"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Saturday, 9 January 2016

HOW POPE FRANCIS UNDERSTANDS THEOLOGY AND TRADITION by Eduardo Echeverria, James Schall S.J. and David Bird O.S.B.

by Eduardo Echeverria

In a video message broadcast to participants in the Second International Congress of Theology held in Buenos Aires, Sept. 1–3, Pope Francis told participants that Catholic theology should be done in the stream of the Church’s living Tradition. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he said: 
“We can therefore say that Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity.”

What does this mean for how Pope Francis understands theology and tradition? A few comments here must suffice.

First, the communion of the Church is the agent of Tradition, that is, of the transmission of revelation, of the normative sources (“origins”) of the faith.

Secondly, this transmission is about the reality itself of, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist rather than merely the meaning and judgment about the Eucharist expressed in propositions. Of course the gift of the reality of the Eucharist is inseparable from its intelligible mediation in intellectual propositions as well as fitting language about this reality. Thirdly, the content of Tradition includes the Church. As Dei Verbum puts it:

 The Church in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities [of salvation history] and the words which have been handed down.
Tradition itself does not develop, but what does is our understanding and expression of the depth and richness of revelation. Francis intuitively understands that propositions—contents of thought that are true or false—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies; truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression. To make this point, Pope Francis appeals here in this address and elsewhere to John XXIII’s words at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia
“For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius, and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum of Vincent of Lérins. The distinction here is between truth and its formulations, content and context (form), propositions and sentences. Francis says,
 “We should do the work, the hard work, of distinguishing the message of Life from the form of its transmission, the form being the cultural elements in which that message was expressed [encoded] at one time.”

Francis looks again to John XXIII in Evangelii gaudium, and his explicit support for the Lérinian legacy stretches back to his pre-papal writings (e.g., On Heaven and Earth), continuing in the same Lérinian vein in a later interview (A Big Heart Open to God), prominently in Evangelii gaudium, up until his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, and reasserted in this address to the Congress.

Pope Francis looks to Vincent because he is persuaded that a Lérinian approach to doing theology in the stream of the Church’s living tradition avoids the temptations of rigidity or immobilism at the level of theological formulation which may lead to petrification on the one hand, or relativism, on the other. Since Francis is not a doctrinal relativist, he does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only its formulations, urging an expansion of its expression, namely, “seeking ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language 
which brings out their abiding newness.”
Francis rejects an opposition between doctrine and pastoral practice as a false approach. He says in his address: 
“We not infrequently identify doctrine with conservatism and antiquity; and on the contrary, we tend to think of pastoral ministry in terms of adaptation, reduction, accommodation. As if they had nothing to do with each other. A false opposition is generated between theology and pastoral ministry, between Christian reflection and Christian life. . . . The attempt to overcome this divorce between theology and pastoral ministry, between faith and life, was indeed one of the main contributions of Vatican II.” The way to avoid this dilemma “is through reflection, through discernment, taking very serious both the Church’s Tradition and today’s reality, bringing both into dialogue.”

Furthermore, Francis resists the implication that this dialogical strategy means adapting or accommodating the Tradition to today’s standards; the pastoral context is not an isolated motive for renewal. Renewal is rather about transmitting Tradition today in its eternal newness—   
“in fidelity, to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ.”

 Pope Francis looks again to Vincent’s desire that the Tradition may be “consolidated with years, expanded with time, grow loftier with age”(“ut annis consolidétur, dilatetur tempore, sublimétur aetate”). Like Vincent and John XXIII, Pope Francis urges the theological transmission of revelation to be pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion of doctrine.

As he writes in Evangelii gaudium: 

Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources [of faith] and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new.’
In a nutshell, this is the hermeneutics of continuity in renewal.

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary and author of Berkouwer and Catholicism: Disputed Questions. He is a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He will be giving a talk on his most recent book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, in our NYC editorial office on October 1. Further information about the event can be found here. 

On Pope Francis and Understanding Theology
by James V. Schall, S.J.
March 30, 2015

"The world is like a school that the students refuse to attend because they do not want to know what they need to know to be saved."
Pope Francis uses incense as he celebrates Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Without mercy, our theology, our law, our pastoral care run the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic narrow-mindedness or ideology, which by their nature seeks to domesticate the mystery. Understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” 
— Pope Bergoglio, Letter to the Theological Faculty at the Catholic University of Argentina, On the Occasion of Its 100th Anniversary,” March 3, 2015 (L’Osservatore Romano, March 13, 2015)

“We can talk about God because He has talked to us; so the first condition for speaking about God is listening to all that God himself has said. God has spoken to us! God is not therefore a distant hypothesis concerning the world’s origin; he is not a mathematical intelligence far from us. God takes an interest in us; he loves us; he has entered personally into the reality of our history; he has communicated himself, even to the point of taking flesh.”
— Pope Ratzinger, “How to Speak about God,” The Transforming Power of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), 42.


On March 3rd, Pope Francis wrote a short letter to the Theological Faculty at the Catholic University of Argentina, an institution with which he is no doubt most familiar. Pope Francis is not a speculatively-orientated man. He sees theology in practical terms. Vatican II, he tells the Argentine Faculty, is a “re-reading of the Gospel from the perspective of contemporary culture.” 

He does not say that it is a “re-reading” of contemporary culture from the perspective of the Gospel. The Council produced an “irreversible movement of renewal which comes from the Gospel. And now we must go forward.” What, one wonders, does “forward” imply? The notion of “progress” for the sake of “progress” avoids the question of “progress to what?” or “forward to where?” To go “forward”, we must first look backward to the Gospel. Chesterton said progress can only be made by looking backwards. The future is blank, but history contains real people, real choices for good or bad.In answering his own question of going “forward”, Pope Bergoglio writes:
 “Teaching and studying theology means living on the frontier, one in which the Gospel meets the needs of the people to whom it should be proclaimed in an understandable and meaningful way.” 

The first “need” of the people, as the Gospels suggest, is the need to “repent”. The Gospel was not sent into the world to tell the people that they were hungry or disordered. They already knew this. Nor was it to teach them economics, which they could learn without the Gospel. What they needed to know most was “to where does the journey of life lead?” It leads to “eternal life”, as the Gospel of John teaches. No one is likely to know this truth unless he is taught by some power that is not, in fact, merely human.

Ever since Socrates, philosophy and intelligence have often been deemed to be “useless” because they were concerned with questions that seemed insolvable, such “What is the meaning of man?” “What is death?” “Has God spoken to us?”—questions often asked in the documents of Vatican II. The fact that many people think they have more pressing needs than their own salvation or that they do not need to be aware of such issues does not mean they are not fundamental. God came into the world not primarily to teach us what we know by our own powers but for what we do not know.

“We must guard against a theology that is exhausted in academic dispute or one that looks at humanity from a glass castle. You learn so as to live, theology and holiness are inseparable.” 

Academic disputes, no doubt, have their purpose. One might even argue, as I often do, that the disorders in economics, politics, and culture are usually the results of disputes in ideas. The wars of the world are first fought in the minds of academics and clerics. It is from there that order and disorder originates in the world. The reason St. Thomas is so important, I think, is precisely because he took academic disputes seriously.

Or as John Maynard Keynes once famously wrote: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” As Richard Weaver put it, “Ideas have consequences.” Marx wanted to argue that “Consequences produce ideas.” They do, but only after we understand the ideas that produced the original consequences about which we now think.


Pope Francis then exhorts the faculty and students of the Argentine University: 
“Let the theology that you elaborate, therefore, be rooted and based on Revelation, on Tradition, but also correspond with the cultural and social processes in particular, difficult transitions.” 

Christian revelation is, indeed, directed to the human person, to the human mind, insofar as it seeks to understand itself, God, and the world. Some ideas that people live by will be sensible; others will not. Revelation was sent into the world also, as Pope Benedict often said, to “heal” reason as well as to expand it. Both revelation and tradition will contain elements that cannot be previously found in any culture. What of reason that can be found is simply to be accepted and woven into a higher order.

“At this time,” Pope Francis adds, “theology must address conflicts, not only those we experience within the Church, but also those that concern the world as a whole and those which are lived on the streets of Latin America.”

 No doubt, this admonition reflects the abiding concern of evangelization that Pope Francis and other recent popes have stressed. Probably, one should add, the primary reason “evangelization” has such a problem in making the Gospel known throughout the world is due to the ideas that control Chinese, Muslim, Indian, tribal, and western liberal thought. Each of these in its own way prevents any open or successful presentation of the faith within the limits of its power.

So, we should not settle for “desktop theology. Your place for reflection is the frontier.” One can only be amused by this joining of “desktop”, which comes from computer-land, with a “place on the frontier”, which comes, in American movie terms, from the Wild West. The notion of not “doing” theology at the “desk” but on the frontier is probably more Jesuit than Dominican. The Jesuit motto implies that we can theologize while on active duty, whereas the Dominican motto suggests that we need to figure things out before we are turned lose on the world. Both have their point.

Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn once said that Aquinas was the only saint ever canonized simply for thinking. Probably we must now add Newman. The point of Christianity, no doubt, is that the world is full of things to think about. Unless you think about them, you probably will not know what to do with them. Christian theology adds that the most important things that are around to think about are revealed to us, beyond our natural powers. Not to think about them will result in not knowing what to do or what reality is about.

For those of us who were born on farms, as I was, the following remark of Pope Francis will recall the sense of smell that Aristotle considered. 

“Even good theologians, like good shepherds, have the odour of the people, and of the streets and, by their reflection, pour oil and wine onto the wounds of mankind.” 

This last phrase refers to the Good Samaritan. I suppose, with modern health laws, one must be very careful what he does upon coming upon an accident or a person in stress. Moving a wounded body can get one into serious problems. But the main point is well-taken. Good shepherds know the actual “smell” of their sheep; they do not just imagine it or talk about it.

Pope Francis then changes metaphors. He returns to his oft-repeated remark that the present world is like a battle-field, or, as he puts it, “Theology is the expression of a Church which is a ‘field-hospital’, which lives her mission of salvation and healing in the world.” Over the years, I recall reading of “field-hospitals” in the American Civil War, in World War I, and World War II, as well as the dealing of the wounded in more recent combats. In the earlier wars, the great killers were not the swords or bullets of the enemy, but gangrene, influenza, and various forms of infection and disease. The invention of sulpha drugs, blood transfusion, and antibiotics makes a different scene, no doubt still tragic. 

The image of the world as a “field-hospital” with patients needing immediate spiritual care is in some instances a useful one. The major spiritual problems of the world exist among the well-off. Some think an asylum might be a better image. But I tend to think of the world as a school that the students refuse to attend because they do not want to know what they need to know to be saved.


The central theme of Pope Francis, as it was often of Pope Wojtyla, is mercy. Pope Francis put it this way in his letter to Argentina: “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude, but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus.” This position is true, provided that we recall that the God of mercy is also the God of justice, the God who insists that we keep the Commandments, and the God who cannot forgive us or have final mercy on us unless we repent of our sins. Such things are also elements in any full theology of mercy.

Pope Wojtyla, in his reflection on the Divine Mercy, said that God would forgive everything that could be forgiven. Scripture itself informs us of what cannot be forgiven. We are not free to change this root position as it is itself rooted in our freedom. This admonition is not contrary to what mercy is, but essential to its full understanding. As Pope Francis implies: mercy is more than “just a pastoral attitude.” It is something that first must be thought about.

All the divisions of theology—dogmatic, moral, aesthetical, legal, spiritual—are to be aware of mercy. Thus, “understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” That God is love is the great theme of the Gospel of John. Aquinas wrote of it. Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est concerns mercy and love. Pope Bergoglio does not want a “'museum’ theologian who gathers data and information on Revelation without, however, really knowing what to do with it.” Certainly this remark also implies that a theologian who has no information or data on Revelation would hardly know what to do with his activity.

A theologian should not be a “passive onlooker on history.” There are things to be done as well as things to be thought about. The whole history of our kind from at least Plato is that the origin of things to be done lies in things first thought about. Theology tells us that unless we “listen” to what is handed down, we will not know what it is we are asked to know and do. “The theologian…should be a person capable of building humanity around him, passing on the divine Christian truth in a truly human dimension, and not a talentless intellectual, an ethicist lacking in goodwill, or a bureaucrat of the sacred.”

I would myself shy away from expressions like “building humanity around me”. Such wording sounds too much like Rousseau’s saving mankind but indifferent to the real persons next door. Yet, we do exist to “pass on the divine Christian truth in human way.” This awareness is surely what the Incarnation was about. We not only pass on divine truth in a human way, but the divine Truth was the Word made flesh. He told us things that were human, but He also told us things more than human—“Take this and eat, for this is my body.” There are, to be sure, dried up intellectuals, ethics professors who practice vice, and bureaucrats who treat the sacred as their private property.

The last words are those of Pope Francis: “Understanding theology is understanding God, who is love.” We only know this truth because it was revealed and passed on down to us in Tradition. But once it was revealed and reached our ears, we found that we could think about it and everything else in a new light. Indeed, as Popes Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Bergoglio intimate, each in his own way, we can never stop thinking about it and, in its light, doing something about it.

About the Author
author image
James V. Schall, S.J. 

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

by Dom David Bird O.S.B.

Traditions, Dogmas and Tradition

Being far closer together than either church has been willing to admit, both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have tended to fall into similar errors.  I will not say the same "heresies" because heretics pick and choose what they believe over against the Tradition of the Church, and neither church has done that.   Yet, because of the schism, each tradition has had a different history and, even while every effort has been made to keep that tradition free from error and true to itself, on both sides of the divide each has been shaped by its own history without  the other side being present to compare, balance, even sometimes to correct.  

Therefore, even though these traditions are versions of the same Tradition because they descend from the same apostolic mission and are continually being refreshed by the same concrete eucharistic life that is the visible centre and fullness of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, yet we do not yet recognise in the other  our own identity.  We are on a voyage of discovery.  

 At least, some are. The truth is that, while the ressourcement legacy of Vatican II is confident that such a common identity is there to be discovered and there are Orthodox theologians who agree; at the same time, there are others who reject the whole idea, and these include the abbots of Mount Athos. There is also the rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow, and it seems this is going to spoil the efforts of Constantinople to hold a universal Synod in 2016, which means that Orthodoxy as yet is incapable of deciding with a single mind or speaking with a single voice.

We must remember that Tradition is a process and dogmas are like snaphots in that process - they do not stop the process, but they can be misinterpreted if taken out and examined isolated from the process of which they are an expression.   As we have seen above, Pope Benedict writes on Tradition:

“We can therefore say that Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity.”

"Tradition is....the living river that links us with the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present."  It is a river in which we bathe as a Church every time we celebrate the Liturgy.  Dogmas, like the writings of the Fathers, cannot be properly understood, nor can their deeper truth be reached if they are taken out of their context in living tradition of the Church.   This inadequacy is very clear to Orthodox when Catholics criticise Orthodoxy and to Catholics when Orthodox engage in apologetics.   I once asked a Russian Orthodox Archimandrite why Vladimir Lossky could be so inspiring when expounding his own tradition and so silly when he criticises ours.  If a dogma can only be understood within the context of its own tradition, it cannot be simply taken out of its own tradition and artificially placed in a tradition that is foreign to it.

A point is made by one of my favourite Orthodox theologians, Archpriest John Behr, about separate church fathers whose writings are taken out of their historical context and placed with other quotations so that a modern theologians can form an "a-historical synthesis" called "the mind of the fathers" which may well quote the fathers but say more about the modern theologian's own insights, instead of allowing the Church Fathers to speak for themselves .  John Behr says that Tradition is not a monotone sihgle set of ideas: it is more like a symphony composed by the Holy Spirit from disparate sounds made by a multitude of fathers in many different historical circumstances and with many different concerns, forming together the Catholic understanding of the life of the Church as organically expressed in the Liturgy.  It is the Holy Spirit that does this, not us, and we may have to wait while he knocks one set of disparate notes into shape so that they can form part of the symphony!  When we don't wait and instead try to do the Holy Spirit's work for him, then we can have a quite unnecessary schism.

Unity and Diversity

It is the presence of its origins at all stages in the traditional process, the living presence of Christ in the Church's liturgical life and in the"sacrament of the present moment" of God's Providence in the power of the Holy Spirit that gives Christian Tradition its coherence, but also its newness at every moment.  

Pope Francis urges us to seek "ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.”

Pope Francis is not a doctrinal relativist because he believes in the universal relevance of the unchanging truths of Catholicism.  However, in order to be able to speak to people in their concrete situations, the formulation of these truths must be able to speak to them directly according to their concrete situation.   As concrete situations differ from place to place, from time to time, from one culture to another, inevitably and by the very nature of the Church, there will be diversity in the way the Church expresses itself.

Pope Francis is against the opposition between doctrine and the "pastoral approach", between a universally relevant formulation of doctrine and the particular concerns of pastoral ministry.  In fact, he says, "The attempt to overcome this divorce between theology and pastoral ministry, between faith and life, was indeed one of the main contributions of Vatican II.”  In reality, someone who is trying to find a Christian solution to a pastoral problem is already "doing" theology, and is simply being inconsistent if what he does bears no relation to the "universally relevant" doctrinal formulation.  To put it another way, if the "pastoral solution" is justified, then the "universally relevant" doctrinal formulation is inadequate and needs re-formulating, at least in the area where that particular pastoral situation is prevalent.  In other areas it may have to be re-formulated in another way, according to the culture and needs of the region.  

It must be emphasised that this must be a work of genuine theology in which universal truths are not sacrificed on the altar of worldly compromise.  Nevertheless, it must be asked how these particular people can best hear and appreciate the Good News, and, when they have been evangelised and have repented, how can they best be guided into an ever deeper sharing in the Christian Mystery. There may well be some logical inconsistencies from one part of the world to another, not on the universal truth, but in ways that it is received and lived.  As Sister Vassa says about St Basil the Great, "One could say that Basil the Great was inconsistent. And that is a healthy quality, if you think about it. Because actually, perfect consistency or being perfectly logical is not a characteristic of a sane person, but rather that of a madman," and she quotes G. K. Chesterton who said, "A madman is not someone who has lost his reason: he is someone who has lost everything else except his reason."  St Basil acknowledged that ecclesial charity is more important than the consistent application of rules. Moreover, ecclesial charity is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of whose functions is to heal whatever needs healing.  One outstanding characteristic of Pope Francis is his strong confidence in the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium proclaims the foundation principle of ressourcement theologians, and this proves that he is basically of the same school of thought as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Where he differs from them is that he continues to apply these principles in areas where the other two popes held back; and I think this comes from his strong confidence in the charismatic dimension which urges him to step out in faith.  He wrote:

Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources [of faith] and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new.’
The young Ratzinger couldn't have put it better!!

Pope Francis believes that the Holy Spirit is the author of both diversity and unity in the Church.  In Istanbul, he preached:
It is true that the Holy Spirit brings forth different charisms in the Church, which at first glance, may seem to create disorder.  Under his guidance, however, they constitute an immense richness, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which is not the same thing as uniformity.  Only the Holy Spirit is able to kindle diversity, multiplicity and, at the same time, bring about unity.  When we try to create diversity, but are closed within our own particular and exclusive ways of seeing things, we create division.  When we try to create unity through our own human designs, we end up with uniformity and homogenization.  If we let ourselves be led by the Spirit, however, richness, variety and diversity will never create conflict, because the Spirit spurs us to experience variety in the communion of the Church. The diversity of members and charisms is harmonized in the Spirit of Christ, whom the Father sent and whom he continues to send, in order to achieve unity among believers.  The Holy Spirit brings unity to the Church: unity in faith, unity in love, unity in interior life.  The Church and other Churches and ecclesial communities are called to let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to remain always open, docile and obedient.

At the end of the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis said to the assembled bishops:
In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue; they offered a vivid image of a Church which does not simply “rubberstamp”, but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts. (1)And – apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s Magisterium – we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied. (2) The 1985 Synod, which celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of inculturation as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity, and the taking root of Christianity in the various human cultures”. (3) Inculturation does not weaken true values, but demonstrates their true strength and authenticity, since they adapt without changing; indeed they quietly and gradually transform the different cultures. (4)We have seen, also by the richness of our diversity, that the same challenge is ever before us: that of proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of today, and defending the family from all ideological and individualistic assaults.And without ever falling into the danger of relativism or of demonizing others, we sought to embrace, fully and courageously, the goodness and mercy of God who transcends our every human reckoning and desires only that “all be saved” (cf. 1 Tm 2:4). In this way we wished to experience this Synod in the context of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy which the Church is called to celebrated.
It was clear when he was elected that many expected Pope Francis to apply to the Papacy the reforms of Vatican II.   Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI hesitated to to change the relationship between pope and bishops that Vatican II had called for.   They had synods, but they  highly controlled them and certain topics were barred from discussion.   They were men of the Council but could not bring themselves to let go.  This was not because of any desire to hold on to power, but because Vatican II did not address the problem of how the function of the local church with its bishop, so important in eucharistic ecclesiology, could be reconciled with the universal jurisdiction of the pope as declared in Vatican I.  The two visions were affirmed side by side in Vatican II documents, and it was left for future generations to reconcile them.

Papacy and Synodality

The change that Pope Francis is already bringing about, a change that is transforming the papacy as much as the rest of the Church, is the introduction of synodality.   Unlike Vatican I, it is being done with full consultation with the Orthodox Church.  In fact, the new blueprint for the post-Vatican II Catholic Church has been formed with the help of the Orthodox-Catholic consultations This is how Pope Francis describes his vision of the Catholic Church:

A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”.(12) It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
The Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of this listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life. The Synod process begins by listening to the people of God, which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office”,(13) according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet”. The Synod process then continues by listening to the pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the bishops act as authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, which they need to discern carefully from the changing currents of public opinion. On the eve of last year’s Synod I stated: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, so that with him we may hear the cry of his people; to listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us”.(14) The Synod process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called to speak as “pastor and teacher of all Christians”,(15) not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness to the fides totius Ecclesiae, “the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church”.(16)
The fact that the Synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro — is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. For the Pope is, by will of the Lord, “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful”.(17) Closely related to this is the concept of “hierarchica communio” as employed by the Second Vatican Council: the Bishops are linked to the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) while, at the same time, hierarchically subject to him as head of the college (sub Petro).(18)
Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that “Church and Synod are synonymous”,(19) inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the “journeying together” of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.
Jesus founded the Church by setting at her head the Apostolic College, in which the Apostle Peter is the “rock” (cf. Mt 16:18), the one who must confirm his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32). But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base. Consequently, those who exercise authority are called “ministers”, because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each bishop becomes, for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi,(20) the vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper bent down to wash the feet of the Apostles (cf. Jn 13:1-15). And in a similar perspective, the Successor of Peter is nothing else if not the servus servorum Dei.(21)
Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross. As the Master tells us: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church, and we receive the enlightenment necessary to understand our hierarchical service.
In a synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most evident manifestation of a dynamism of communion which inspires all ecclesial decisions.
The first level of the exercise of synodality is had in the particular Churches. After mentioning the noble institution of the Diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to cooperate with the bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community,(22) the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to what are usually called “organs of communion” in the local Church: the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, chapters of canons and the pastoral council.(23) Only to the extent that these organizations keep connected to the “base” and start from people and their daily problems, can a synodal Church begin to take shape: these means, even when they prove wearisome, must be valued as an opportunity for listening and sharing.
The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Ecclesiastical Regions, Particular Councils and, in a special way, Conferences of Bishops.(24) We need to reflect on how better to bring about, through these bodies, intermediary instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating certain aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical organization. The hope expressed by the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are still on the way, part-way there. In a synodal Church, as I have said, “it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’”.(25)
The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church.(26) Two different phrases: “episcopal collegiality” and an “entirely synodal Church”. This level manifests the collegialitas affectiva, which can also become in certain circumstances “effective”, joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in solicitude for the People God.(27)
The commitment to build a synodal Church — a mission to which we are all called, each with the role entrusted him by the Lord — has significant ecumenical implications. For this reason, speaking recently to a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reaffirmed my conviction that “a careful examination of how, in the Church’s life, the principle of synodality and the service of the one who presides are articulated, will make a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches”.(28)
I am persuaded that in a synodal Church, greater light can be shed on the exercise of the Petrine primacy. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as a Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time — as Successor of Peter — to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.
Perhaps one of the things that dissuaded the three previous popes from adopting a policy of de-centralisation was what happened over birth control.   Firstly, there was a huge debate at all levels of the Church, and then Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, and the Church is still suffering the consequences.  The trouble was that there was no common structure that could accommodate both debate and papal announcement.  In fact, there was no evidence that Paul VI had even listened to the debate, and the encyclical appeared as an interruption of the process rather than an integral part of the same process, as though Church and Pope were on opposite sides.   This was unfair to Paul VI who tried his best; but there was no means which made the whole process visible, so it seemed to be an affair of the pope against the people.

Pope Francis found the answer in synodality; and he chose a subject vital to the Church, the family, where there would be real and genuine differences that would cry out for different formulations in churches with different pastoral problems, attitudes, cultures and tasks, while all would insist on the indissolubility of Christian marriage.

Pope Francis and Vatican I

We have said that the teachings of the fathers cannot be properly understood without taking into account the historical circumstances of each father, and that a study of the "mind of the fathers" from which all historical circumstances have been abstracted will say more about the point of view of the theologian who concocts it than what the fathers actually taught.  We have also said that a dogma can only be studied and interpreted as part of a living process that has had a past, has a present, and will continue to enjoy a future; and a dogma can be easily misunderstood if it is taken out of the tradition to which it belongs, epecially if it is transplanted as a number of isolated sentences into another tradition with other presuppositions and a different history.

Let us take as an example the definition of papal universal jurisdiction, as given in Vatican I.

Of papal jurisdiction, Vatican I says:

Chapter 3. On the power and character of the primacy of the Roman pontiff

And so,

supported by the clear witness of holy scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman pontiffs and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all christian people.

To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal church.

All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons. Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate.

Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world. In this way, by unity with the Roman pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith , the church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd [50] .

This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.

This power of the supreme pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the supreme and universal pastor; for St Gregory the Great says: "My honour is the honour of the whole church. My honour is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honour, when it is denied to none of those to whom honour is due."

It must be remembered that the dogmas of Vatican I were acts of the Church within a Christendom that was in its death throws.   They were as much addressed to the emperors, kings and governments in the passing world of Christendom as it was to the bishops.  Claims of universal jurisdiction were made against governments who wanted to dominate their national churches and bend them into serving national interests, often interests that had nothing in common with Christianity as truly universal.   I don't think the council fathers knew the Letter to Diognetus, but they understood that Christianity cannot become an institution at the service of the state. The Church must transcend the State because we are citizens of heaven.  Since the alliance between Church and State which began with the conversion of Constantine, this transcendence had to be put in political terms - so that the civil power could understand it - and needed a political expression which, generally in the Catholic West and sometimes before the Schism, in the East, was allegience to and communion with the Bishop of Rome.
In Christendom where Church and State interacted at all kinds of levels, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes as adversaries, their relationship was governed by law, so that the Church had the motivation to appear before the world as a body capable of wielding political power to match that of the state.   Civil law and canon law were two branches of the same subject, royal power and ecclesiastical power differed only in the wielder and in the kind of punishments that could be meted out.  Purgatory and hell were just another prison system, and even salvation was interpreted as the way Christ paid a legal price for sin to his Father who was the great Canon Lawyer in the sky.  I suppose Cardinal Burke shares this mentality because, for him, the moral teaching of the Church is really just a set of legal rules that must be interpreted by canon lawyers, and any change in the rules must involve a change of teaching.

In the definition of Vatican I on papal jurisdiction, do the words like "jurisdiction", "rule", "govern" mean exactly the same thing as in a purely secular context?  When, after the council, Pius IX had the Swiss Guard force the Melkite Patriarch on his knees, put his foot on his head, ordering him to "Submit! Submit!!" it shows that Pius IX showed no awareness of the essential difference between civil and ecclesial authority.  The fact that the Patriarch of Antioch did not break communion with the pope after this provocation shows, I think, that he had a better understanding of the pope's authority than the pope had!

Let us now return to Pope Francis who wrote:
“We should do the work, the hard work, of distinguishing the message of Life from the form of its transmission, the form being the cultural elements in which that message was expressed [encoded] at one time.”

Let us employ as a hermeneutic tool the words of Pope Francis to the bishops at the end of the Synod on the Family:
Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross. As the Master tells us: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church, and we receive the enlightenment necessary to understand our hierarchical service."
The greatest difference between civil authority and ecclesial authority is that civil authority is backed by force, and ecclesial authority  is a participation in the authority of Christ, and ecclesial obedience is a participation in the obedience of Christ.  Obedience has a totally different status in Christianity and, hence, in the Church: obedience is a dimension of love.  Humble obedience "unto death" is the source of Christ's power: hence, in the Church, the only power is that of the Cross.  Once this is taken into account, a lot of things become clear about the Vatican I definition.

  1. "To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal church." and "This power of the supreme pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the supreme and universal pastor; for St Gregory the Great says: "My honour is the honour of the whole church. My honour is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honour, when it is denied to none of those to whom honour is due." are not opposed because the relationship between the pope and his fellow bishops requires, by its very nature, humble obedience on both sides. There is no exercise of authority in the Church which is not, at the same time, an exercise in obedience, and every act of obedience is a source of enablement and even authority: both ruling and submitting are, by their very nature, an exercise of mutual love. Both pope and bishops recognise, respect and love the presence of Christ in the other according to his function in the Church, and the resulting ecclesial love is the manifestation in the Church of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thus, though this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate over all clergy and people, it doesn't make them all of equal rank in relation to the pope, nor does it turn the Catholic Church into a single diocese because recognition of and respect for the different functions that people and churches enjoy is an integral part of his own function as pope: he is at their service to do whatever he has to do to help them, just as it is part of their function to relate to the universal Church through him.

  3. Having stressed the importance of inculturation, which means that there are many ways of being fully Catholic, and that the bishops, as representatives of their local churches, represent Catholic diversity, so in the Petrine Ministry, with his care of all the churches, his is a ministry of unity in the Church. Both diversity and unity are essential to the Church, and the Holy Spirit is the source of both.  Thus, both pope and bishops must remain open to the Spirit's promptings, ever ready to give up their own will or ideas in order to allow themselves to be his instruments.
The Catholic Church is a Listening Church

This requires a listening Church, in which everyone listens to hear Christ's voice from wherever it comes.
A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”.(12) It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
All this paints a coherent vision of what the Catholic Church is and the lines Pope Francis wants it to follow.   In general, although he has his own distinctive place in the history of post-Vatican II Church, he is theologically close to both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, going further than they would because he does not share the disappointment they suffered after Vatican II.   Liturgically, he has placed Cardinal Sarah as head of worship, with the instructions to follow the line of Pope Benedict, not the move of a modernist.  If you want to read the theology of his talk to the bishops on a synodal Church, read the Ravenna Document or the work of Metropolitan Zizioulas, one of the greatest Greek Orthodox theologians, again, scarcely a modernist.   Much of the press gives a wrong impression on Pope Francis, just as it gave a wrong impression of Vatican II.  It tries to fit Pope Benedict and Pope Francis into opposite camps because it suits their agenda.  Once the words "progressive" and  "conservative" are used, you can be pretty sure that the writer is distorting the truth.

Russian Orthodoxy

At the beginning of this article I wrote that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are far closer than they realise and that they are inclined to fall into very similar errors.   It is interesting to note that the only Orthodox church to reject the Ravenna Document which proposes a relationship between universal primacy and synodality very much like that proposed by Pope Francis is the Russian Orthodox Church.

It was a characteristic of the Catholic Church during the time of Christendom to make law and legality a dominant theme.   This is because, in the interaction between Church and State, law is something the two had in common.  Now that Church and state have become separated and the modern world is far too diverse to restore that close relationship without injustice to non-Catholics, law has lost its dominant role and relationships under the Gospel have taken its place.  In Orthodoxy, in churches where there is no real hope of restoring Christendom, in the majority of churches, there are many who see the need for strong leadership given my a synod with a primate to call it and to help it to make decisions.  The difficulty of calling a universal Synod without a universal primate is all too obvious.

Russian Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is trying to restore Holy Russia to its pre-revolution greatness.  I would not dream of opposing this holy ambition.  It is a ressourcement principle that if a certain practice is allowable in the Church in one period of history, it is an option at all periods of history.  However, like in the Catholic Church, such an ambition involves giving to canon law an exaggerated importance.  In Russian Orthodoxy, this takes the form of what is called "canonical communion".   In its most extreme form, sacraments and church life in general lose their Christian content once they are outside the context of recognition by the canonically accepted Orthodox churches.  Thus it is known for Russian Orthodox priests to re-baptise converts from the schismatic Patriarchate of Kiev.

If this were true, then, in 1054 or at some other date, all the sacraments in the West would have ceased to work, all the life of grace would have dried up, all sanctity would have come to a stop; this without most people being aware of anything happening, where Christian experience continued without interruption, where saints apparently continue to thrive, where all has appeared "the same as usual". This is simply against the picture of a God who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one that is lost. It also contradicts the notion that the Church's powers derive from the celebration of the liturgy and cannot be nullified by events way beyond the powers of the local church to influence. Moreover,  an actual date for a complete schism is very difficult to find.  Until the 17th century, southern Italy was full of Byzantine churches that were usually in communion with Rome and often in communion with Constantinople as well!!  Again, whatever the date you choose, it was an event that had nothing to do with the vast majority of Catholics or Orthodox.

In the history of Eastern Orthodox Christendom, the Church was divided into patriarchates with the Roman Emperor as principle of unity, unless, of course, he went into heresy, in which case,before the Schism,  they appealed to Rome .  However, Byzantium was conquered and the Orthodox world became further divided into national autosephalous churches which mirrored the independence of their particular nations.  Nothing could be further in spirit from the Letter to Diognetus; but I don't know how it could have been otherwise, given their history; just as I can't see how it could have been otherwise for the Latin West to have centralised, given the need to preserve unity amidst political chaos.  Both groups came to accept their status quo as normal.   However, now is the time for each side to examine itself critically; and it is clear that the Orthodox Church is fully functioning at  parish, diocesan and regional levels, and in its monastic life, but at a universal level it simply doesn't function.  They are opposed to the pope, but have no alternative.  Instead there are patriarchs jostling each other over territory or for first place at the feast.  They need a universal primacy.   It is interesting to compare Pope Francis' version of universal primacy with that of Patriarch Bartolomew of Constantinople:

As Catholics, all we can do is watch and pray.  We must remember that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, not ours, to turn discordance into symphony.  We mustn't criticise Russia for pursuing the goal of restoring Holy Russia.  After all, would it not be wonderful for all of us if they succeed!  Let us not show distrust of the Holy Spirit because Russia won't play our game!   Rather, let us support them with our prayers in the confidence that the Holy Spirit is doing his job, whatever the outcome.

Meanwhile, both within the Catholic Church and in our relations with churches and religious bodies not in communion with us, let us intensify our listening and loving, knowing that when we undertake to continue to listen and to love, they may well listen and love too; and this will be a sign that the Holy Spirit is active and that the schism is being healed.  That is the way of Pope Francis.

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by Father Barnabas Powell


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