Pope Francis and What’s Most Important

September 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 6 comments


Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

The New York Times may have called him “the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics,” but it seemed nearly impossible for journalists and pundits to filter Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which wrapped up last night in Philadelphia, through anything but a political lens. After an obligatory nod to his spiritual status, the Times went on to report about the Pope’s address to a joint session of Congress:

While he checked boxes in calling for religious liberty and defending the family, the heart of his address, and the most time, was dedicated to aspects of Catholic teaching embraced by progressives, especially the overriding need to help the poor and destitute. He was at his most passionate in embracing immigration, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina, where he was born …

He also warned of the excesses of globalization, though in far more measured tones than he has in the past, when he used fiery language and the memorable phrase “dung of the devil” to describe unbridled capitalism.[1]

“Religious liberty.” “The excesses of globalization.” “Unbridled capitalism.” Though these things certainly have theological implications, as the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed would remind us, in our society, they are cast first and foremost as political concerns. Indeed, the Times ultimately concluded:

In the end, both sides could walk away citing parts of his message. But the liberal agenda items in his speech were explicit and clear while the conservative ones were more veiled.

Apparently, the real value of Francis’ speech, according to the Times, lies in how politicians will be able to leverage it and not in the theology that was contained in it.

Filtering theology through political policy is fraught with danger. In such a system, orthodox doctrine all too often gets sacrificed to Machiavellian expediency and a Savior who died gets turned into a political operative who just happens to hate all the same people we do.

On the one hand, Francis seemed to defy such bare politicization of the papacy, as Peter Johnson points out in his article for The Federalist, “10 Stories The Media Won’t Tell You About The Pope’s USA Visit.” Mr. Johnson explains how the Pope has taken on both liberal and conservative concerns – everything from climate change and immigration to government overreach and the dangers inherent in the Affordable Care Act. Such political schizophrenia is inherent in Christian ethics, which has the pesky habit of refusing to conform to both the liberal and conservative party platforms. Christianity can, at times, annoy both the left and the right.

On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to understand why the Pope’s address to Congress has been interpreted politically rather than theologically. After all, in a speech that lasted for nearly an hour before a joint session of Congress, the Pope, while covering a whole range of geopolitical and ethical issues, failed to mention Jesus – even once! This seems odd and, honestly, downright disturbing for the leader of a body of whom the apostle Paul noted is at its best when it resolves “to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

In one sense, the domination of the geopolitical and the ethical at the expense of the Christological in the Pope’s words is understandable both in terms of the ecclesiology and the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecclesiologically, popes have historically laid claim not only to spiritual authority, but to temporal power as well. Such power was crystalized in 800 on Christmas Day when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the emperor of Rome. A spiritual authority, on that day, crowned a political one. These days, though the Pope’s temporal power formally extends only as far as Vatican City – and even that authority is largely titular – the papacy’s interest in and influence over temporal affairs lingers. So it comes as no surprise that Francis would seek to shape geopolitical events.  In some ways, I welcome such an effort.  Our geopolitics needs all the sanctified wisdom it can get. But when geopolitical concerns drown out any mention of Christ in a major address from a man who claims to be the head of Christ’s Church, I begin to get a little nervous.

Soteriologically, Roman Catholicism’s view of righteousness and its relationship to salvation lends itself to Francis’ deep concern over ethical issues. As a Lutheran Christian, I will often speak of two kinds of righteousness. The first kind of righteousness is that which is imputed to me from God in Christ by faith. In the words of the apostle Paul:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)

Christ’s perfect righteousness is a righteousness that leads to my salvation quite apart from anything I have done or ever will do. This righteousness is not an ethical task, but a sheer gift, not based on my actions, but based on Christ’s action for me on the cross. The second kind of righteousness involves the good deeds that I do for my neighbor. I am called to love, serve, and help my neighbor, as Jesus explains forcefully in His Parable of the Good Samaritan. When I do these things, I am acting in the way of righteousness. But such a righteousness does not save me. It simply helps others.

In the Roman Catholic system of theology, these two kinds of righteousness are collapsed into one. The righteous acts we do for our neighbor are righteous acts that are also taken into account when we receive salvation from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear enough:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.[2]

The Catechism baldly asserts that my righteousness cooperates with Christ’s righteousness so that I may attain eternal life. All the good things of which the Pope spoke in his speech, then, pertain to salvation because our good works on these good things aid in our salvation. It’s no wonder, then, that Francis would be especially concerned with our good works, even as the good work of Christ went missing in his words to Congress.

For all the excitement Francis’ visit and words generated, I fear that we managed to overlook what is the most important business of the Church:  to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness for sinners. This, to borrow a phrase from Paul, is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). All of the things the Pope addressed in his speech to Congress are important and should be discussed, but they are not most important.

Mollie Hemmingway puts the situation well when she writes:

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.[3]

This is most certainly true. We can get excited over and become passionate about geopolitical issues. We can strongly advocate for ethical issues. I do all the time on this very blog. But our deepest commitment must be to Jesus. Our first proclamation must be of Him. For long after the concerns of this age fade way – indeed, long after this visit from this Pope is forgotten – Jesus will remain. The best thing this Pope can do, then, is invite us to turn our attention – and our hearts – to Him.

__________________________________

[1] Peter Baker & Jim Yardley, “Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woes,” The New York Times (9.24.2015).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN: 1994), § 2010.

[3] Mollie Hemmingway, “The Pope Francis Effect: Enthusiasm, But To What End?The Federalist (9.25.2015).

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jon trautman  |  September 28, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Zach…Thanks for the clarity. After all the noise, good and bad, regarding the pope’s visit, it was welcome and comforting to read and remind us that Jesus is first.

    Reply
  • 2. Donald A Novian  |  September 28, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Zach,,, Great message. Too many of our church leaders are wanting to be “Politically Correct” and miss out on the message of Jesus. I much would have liked the Pope to refer to the Bible and Christ’s message, than to words of today’s world. Works will not save us, only putting our faith in Christ can do that…..

    Reply
  • 4. Marlene Mueller  |  September 29, 2015 at 5:08 am

    A great synopsis of what the Pope did and did not say in regard to Jesus and our faith.

    Reply
  • 5. Jim Kent  |  September 29, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    I also noted only one quote from Scripture…prefaced by “The Golden Rule.” Thank you for these fine observations. It is a shame an opportunity by a Christian leader to address our nation’s leaders in such a forum went by without explicit mention of Christ and God’s Word.

    Reply
  • 6. 2015 In Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 4, 2016 at 5:22 am

    […] September: Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and Pope Francis visits the United States. […]

    Reply

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