis, and chuckle at the cartoons that lump 'Trads' in with the liberals as being critical of him. I have been more than a little disappointed that the Trads have been so overly-sensitive to his initial steps.

However, traditional Catholics have been attacked by the rest of the church, including many in the clergy, for the simple desire to have dignity in our worship. The irony is not lost on Traditionalists that the poor should expect more to be given from those who can, while excluding that same standard in our worship of God.

There is a great laziness that beckons from the NO that allows us to slack off. Some excuse this in order to claim solidarity with the poor. St Joseph Parish, under your leadership, has done the opposite, but most have not.

The goal, it seems to me, is to lead Catholics from waiting for commands, through executing the commands well and thoroughly, to eventually have a group of people who actively seek out ways to creatively please the Lord in our daily lives. I am not sure Pope Francis, or any of the bishops, understands that the poor can be helped in a distributed economy with Christians using their own created capital, to distribute wealth as a capability, not just as goods, among the poor. Their criticisms of Capitalism are more valid for more centralised economies. As far as the conflict between EF and OF people it appears to me that they have replaced the tyranny of the Tridentine Mass with the tyranny of the NO in the same effort to exercise control and are blind to that specific continuity with the past.

No matter. This wheel turns slowly and we can wait and see.

Gregorian Mass said...

I wonder if the Pope will implement and respect the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia from John XXIII and also the sections from the Constitution on the Scared Liturgy that states the People of God shall learn the parts of the Mass and Ordinary that pertain to them in Latin. Workshops in each parish to facilitate this.If folks choose to call an Apostolic Constitution a "dead letter" then we must assume the same of Humane Vitae, no ? Back to basics should include the basic Constitutions of the Church.

Anonymous 2 said...

I am very encouraged by this speech. As Moynihan writes:

“Perhaps it is time that we should all say that there are not ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ or even ‘traditional’ and ‘orthodox’ Catholics at all, just simply ‘Catholics’ in a universal Church, stretching backward to the first days of the Church and forward to the end of the world in time, and global in space, unable to be described rightly by these secular categories.”

Amen to that. It is past time in fact.

On the one hand, Pope Francis rightly condemns relativism as Pope Benedict did. On the other, he also rightly emphasizes the importance of building bridges between peoples and cultures, including the importance of dialogue with Islam. The challenge, then, will be to insist on the irreducible Truth about human nature and the human condition, as made known by God, while seeking common ground, honoring legitimate diversity and pluralism, and recognizing the awesomeness and mystery of God’s Creation, all in the pursuit of true (not faux) peace. But surely, where there is a will, and with faith in God’s grace, there is a way.