Friday, February 19, 2016

Pope apophatic, Trump apoplectic


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#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy

Pope Francis was seen to criticize the immigration policies of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump when he stated that “A person who thinks only about building walls ... and not building bridges, is not Christian.”  Predictably, Mr. Trump initially reacted with displeasure, calling the comments “disgraceful” and accusing the Pontiff of having become “a pawn” of Mexico. Perhaps understandably, the episode has been analyzed almost exclusively through a political lens.  Francis’ words, however, also reveal a lot about the rhetorical style and ecclesiology of Pope Francis.
In particular, the rhetorical flourish of saying that a particular conduct is “not Christian” is a recurring motif in Francis’ discourse. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi even pointed out that Francis has previously said that building walls and not bridges is not Christian.  There have been many other examples:
A Christian who withdraws into himself, who hides everything that the Lord has given him... is not a Christian!
A Christian without joy is not Christian.
A Christian without memory is not a true Christian
One who gives alms and sounds the trumpet so that everyone knows is not a Christian.
A Christian who continually lives in sadness is not Christian.
A disciple who doesn’t serve others is not a Christian.
One who simply speaks and acts, is not a true prophet, is not a true Christian.
If you can’t forgive, you are not a Christian.
When a Christian would prefer not to show the light of God but prefers his own darkness … he’s missing something and is not a true Christian.

Why does Pope Francis like telling us what true Christianity is not, rather than tell us what it is?  The exercise of discussing theological concepts by distinguishing them this way is called apophatic theology, sometimes also called “the negative way.”  This approach arises from the view that God is so mysterious and unknowable that it is more useful to describe Him by pointing out what He is not, rather than to attempt to state precisely what He is.  Accordingly, the apophatic approach is favored by those who prefer a mystical experience of God to a rational proof of his existence and understanding of his attributes.  Pope Francis certainly appears to fit in this camp, when he states (quoting Benedict XVI) that “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with [Jesus].” «Evangelii Gaudium», 7.
One other prominent Latin American churchman was fond of this phraseological device.  Compare Francis’ statements to the following by Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador:

A Church that sets herself up only to be well off, to have much money and comfort, but forgets to protest injustices, would not be the true Church of our divine Redeemer.
A Church that seeks accommodation and prestige without the pain of the cross is not the authentic Church of Jesus Christ.
A Church that does not provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a Word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a Word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?
An arrogant Church, a Church that finds support among the powers of the world, a Church without kenosis, a Church filled with pride and self-sufficiency --- this is not the Church of Saint Paul nor the Church of kenosis nor the Church of John Paul nor the Church of the authentic Popes.
A Church that tries to keep itself pure and uncontaminated would not be a Church of God's service to people.
A preaching that does not denounce the sinful realities during the time of reflection on the gospel is not a proclamation of the gospel.
A Church that does not suffer persecution is not the true church of Jesus Christ.
The person who does not love the Church is not a Christian.
A Church that does not join the poor in order to speak out on behalf of the poor and against the injustices committed against them, is not the true Church of Jesus Christ.

The similarities between Francis and Romero can be explained by their common background as Latin American clerics.  Some strands of Liberation Theology in Latin America were drawn to “the negative way,” in particular to the notion that God is unknowable and cannot be approached directly through man-made theological devices.  Liberation theologians emphasize the Biblical proscription against idolatry by stating that God is not to be begotten and that any human conceptualization of God is a sinful attempt to sanctify the profane.”  David Reznik, “Liberation Theology as an Alternative Paradigm for Latin American Development,” University of Florida, Fall 2005.  Instead, “it is only through love and commitment that we enter into contact with this mystery.”  Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology: The Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond, Pantheon (February 20, 2013).
Moreover, the preference for apophatic ecclesiology can be explained in terms of Patristics and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Church Fathers who emphasized negative theology were Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great, to which Romero was drawn.  Apophatic or negative theology continues to be prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy (see Gregory Palamas) where apophatic statements are crucial to theology.  Pope Francis, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was also Ordinary of the Ordinariate for the Faithful of the Eastern Rites in Argentina.
Accordingly, when Pope Francis says that someone or something is “not Christian,” we would do well to interpret the statement not so much as a negative comment on the person or conduct at issue, but as a reflection of the kind of Church or religion that Francis wants to cultivate.

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