Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Francis and the Leper

One of my favorite questions to ask is "what one word would you use to describe the main message and the mission of Pope Francis?" What ONE WORD would you use to describe his pontificacy?

Before continuing to read, I'd ask you to ponder how you would answer that question.

The vast majority of folks seem to resonate with "mercy". Others mention "forgiveness", "love", "humility", "encounter", "justice", "authenticity", "shepherd", "understanding".

Interestingly, those who are more "traditional" or "conservative" use harsher language -- "renegade", "confusion", "disjointed". Many are confused by the signals Francis gives, and many are more than just a little concerned about what he does: his liturgical style, washing the feet of a Muslim woman, his off the cuff comments in his interviews which seems to lack the theological precision of his predecessor, his comments about "obsession" regarding abortion, how he won't personally judge homosexuals, and the like have brought nothing less than scornful judgment on the Successor of Peter. Typical of this concern, one otherwise orthodox Catholic blogger deemed himself competent to judge the Keeper of the Keys as "utterly reckless, theologically misleading, and borderline heretical." I doubt any such hubris comes out of a real gnosticism, although that is a rather gnostic judgment, but rather I hope out of a convergence of confusion and a lack of solid catechesis in the commentator. I don't want to revisit a laundry list of complaints against the Holy Father -- anyone reading this blog is already presumably already familiar with the general tenor of these concerns. Rather, I hope this essay helps frame Francis's mission for those who don't quite seem to get it.

For me the whole of Francis' pontificacy -- indeed, his whole life -- seems to come down to one word:  relationship. I'd venture that at virtually every event in his short papacy, especially at those that seem most scandalous or worrisome to the traditional Catholics, we can understand it best through a theology and a lived ascetical practice of relationship. I've commented on this in the past, and each time I am confronted by the challenge that Pope Francis presents to me, this intuition is confirmed.

A theology of relationship

Theologically, relationship is what the Jesus and his Church offer the world: primarily, the revelation that God is relationship in the Trinity and that there is a restored relationship with God to all of humanity through Christ's passion, death and resurrection.  This is an incarnational relationship between God and humanity; it is an ecclesial relationship in that Christ founded the Church on the Twelve and gave us the Holy Spirit that 2000 years hence we would know his Gospel inerrantly; it is a sacramental relationship that through the Church we might always have communion with Christ in the Body and Blood, we might always objectively know his forgiveness and mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, that we might be truly incorporated into His Body and the life of grace through Baptism.

To say that "God is love" is to say that God is relationship. Love only exists in relationship: as Thomas teaches us, "love seeks union with the beloved": God within the trinity of persons, God to the human soul, us to each other.

 Moreover, both mercy and grace only exist within relationship. We can also therefore understand sin and brokenness as a fracturing of relationship, as alienation. The alien is the stranger, the one who does not belong, the one who is not in relationship: Adam and Eve alienated from God, Adam and Eve alienated from each other, Adam and Eve alienated from the natural order, Adam and Eve alienated from their very selves.

Original sin, or as I prefer Fr. Benedict Groeschel's term "the original wound", is a fracturing of relationship between the body and the soul, a disharmony between the will and the intellect, and inversion of the relationship of original justice. The passions and appetites and emotions and senses now co-opt the will and the intellect, rather than being servants of the will and intellect. All sin is therefore understandable as a breach of proper relationship where relationships are harmed or destroyed, rather than fostered. This shows the corruption of all sin: theft, abuse, pornography, adultery, greed, violence, slander, murder: it all destroys proper and healthy relationship. Every time we sin we sin against relationship: the just relationship due to God, each other, even to ourselves.

Conversely, to understand that "God is love" and that we are called to lives of virtue and holiness is to understand that we are called to healthy relationship with God and with each other. We find holiness and integration and healing through virtues and works of service that promote healthy relationship within our own souls and with each other in charity and justice.

This is what Christ came to bring, and why he give us the Church and the sacraments.

The Sacraments as relationship

Relationship is the basis of the Catholic sacramental system: that by divine ordination and grace there is an objective and real relationship between the spiritual world and the material world. This relationship is first and foremost understood in the Incarnation: that God became man in Jesus. The relationship is expressed in Emmanuel, "God with us", and that in the person of Jesus that God "tabernacles" with us. God is fully present,"body and blood, soul and divinity" in the material world in Jesus. There is a full restoration of the spiritual and the material in Christ. Indeed, this is what distinguishes Catholicism (or more broadly, the Apostolic Churches) from every other religion:  it is only through the material order, and in the fullness of our humanity as both body and soul, that we come to the spiritual realm.  We cannot participate in the world of grace, in the things of God, except through the material order and our very humanity.  This is a sacramental, and indeed an incarnational principle. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  The waters of baptism bring us into new life in Christ, wash us of sins, and "kill" the old man that the new man might rise in Christ. Our marriage vows are an exchange of persons -- body and soul -- as we give our entire self to the other for our salvation, to bring about new life and establish families, and to continue the great work of building love relationships that in some way participate in the life of the Trinity. The power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the restoration of these broken relationships.

Relationship permeates all of human consciousness: the very idea that we are "rational beings" means that we naturally seek to understand one thing in terms of another. We create "ratios" between things to understand both similarities and differences, but always through comparative relationships. And we are made for relationship: on the natural order we are "social animals", and on the spiritual level we are made for relationship with God. Marriage and family life is about relationship. The whole of Catholic Social Teaching is about how to properly order relationships among persons within the civic order.

Science as understanding relationship

Science itself is the discovery of relationships between energy and mass, between matter and motion, how God has ordered all of creation from the subatomic level to vast solar systems in a harmony of relationship.  It is the very order of material relationship that allows life as we know it to exist.  Undoubtedly Francis understands this: he is a scientist by training.

Consider the relationship between hydrogen and oxygen.   Most materials are densest in their solid state. Most materials expand when heated up to the liquid state, and contract when cooled down to a solid. Molten bronze, for instance, when cast into a mold loses some percentage of volume. It becomes more dense as it cools.Water, conversely, becomes less dense when it moves to the solid state of ice. Due to the properties of hydrogen bonding, as water cools below 4°C, the two positively charged hydrogen atoms holds the single negatively charged oxygen atom farther apart from other oxygen atoms. This creates more space between the molecules, increases the volume of the ice crystal, and causes ice to be less dense than water -- ice floats because it is about 9% less dense than the surrounding water.

What does this mean? Simply that if ice did not float, life would not exist. Rivers and oceans would freeze from bottom up, rather than the top down.  But since ice forms a sheet over the water, that sheet also insulates the water below, which is kept warm by the earth's core temperature, which allows fish and underwater plants to survive throughout the winter. So simply, if the relationship of hydrogen and oxygen in H2O were otherwise, there would be no life.

On the macro level we see the necessity of a delicate balance of relationships for life to exist. Fr. Stanley Jaki wrote occasionally on these issues, notably in his book, "Maybe Alone in the Universe, After All".  If the sun and moon and earth were not in their rather precarious and unique relationship, life as we know it would not exist. The tilt of the earth's axis, the lunar pull of gravity to create tides, the distance and orbit of the earth to the sun, are all necessary for life to exist and to develop.

Msgr. Charles Pope comments on this theme, which I will allude to only a few of his points: Consider that the earth is far enough from the sun for water to exist: if the earth were too hot it would steam away, if it were too cold it would be perpetually frozen. The habitable zone of the earth also allows for all three states of H2O, which in turn allows for clouds and distribution of water, as water evaporates, rains and snows, forms lakes and glaciers and snow masses that return to the ocean by rivers and streams and aquifers, which allow life to be distributed widely across the globe.

Consider that the earth's tilt allows for seasonal variations which create changing conditions to develop complex life. If the earth's axis were parallel to the sun, then there would be no seasons and all the latitudinal zones would be basically thermally stable. Conversely, if the earth's axis were perpendicular to the sun, the one pole would be perpetually hot and the other pole perpetually cold, and the rest of the globe gradated in temperature between the two extremes. The actual tilt allows for seasonal variations and fairly even distribution of the sun's energy over much of the earth, which in turn allows photosynthesis across the globe and increased biodiversity.

Likewise, the relationship of the moon to the earth causes moderate tides which allow for great biodiversity -- again, if the tides were too extreme or nonexistent, life would not develop as diversely, and ocean streams would not move thermal energy around the world. Most of the world's thermal heat is stored in the oceans, which is moved by both ocean currents and winds which also move fresh water around the globe. All of these scientific facts point to a complexity of relationships that allow life itself to exist.

So life itself -- any sort of organized matter or complex of energy -- presupposes relationship. The scientist works on the assumption that everything in the universe is theoretically knowable by understanding the complexity of relationships, of order, of balance, of inexorable laws that govern these interactions.  Yet science has no way of addressing why there is relationship at all. All the modernist can say is that there is observable order and a working complexity, and that he or she is just a fortunate happenstance of matter and energy that is self aware and can look back on itself and the rest of material reality to understand relationship. Even "relationship" for the physicalist is nothing more than a taxonomy of meaning and organization that conscious mind imposes on matter and energy. And that imposition itself can be nothing more than electrochemical activity in the material brain organ of the self conscious biosystem.  Scientism has no answer for relationship itself. Somehow mind and consciousness and meaning and relationship developed out of stuff.

But Christianity has an answer for this wondrous system of relationships: that God is relationship, and that all relationship comes from God who orders all things. Matter is organized and ordered by the divine Mind, by God, whose relational nature permeates and informs all of God's creation. The physicalist, the materialist, the atheist is stuck with the randomness of relationship that they participating in on every level, and work to make sense of. But they cannot account for the fact of relationship itself. The Christian, however, can account for both the spiritual and the material, the world of matter and energy as well as the world of ideas and rationality by which we know the world of matter and energy.

In the end, there are only two possibilities, which can be expressed in a variety of ways:
Either Mind created matter or brain organs that think and know somehow evolved from matter. 

Either the spiritual gave order to the material, or the material somehow produced some self aware complex biosystems that are capable of knowing that they are nothing more than self aware complex biosystems. 

Either we are just random happenstances of electrochemical activity that have no meaning and no purpose and no cause and no final end -- which can only be ultimately a position of nihilism -- or we are actually created as relational beings in a relational universe by God who is relationship itself. 

Either God made us and love us in relationship, or matter somehow gave rise to human consciousness that made God and calls some theoretically knowable neurochemical reactions "love".
Francis understands this, and understands what is at stake.

The mission of Pope Francis

So the whole mission of Francis is, in my estimation, to help us understand God and the things of God, the Church and the Church's mission, our moral and spiritual life, our care for the things of this world and for each other, as ordered to relationship.

The heart of relationship is, of course, love. The practice of relationship is mercy and compassion, acceptance and understanding. The goal of relationship is justice. Relationship requires encounter with the other, which requires humility and service. None of these are alien to Francis's theology or ascetical practice.  As Christ brought the lepers into a restored relationship with the Jewish community; as St Francis embraced the leper, which was a key moment in his own conversion; so Holy Father Francis shows us the true meaning of relationship in this most powerful image, which presents to me a challenge I can hardly bear.

Pope Francis, embracing a man covered in boils, at the General Audience, 06 Nov 2013.  Source and Copyright: La Stampa 2013

What one word would you use to describe the main message of Pope Francis?

How does his pontificacy most challenge you to follow Christ and live the Gospel in the Church?


  1. Sexist...still not promoting full participation of women in Church leadership. Let me know when this happens and I'll return to the Church.

  2. Gee, ChristmasBaby, I'm a woman--and I'm happy to offer what I can to the Church. I wonder if the problem is that you see priesthood as an honor, rather than a service.

    The Catholic Church accords to a woman, Jesus' Mother Mary, the highest acclaim. She honors strong women of God as doctors of the Church. The Church had women in positions of leadership as school principals, hospital administrators, and CEOs when other organizations were still steeped in sexism.

    As a sister in Christ, please consider my invitation to return now, and to bring your full complement of spiritual and intellectual gifts to apply in service to Christ and His Church. We miss you.

  3. The foe loves to suggest to us that somehow the spirit of the age is truer and even more merciful than God's eternal Truth as expressed in The Church and in Scripture. Christmas Baby, please don't fall for that line. Don't abandon Jesus in the Tabernacle. He waits there for you. As a convert, I waited and worked to enter into this beautiful and rightly ordered world of Catholicism. I cannot imagine how you can walk away from 2000 years of teaching and from the Church upon which Jesus Himself had His Hand and still does. And for what? For a crooked, transient idea of equality?