Happy Birthday To Luther. But in a Minor Key
While celebrating in Sweden the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Francis sidestepped the points of contrast. All of which remain, however. And meanwhile he continues to condemn “proselytism,” precisely as the missionary impulse collapses in the Church
by Sandro Magister
ROME, November 3, 2016 – Doctrine, sacraments, mission. These are the three critical points that Pope Francis has addressed and resolved his own way, in celebrating together with the Lutherans, in Lund on October 31, the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
On the doctrinal terrain, Francis has placidly taken for granted as entirely a thing of the past what was judged to be the biggest point of division between Catholics and Protestants, concerning “justification.”
Properly speaking, however, when in 1999 Catholics and Lutherans jointly signed an agreement on this subject, not everything was settled. The agreement did not hinge on “the truths,” all of them, of the doctrine of justification, but only on “truths” of the same, and partial ones at that. And Joseph Ratzinger, at the time cardinal prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, made note of this in a clarifying interview:
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While now the joint Catholic-Lutheran statement that preceded the pope’s journey to Lund has gone beyond that distinction, and has abruptly taken the whole contrast as outmoded and shelved:
“The declaration [of 1999] nullified centuries’ old disputes between Catholics and Lutherans over the basic truths of the doctrine of justification, which was at the center of the 16th century Reformation.”
Moreover, if it is true that the doctrine of justification was a chief factor in the rupture between Catholics and Lutherans, today it has almost disappeared from the common mindset. The removal of God, above all from the regions that were the theatre of the Reformation, has also dimmed the awareness of sin and the good news of grace.
And this fact has facilitated even more on the one hand the setting aside of the doctrinal contrast, and on the other an updated relaunching of the idea of justification in terms of “mercy,” a key word in the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and as all-purpose as needed to be shared by the Lutherans as well.
In the discourse delivered in Lund, the pope in fact downgraded the doctrinal contrasts to linguistic misunderstandings, when he said that in essence the division stems from simple closed-mindedness “out of fear or prejudice toward the faith that others profess with a different accent and language.”
As for the sacraments, the crucial point of contrast concerns the Eucharist, and in particular the possibility or not of receiving communion together at the same ceremony, Catholics and Protestants.
One year ago, on a visit to the Lutheran church in Rome, in responding to a Protestant woman married to a Catholic who was asking if she could receive communion at Mass, the pope had replied with a whirligig of yes, no, I don’t know, you figure it out, from which everyone nevertheless got the impression that he had “opened” the way for intercommunion, as in effect was subsequently confirmed by “La Civiltà Cattolica,” a faithful mirror of Bergoglio’s thought:
But afterward, on the verge of the journey to Lund, came the command to halt Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity, who in an interview with Giuseppe Rusconi for the blog Rossoporpora stated:
“If we want to discuss only the Eucharist, we cannot arrive at a positive result. First we must clarify the concepts of Church and ministry. For Catholics the priestly ministry is the prerequisite for celebrating the Eucharist. I think that so far we have not yet sufficiently explored and clarified, in relations with Lutherans, the concepts recalled above. If we cannot recognize the forms of ministry of the other Churches, it is impossible to permit intercommunion.”
In fact, in Lund, the solemn joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on this specific point did not take a single step forward.
But it forcefully formulated a desire:
“Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ. We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”
It is the same desire that Francis expressed with great efficacy in his reply at the Lutheran church in Rome, apparently incoherent and instead very much calculated.
As for the evangelizing mission of the Church, finally, in Lund Pope Francis had nothing to add to what he has already stated and restated dozens of times, most recently just a few days before the journey, in an interview with the Swedish Jesuit Ulf Jonsson for “La Civiltà Cattolica”:
“We must keep one criterion very clear in any case: conducting proselytism in the ecclesial camp is sin. Benedict XVI told us that the Church does not grow by proselytism, but by attraction. Proselytism is a sinful attitude.”
And to a large group of Lutherans on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis said on October 13:
“Proselytism is the strongest venom against the ecumenical journey.”
And he had said the same thing this same year to the Orthodox Christians.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, on October 1:
“There is a big sin against ecumenism: proselytism. Proselytism must never be done with the Orthodox.”
And on February 12 in Cuba, in the joint statement with the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill:
“The mission of preaching the Gospel of Christ in today’s world. . . involves reciprocal respect for the members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism.”
On this last occasion Francis had specified that by proselytism he meant “the use of unfair means to incite believers to pass from one Church to another, denying their religious freedom or their traditions.”
But Bergoglio has almost never been as attentive in circumscribing the meaning and breadth of his condemnation of proselytism.
In most cases, his condemnation is not limited to ruling out the conversion of Protestants and Orthodox to the Catholic faith, but seems to extend to the proposition of making disciples and baptizing all peoples.
On August 7, 2013, the first time he lashed out against proselytism as pope, in a video message to Argentines for the feast of Saint Cajetan, Bergoglio said:
“Are you going to convince another to become Catholic? No, no, no! Go to meet him, he is your brother. And this is enough.”
On October 1, in a conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the newspaper “La Repubblica” and a leading representative of secularist thought, the pope was even more peremptory, if Scalfari’s transcription of his words is faithful:
“Proselytism is a solemn foolishness, it makes no sense.”
And in November of the same year, in a conversation with his Jewish friend Abraham Skorka, the pope appears to have expressed himself in this way, according to what Skorka himself reported to “L’Osservatore Romano”:
“I attribute a great value to Bergoglio’s statements against proselytism. It is a point on which he hammers forcefully and with an entirely special emphasis, and this has even more prominence if we consider the context of evangelization within which these statements are made. Bergoglio has clarified to me that the concept had already been explicated by his predecessor. But the current pope’s incisiveness on the subject is greater. We must recall, in fact, how until a short time ago evangelization was inevitably associated with proselytism. Now, instead, the pope speaks of bringing only Catholics closer to the faith.”
The reference that Francis sometimes makes to his predecessor is not unfounded, because in effect in 2007, in Aparecida, Benedict XVI sketched out the genuine mission of the Church as follows:
“The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’: just as Christ ‘draws all to himself’ by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.”
But in that same 2007, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, at the behest of Benedict XVI, published a “Doctrinal note on some aspects of evangelization” that sought not to curb nonexistent excesses of proselytism, but precisely to revive the missionary impulse of the Church, paralyzed by ideas like the following:
“It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without.”
In effect, one of the most dramatic crisis factors of the Church after the council was the collapse of the missionary impulse, which Benedict XVI tried to remedy with the synod on the new evangelization in 2012 and before him John Paul II with the 1990 encyclical “Redemptoris Missio”:
An encyclical in which among other things one reads, at no. 46:
“Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non-Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of ‘proselytizing’; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, that it is enough to build communities capable of working for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. What is overlooked is that every person has the right to hear the Good News of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ, so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling.”
The fact is that the collapse of the missionary spirit continues to be one of the leading crisis factors of the Church today. And yet Pope Francis continues to lash out against its opposite, meaning the presumed overflow of proselytism, in spite of the fact that no sociological survey has turned up any trace of it.
And to block the sinful “venom,” he insists on wanting to reduce to a mute witness proclamation, evangelization, mission, because at bottom – he has said – already “we are all children of God,” whether Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist.
This is one of the most inexplicable contradictions of Francis’s pontificate. It is also, however, among the keys of his success. Including in Lund.
The proceedings, discourses, and documents of the journey of Francis for the five hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation:
On the front page of “L’Osservatore Romano” of October 30, the Moroccan journalist Zouhir Louassini, a Muslim, reported on the animated debate that is being raised in the Islamic world and especially in his country by what he calls “the phenomenon of the conversion of many Moroccans to Christianity”:
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“The online newspaper Hespress, with more than a million visits per day, has ignited the interest of public opinion on this new issue. In short, there is a discussion on the right to convert to other religions.”
Louassini also reports on the case of Wallat Mustafa, “the first Syrian refugee,” he writes, “who has converted to Christianity,” whose baptism was posted to YouTube and “is raising a furor among Muslims.”
And he concludes by asking: “Why does this harsh but open debate not interest the Western media?”
Good question. But one can also ask how they can be received, these converts from Islam to Christianity, in a Church that Pope Francis continues to ban from making “proselytes.”
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.