Monday, December 16, 2013

Time's Person of the Year

Time magazine has named Pope Francis its "Person of the Year." Fr. Robert Barron is delighted with the selection but not so much with Time's explanation of their choice.

Here are some excerpts from Fr. Barron's thoughts on the matter:
[T]here is something that has been bothering me ever since Francis became Pope, and it's on rather massive display in the Time article, namely, a tendency to distinguish radically between this lovely Franciscan emphasis on mercy and love for the poor and the apparently far less than lovely emphasis on doctrine so characteristic of the Papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is actually a good deal of dangerous silliness in this way of characterizing things.

If I might cite the much-maligned Benedict, the Church does essentially three things: it cares for the poor; it worships God; and it evangelizes. Isolate any of the three from the other two, and distortions set in. Indeed, without deep care for the poor and for social justice, the worship of God can become lifeless ("liturgical fussiness") and evangelizing can devolve into cultural criticism or mere intellectual debating.

But isolate care for the poor from the other two and equally problematic distortions ensue. Without the worship of God and evangelization, the Church deteriorates in short order into one more social service institution among many, a mere "NGO" in Francis's own language. Now listen to the authors of the Time article: "In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church -- the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world -- above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors." And "his vision is of a pastoral -- and not doctrinaire -- church." This is so much nonsense.
It's nonsense not only when imputed to Francis but to the Christian church as a whole. Christian faith is expressed in three ways: Worship, service to others, and evangelization, all of which are undergirded by doctrinal convictions and make no sense apart from those convictions. Without fundamental creedal commitments everything about the Christian faith would be hollow and unsustainable.

Barron attributes the popular misconception of Christianity as a merely ethical system akin, perhaps, to Confucianism to the pernicious effects of Immanuel Kant's 18th century attempt to reduce all religious expression to morality:
The source of a good deal of this mischief is the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose influence on the modern sensibility can scarcely be overstated. Kant famously held that religion is reducible to ethics. By the Enlightenment period, the doctrinal claims of the great religions had come to seem incredible to many, and worship a pathetic holdover from a more primitive time. For Kant, therefore, authentic, grown-up, enlightened religious people would see that morality is the heart of the matter, both doctrine and worship serving, at best, to bolster ethics. It is always a source of amazement to me how thoroughly modern people have gone down the Kantian autobahn in regard to this issue. How we take the following for granted: it doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you are a good person.

But the Kantian construal is simply repugnant to classical Christianity. In point of fact, Christians have been, from the beginning, massively interested in both worship and doctrine. How could you read any of the Gospels or any of the letters of Paul and think otherwise? Moreover, the great figures of the Church -- Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Newman, etc. -- have taken doctrine with utmost seriousness. No one doubts that Francis of Assisi himself loved the poor and marginalized, but how many realize that one of his principal concerns was for liturgical propriety?
Not only is Time incorrect in minimizing the role of doctrine in Christianity in general and Pope Francis in particular, but the editors contradict themselves in their own write-up:
Toward the end of the Time piece, the authors mention two features of Francis's life which effectively undermine their central argument. The "Person of the Year" spends huge swaths of his day at prayer. Rising at five, he prays until seven and then celebrates Mass. And after dinner, he spends several more hours before the Blessed Sacrament. As has been the case with so many of the Church's saints, his love for the poor flows from an intense worship of God. The article closes with a look at one of the Pope's Wednesday general audiences. The topic of Francis's remarks that day was the resurrection of Jesus. After declaring the Church's age-old doctrine, the Pope looked up from his text and asked the crowd, "do you believe it?" When they responded, "yes!" he said again, "do you believe it?" This is not a man who is unconcerned with clarity of dogma.
I might add in closing that I wonder if the folks at Time realize that the man they've chosen to celebrate on their cover is also profoundly pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. Just wondering.