Papal hot takes are missing the point

Pope Francis’s visit to the Western Hemisphere has occasioned a whole new round of papal #takes. Conservatives are conservasplaining that Francis, with all this talk of economic inequality and environmental doom-and-gloom, doesn’t understand the gospel, or hates science and modernity. Liberals are warning that Francis isn’t really progressive, but a theocrat in progressive clothing. Rinse, repeat.

This cross-ideological freak out seems to me to miss the genuine source of Francis’s appeal. Rev. Amy Butler of New York City’s historic Riverside Church puts her finger on it here, I think, when she writes that many of the “radical” things Francis is doing–reaching out to the poor and marginalized, emphasizing our responsibility to care for creation, trying to live modestly and with humility–are things all Christians are supposed to be doing.

We’re so used to religious leaders who look nothing like this-slick, rich megachurch pastors or angry, apocalyptic cranks–that when someone shows up who’s living what is basically just Christianity 101, it’s startling and refreshing.

That doesn’t mean everything Francis does or says is (ahem) infallible. I for one disagree with the Catholic Church on the usual matters where liberal Protestants tend to disagree with it. And it does seem that the pope may understate some of the virtues of market economics and modern political arrangements. But I can still appreciate the genuinely Christ-like spirit animating his ministry. If more of our leaders (and lay people!) exhibited a similar spirit, Christianity–and the world–might look very different.

How many divisions has the pope?

I believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats to human civilization of our time, if not the biggest. So in that sense I’m glad that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will apparently be a strong endorsement of our responsibility to address it.

Still, I find the excitement around this encyclical to be a bit odd. There seems to be an assumption that this will somehow be a game-changer in galvanizing support for climate action. But if there’s one thing we know about American politics at least, it’s that Catholics’ political behavior is, in general, not detectably different from non-Catholics. Catholic voters as a group vote pretty much the same as the general electorate, and there is no cohesive ideological stance shared by Catholics as such. Among politicians, liberal Catholics like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi freely disregard the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, while conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan ignore its views on the environment and economic justice. Everyone’s a cafeteria Catholic, essentially.

Now, people have come up with various ways to nuance this or have deployed subtle arguments about why it’s OK to disagree with the church or the pope on some issues, while others are non-negotiable. Which, as part of an intra-Catholic debate seems totally legitimate. But it also reinforces the point that people will emphasize the parts of the church’s teaching that line up with their preexisting political commitments. Liberals will talk a lot about social justice and the environment, while conservatives will keep emphasizing gay marriage and abortion. What I don’t see a lot of evidence for is that people are going to change their mind on a big issue like climate change based on what the pope says.

Of course I could be wrong, and in this case I hope I am!

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

What does the Catholic Church teach about the salvation of non-Christians?

I noticed that some people are spinning the pope’s remarks from yesterday as saying that anyone who “does good” is redeemed. But is this accurate? And is it consistent with other Catholic teaching on this?

In the remarks, as excerpted here, Francis makes two major points, best as I can tell. First, everyone–no matter their religious belief or lack thereof–is under the obligation to do good, and this shared obligation can be the basis of dialogue and peace. Second, everyone is redeemed “with the Blood of Christ,” even non-Christians, including those who don’t believe in God at all.

Leaving aside the question I raised yesterday of whether this implies a kind of universalism, what the pope doesn’t seem to be saying here is that non-Christians are redeemed by good works. They are redeemed by Christ, but they are also obligated and empowered to do good.

I thought I had a pretty good grip on Catholic theology on this matter, but when I went back and looked at some of the relevant passages in the catechism, the church’s teaching does seem to be somewhat ambiguous on this point. Here’s the text dealing with the oft-repeated claim of “no salvation outside the church”:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.” (footnotes omitted)

The ambiguity, as I see it, comes from maintaining both that (1) “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” and (2) people “who . . . seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience . . .  may achieve eternal salvation.” The second statement could be read as saying that people are–or at least can be–saved by their good works–albeit grace-empowered ones.

Maybe the right way to interpret this passage is to say that the work of Christ is what makes salvation possible, but that it can be appropriated by non-Christians through the seeking of God and attempting to do good, with the help of God’s grace?

I’m sure there are readers better informed about Catholic theology than I am who could shed more light on this.

Is the pope a universalist?

Probably not, but he said this in a homily today:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!

As others have pointed out, Francis could simply be referring here to what theologians call “universal (or unlimited) atonement.” That’s the view that Jesus died for everyone, rather than a limited sub-set of people (as taught by some Calvinists and others). By itself, universal atonement doesn’t necessarily imply universal salvation. It could be, as most believers in universal atonement have taught, that Christ’s passion makes salvation universally available, but that we have to do something to appropriate it, as it were.

Still, though this is a sermon and not a theological treatise, the pope’s language here sounds awfully categorical. And his two predecessors were both fans of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who argued that we should at least hope that everyone will be saved.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

Hans Urs Von Balthasar: the Rob Bell of his day

I started reading the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?”, and right off the bat what struck me is how similar the public controversy over Von Balthasar’s views was to the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”

Obviously there are vast differences here. Von Balthasar was a brilliant (and at times obscure) theologian; Bell is an evangelical preacher whose talents lie more in communicating his message than theological originality. But the controversy, at least based on Von Balthasar’s account here, was drawn along remarkably similar lines.

Here’s Von Balthasar on the criticisms leveled at him by some of his contemporaries (this all took place in the mid-80s). The question at hand is “whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men”:

I have ventured to answer this affirmatively and was, as a result, called to order rather brusquely by the editor of Fels (G. Hermes); in Theologisches, Heribert Schauf and Johannes Bokmann added their voices to this reprimand. . . . At a press conference in Rome, besieged about the question of hell, I had made known my views, which had led to gross distortions in newspapers (“L’inferno e vuoto“), whereupon I published, in Il Sabato, that Kleine Katechese über die Hölle (Short Discourse on Hell), which was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano without my knowledge and aroused the ire of the right-wing papers.

Bokmann is perfectly correct: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.” However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope. The three critics, by contrast, possess a certainty, and G. Hermes expresses it with matchless force: “Such a hope does not exist, because we cannot hope in opposition to certain knowledge and the avowed will of God.” It is impossible that “we can hope for something about which we know that it will certainly not come about.” Therefore, the closing sentence of the essay declares tersely: “There is no hope for the salvation of all.” If I speak “no less than five times” of the fully real possibility, which confronts every person, of forfeiting salvation, the retort I get is that the matter is “not” treated “seriously by putting on a stern face but by stating the entire and full truth. And the full truth about hell is not stated if one only speaks of its possibility . . . and not its reality.” At this point, a first paradoxical statement occurs: “If we once admit that it is really and seriously possible, even considering all the opposing arguments, that men are damned, then there is also no convincing argument against men’s really being damned.” This is not comprehensible to me: if God sets the “two ways” before Israel, does it necessarily follow that Israel will choose the way of ruin? There was certainly no lack of seriousness behind the presentation of the two ways. But G. Hermes, of course, knows that the possibility is reality; he is not the only one, as we will see, who knows this. Just how will become evident from what follows here.

But first one other regrettable thing: as a consequence of not sharing in this secure knowledge–and R. Schnackenberg, for instance, does not share it when he says of Judas Iscariot that it “is not certain that he is damned for all eternity”–one is then numbered among those “average Catholics” who veil the hereafter in a “rose-red fog” and “wishful fancies”, participate “irresponsibly and cruelly” in “operation mollification” through their “salvation-optimism”, adopt the “dull and colorless garrulousness of present-day Church discourse”, practice “modernistic theology” and call for “presumptuous trust in God’s mercifulness.” So be it; if I have been cast aside as a hopeless conservative by the tribe of the left, then I now know what sort of dung-heap I have been dumped upon by the Right. (pp. 16-20, footnotes omitted).

Change a few names, and lower the general level of erudition all around, and you’ve essentially got the debate between Bell and many of his evangelical critics.

Cautious optimism about the new pope

Look, I’m a Protestant, so no pope is ever going to satisfy me. And I totally get that progressive Catholics would be upset by the same-old, same-old on women’s rights, LGBT rights, and other issues about which the Catholic hierarchy remains steadfastly conservative.

But there are reasons for cautious optimism about Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). He is, by most accounts I’ve seen, a humble man attuned to the condition of the world’s poorest people and less hung up on doctrinal minutiae than his predecessor. He also appears to be more oriented toward ecumenism and interfaith relations and less concerned with asserting the superiority of Catholicism in all things. As a Jesuit, he reflects a tradition of engagement with and openness to the world that can be very appealing. I don’t expect him to revolutionize Catholicism, but these provide hints that he could do some real good.

One major concern that’s been raised is whether he’s got it in him to undertake certain reforms needed within the Vatican machinery, and given his age (and Benedict’s re-establishment of the precedent of papal retirements), it’s not unthinkable that his papacy may have little impact at all. But as a fellow Christian I’m certainly happy to pray for the new pontiff and pray that he will represent the love of Jesus to a world sorely in need of it (as we’re all called to do!).

Friday Links

–With the death of bin Laden, the U.S. has accomplished the aims that justified the war in Afghanistan. Time to leave.

–An interview with “eco-economist” Herman Daly: Rethinking growth.

–A primer on Christian nonviolence.

–The collapse of the “progressive Christian” big tent?

–The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow non-celibate gay and lesbians to serve as clergy. Support for the change came from some surprising places. And see this article from theologian Eugene Robinson on how same-sex couples can image the faithfulness of God.

–Catholic theologians and other teachers take Speaker of the House John Boehner to task on the GOP’s budget priorities. More here.

–Theologian Roger Olson on how “inerrancy” became a litmus test for evangelicalism.

–The Obama administration is trying to figure out how to continue the war in Libya without congressional authorization.

–An interview with historian Adam Hoschchild on the World War I pacifist movement.

–Lord Vader announces the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Friday Links

–John Cohn at The New Republic on the end of “compassionate conservatism.”

–Should life be more like a game?

— The rise of white identity politics in DC?

–From Book Forum, a collection of links on how we treat animals. (I guess that makes this a meta-link?)

–How Pearl Jam went from being the biggest rock band in the world to a niche act.

–The Thomas Paine-John Adams debate about economic equality in the early American republic.

–I’m not sure the Ramones were the best candidate for an AV Club “Gateways to Geekery” feature. What band could be easier to get into? Just start listening with the first album–it pretty much establishes the template for everything else.

–Joe Klein is shrill.

–More on the flap over Elizabeth Johnson’s book from Daniel Horan, OFM, here and here.