Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Who benefited most: the Pope or the Donald?

Pope Francis and Donald Trump arrive at the Pearly Gates on the same day. "Fancy meeting YOU here," they say to each other. "I didn't think YOU would qualify for entrance." St. Peter looks at both of them, sadly shakes his head, and tells them, "Neither of you will be admitted today. Both of you must first do penance for the unloving comments you made: one about Mexicans and Muslims and the other about fellow Christians." With a start, I wake up. I realized that this was only a dream. Or was it?

In case you missed it, The Pope condemned Trump's policies, especially regarding border security when he said (in Italian):
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise [people] to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things that way, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
A predictably angry Trump immediately fired back:
If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President . . .                 .
For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.

Later, Trump softened his tone, saying "I don't like fighting with the Pope, I like his personality; I like what he represents." And he added that the pontiff was "doing a very good job."

In a tongue in cheek comment in reply, Francis dismissed Trump's accusations:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' So at least I am a human person, As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.
Neither man won this exchange. Both of these very outspoken individuals said things that were better left unsaid, especially since the world waits with bated breath for their every pronouncement. Because they are not known for restraining their tongues, they often embarrass their advisers who must try to explain unfortunate comments away, even if these comments are the unvarnished truth.

By questioning Trump's faith the way he did, Francis was also questioning the faith of everyone who endorses Trump's policies. Francis should have questioned only these policies, not the people who espouse them. Trump enjoys a lot of support among Americans. Are all of them not Christians?

Not true: Vatican City is not completely surrounded by walls since it is open on St. Peter's Square

This is a common error that we all make on occasion: confusing the person with his or her beliefs. We are allowed to condemn someone's beliefs, but we should be careful not to question their self-identification. If Trump calls himself a Christian, that must be taken at face value, at least until his behavior flatly contradicts that. Even then, one must remain cautious, Don't forget, Peter denied Jesus three times, yet Jesus reinstated him and assigned significant duties to him.

We make the same mistake when we accuse mainstream Muslims of refusing to condemn Muslim extremists. These Muslims eagerly condemn ISIS as un-Islamic, yet are often reticent to deny that ISIS members identify themselves as Muslims. They make an important distinction.

Trump realized this when he affirmed: "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful."  You may not like what Trump believes, but he carefully makes this same distinction: "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith."

Both men backed away from further confrontation, but the damage had been done. Trump risked alienating American Catholics, who constitute 22% of the electorate. Trump's evangelical supporters may not lie Catholics, but he needs the Catholic vote if he is to win the presidency. The Republican party cannot afford to alienate the growing Latino population or cede all of them to the Democrats.

Trump claims to be a Christian, In 2011, he stated his beliefs clearly if somewhat strangely:
I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is the book...I'm a Protestant, I'm a Presbyterian. And you know I've had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.
 His behavior is questionable at times, as well as some personal beliefs. For example, he has also stated quite bluntly: "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." 

Even his proposed ban on Muslims can be understood as an expression of his determination to protect the US:
Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.
Two of Trump's Republican rivals have criticized the pontiff for his remarks about Trump. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who are both Catholics, have stated that they look to the Pope for spiritual guidance, but not for political direction.

Some evangelical leaders have also questioned the remarks of Pope Francis; Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Christian Liberty University and a Trump supporter, said that the Pope had gone too far. "Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country," he explained.

Why did Trump attack the Pope? Trump needed to defend himself against the charge that he is unchristian. That would be the kiss of death in many states that are solidly evangelical and where primaries still need to be held. Even though he knows little about the Bible. he now carries the Bible his mother gave him as a child to campaign rallies in order to burnish his religious credentials.

Is Trump perceived of as religious? A Pew Research Center poll revealed just three-in-ten Americans say Trump is very or somewhat religious, while six-in-ten say Trump is not too religious (22%) or not at all religious (37%).

Being seen as a religious person generally contributes to how a candidate is viewed. For example, among Republican registered voters who view Donald Trump as at least somewhat religious, about three-quarters also say they think he would make for a good or a great president. By contrast, among Republican voters who say Trump is not religious, just 41% think he would be a good or a great president.

According to Gallup, in a strange bit of statistical symmetry, the exact same percentage of Americans (5%) named the billionaire businessman and famously no-fuss Francis as the man they most admired in 2015.

Pope Francis is viewed favorably by many Latino Catholics, especially because of his stance on immigration. Thus, this spat did not hurt him among Catholics. Evangelicals, in contrast, regard his remarks as political interference from a man whom many do not like and some view as the Anti-Christ. Donald Trump probably lost a few Catholic votes, but he did solidify his support among evangelicals who overlook his many excesses and ridiculous comments.

Nevertheless, this exchange does not provide any net benefit to either man. If anything, positions on both sides have hardened. The polarization that typifies the American electorate in 2016 has now found a clearly identified religious expression. How sad!

This probably does not bode well for relations between the Vatican and the White House in the future, especially if Trump should become the next president of the United States. If that happened, Trump may also have a rocky relationship with many other world leaders.

May God preserve us from that potentially catastrophic event!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Popes, Patriarchs, and Ecumenical Reconciliation

Historic meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba

The recent meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba was indeed a momentous and historic event. Yet this was not the first meeting of Catholic and Orthodox primates in nearly a thousand years as some headlines proclaimed.

However, it was the first meeting of a Roman Catholic pope and a patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in a millennium. Previously, Pope John-Paul II, who was Polish, and Pope Benedict XVI, who is German, had tried to arrange such a meeting with Kirill, but without success. It was left to Francis, who hails from Argentina, to finally do so in the neutral setting of Havana airport, from where they also issued a joint declaration.

As is apparent from this declaration, their meeting was prompted by the threat posed by ISIS in the Middle East and, specifically, the persecution of Christians in that region, as well as the tensions in the Ukrainian churches caused by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-supported rebellion in the eastern part of that country. These tensions existed previously but were intensified greatly as a result of the Russian aggression.

However, as the declaration makes clear, there is still much that divides the Catholic and Orthodox churches, yet there is also much that unites them. In addition to the Tradition which they share, they agree on many social issues, especially those concerning the family.

Earlier, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, had met on several occasions, beginning with Bartholomew attending Francis’ inaugural Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013, which was the first time a Patriarch of Constantinople has done such a thing since the Great Schism of 1054. Since then, they have continued to meet since they share an interest in environmental issues, among other things.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embracing (2013)

Francis and Bartholomew met again in Jerusalem in 2014 to commemorate the historic encounter of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, 50 years earlier. Later, Francis hosted Bartholomew at the Vatican in a special prayer service for peace in the Middle East. There is, evidently, a growing bond between these two men. Whether the same chemistry will hold between Francis and Kirill remains to be seen. I remain dubious about such a development.

The effort to re-establish full communion between the ancient Churches of East and West has never been easy, but now there is widespread agreement that there are no major theological issues that should keep the two sides from reuniting. The major hurdle that still needs to be overcome is a common understanding of the role of the papacy in a reunited Church. 

The Orthodox churches acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as one of the original patriarchs, but they deny that the pope has jurisdiction over other patriarchs, such as those of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Moscow. The Orthodox have long feared that Rome wants to impose its authority over the bishops in the East.

Many in the Orthodox world noted that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, when newly elected to the papacy, presented himself as the "Bishop of Rome." This is a phrase that he used often in subsequent appearances and addresses, which suggests to some observers that he is trying to return to an understanding of Rome as one church among several apostolic sees. In the Catholic Church, however, this is the title of the pope that identitifies him as the head of that church ever since Rome began enjoying such a primacy in the first centuries of the Christian era.

The issue of papal primacy in a united Christian Church still needs to be worked out by theologians, but nobody expects it to be solved anytime soon. Nevertheless, there are now a few positive signs of a growing rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox on this contentious issue. Stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

Detail of Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter (1481-82) by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523)

As an aside, I should mention that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the issue of papal primacy, specifically Calvin's view of it. In that work, I suggest a few of the steps that need to be taken to make papal primacy acceptable for Protestants and other Christian churches. There are many reforms in the Catholic Church, Catholic scholars agree, that would be necessary before the Roman Bishop could become head of a united Church.

Within Orthodoxy, the question whether the Ecumenical Patriarch can represent the entire Orthodox Church is also a contentious issue. In response to Patriarch Bartholomew's promotion of closer relations with the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church released a public statement emphasizing that Batholomew represents only his own patriarchate, and not the whole of Eastern Orthodoxy, in his meetings with Pope Francis.

Yet the Ecumenical Patriarch has a unique role among Orthodox bishops. He is primus inter pares ("first among equals") and is regarded as senior among the Orthodox bishops. This primacy grants him the right to preside at pan-Orthodox synods and the right to hear appeals in cases of disputes between bishops, although this right is often disputed, especially by the Moscow Patriarch.

But the Ecumenical Patriarch has no direct jurisdiction outside his own Patriarchate. His primary function within the Orthodox Church is to deal with relations between all these autocephalous and autonomous churches. His main role is to promote and sustain Church unity.

His role as the so-called "spiritual leader" of the Orthodox Church does not make him an Orthodox pope. There is no Orthodox equivalent to the papacy. Orthodox churches operate with a synodical system. In these synods, each bishop has one vote and have no authority over other bishops.

Patriarch Kirill addressed the preparatory meeting for a proposed Orthodox Council (2016)

The patriarchs of the 15 autocephalous Orthodox churches  (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, the Czech lands and Slovakia, and America} met in January this year to decide on an agenda for a proposed Orthodox Council, which would be the first to be held in over 1000 years. But differences between these churches have led many to question whether this council will be ever held.

It is evident that the differences between the Orthodox churches are perhaps as great as those that exist between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Ecumenical meetings, even brief ones such as the one between Francis and Kirill, illustrate the enormous gap between these churches.

Their meeting was motivated not just by the brotherly love between churches that the declaration mentions but also by more immediate concerns such as the situation of Christians in the Middle East and the rebellion in Ukraine. The latter may have been the primary factor in bringing these leaders to this meeting.

Similarly, the shared concern of Francis and Bartholomew for the environment has led to a friendship between the two men that will no doubt help to bring their churches closer together. Church schisms have often resulted from personality conflicts. Church unification, in contrast, can be the product of friendships developed through mutual concerns and interests.

Ecumenical relations are built not just on a theological foundation but they often begin with social concerns that lead to churches working together and developing the necessary mutual trust. That trust then reinforces the foundation and makes unity not only possible but desirable and even mandatory.

The meeting of Francis and Kirill is only one small step on the road to unity. This meeting may have been motivated largely by earthly concerns, but the French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal once sagely observed that God can use even the lesser motives of men to achieve his purpose.. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lent and the world

For days, especially while I was visiting family in the US, I puzzled over what to write in my blog. Then it came to me: Lent, which starts tomorrow, and the world in which we live. This is how I brought them together.

Lent is a forty-day period before Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday. Sundays are not counted among the forty days because Sundays commemorate the resurrection of Christ. This year Lent begins on 10 February (Ash Wednesday) and ends on 26 March, which is the day before Easter.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Lent officially ends two days earlier, at sundown on 5 April (Holy Thursday). The Eastern Orthodox churches count the days differently. They also follow a different calendar and have different dates for the celebration of Easter and, thus, the start of Lent.

Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. This custom is still observed today in many churches.

By observing the forty days of Lent, Christians imitate the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. Nearly all churches now observe Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles. 

Originally, Lent was nothing more than the English name of the season between winter and summer, but eventually, it came to mean just the observance and not the season. In contrast, the Dutch word "lente" never changed its meaning. It is still the name of the season while  Lent is translated as "vasten" which means fast.

Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a time for reflection and taking stock of one's spiritual life. Many people take good care of their bodies, but they neglect their souls. Not that I accept a body-soul dichotomy, but I use the word "soul" to describe that part of every human being that yearns, knowingly or not, for someone or something outside of themselves. 

"Heart" is, perhaps, another word for that part, but that too can easily be misunderstood, especially with Valentines' Day coming this year only a few days after the beginning of Lent, but "heart" does convey the idea that our god is whatever or wherever we direct our hearts. 

Fasting is an important part of Lent, but it is not the only practice during this observance. The forty days in Lent are marked by fasting from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour). I'll come back to this in a moment.

Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than today. In some places, all animal products were strictly forbidden while others will permit fish, others permit  both fish and fowl, others prohibit fruit and eggs, and still others eat only bread. And in some places, the observant abstained from food for a whole day until the mid-afternoon or evening. The Orthodox are much more regid even today in their fasting practices.

However, in modern times, observers give up an action of theirs considered to be a vice, add something that is considered to be able to bring them closer to God, and often give time or money to charitable purposes or organizations. Such actions, however, should become part of the daily routine of every believer all year long and not just be limited to Lent.

In addition, some believers add a regular spiritual discipline, such as reading a Lenten daily devotional. My wife and I read such a devotional every day and not only during Lent. We also have the custom, inherited from our parents, of daily Bible reading and prayer after meals, although I admit that this has become more difficult for us for other reasons.

Pope Francis asks us to reconsider the heart of this activity the Lenten season. According to Francis, fasting must never become superficial. He often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: 
No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by [an]advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.
Francis does not to downplay the role of sacrifice during the Lenten season. Lent is a good time for penance and self-denial. But he reminds us that these activities must truly enrich others: "I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt." So, if we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, he suggests that -- even more than candy or alcohol or whatever -- we fast from indifference towards others.

In his annual Lenten message in 2015, the pope wrote, "Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience."

Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday 2015

Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis explains that "whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades." 

He continues, "We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own."

But only when we fast from this indifference, can we begin to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus, who is the great protagonist of this holy season, showed us the way. In him, God descended in order to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one was excluded. We should not do so either.

This is where the world comes in. God's love includes the whole world. By extension, our love should do the same.  Especially during Lent, we need tp practice love in the context of doing justice in the three-fold way I mentioned in a previous paragraph.

We must pray to God on behalf of the world, that justice prevail everywhere. We must fast with the realization that many in this world do not have enough to eat and practice fasting involuntarily. We must also give alms, but not in the niggardly way we often do, but generously, with all our heart, and with an open wallet.

But there is more that we must do for the world. We must fast from our indifference to all the suffering we see all around us, not only human suffering but also the suffering of the natural world. Hw can we stand by and pretend that human beings have not contributed to climate change . Climate change is real and the result will be catastrophic for the entire world as a result. Unfortunately, the poorest people in the world are the least equipped to deal with the impending catastrophy.

What about refugees? If some of the Republican candidates for the presidency of the US had their way, none of them would be allowed to enter the country. The same goes for Muslims, who should all be deported. Ask yourself if these candidates are demonstrating even one iota of love for others, and on that basis decide how you, if you are an American, will cast your vote in November.

Lent means loving the world, but not in the hedonistic sense, which is focused only on ourselves. Rather, we must love the world in the agapic sense, just as God sacrificed himself in selfless manner. That is not easy, because we are by nature -- our fallen nature -- selfish and selfcentered. However, our redeemed nature makes it posible for us to love as we must love, even if it initally involves only a few small steps. And, as our faith matures, we will be able to take larger steps.

Then, and only then, will we be a ble to practice Lent in 2016. Lent urges us to repent from our indifference and it renews our resolve to love as we ought to love. As the namesake of Pope Francis famously said, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where these is hatred, let me sow love." Let us sow love today throughout the world. Is that too much for God to ask of you?

God is not asking you to give up much during Lent this year, except your indifference to him and to others. However, he does ask -- no, demands -- you to love him and the world in which he has placed us.