“31 And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” — Luke 22
“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace [οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης].” — I Corinthians 14:33
My title is trite, I admit, but its target is fittingly so. Earlier today I was alerted to a short piece by Artur Rosman at Ethika Politika, which I initially passed over in silence. As I pried up the lid on it, however, I realized that whatever it was inside the post that was emitting the odor that it was emitting, had to be dealt with. Before I donned my latex gloves and goggles to have a look for myself, a colleague summarized it for me, assuring me that the piece itself was no more complex than his précis: “Jesus was scandalous and God was unclear, so the pope is in good company. Cool story, bro.” Sadly, I must agree with my compatriot; as you’ll see, “There’s just no there there.”
The conceit which Rosman employs is that, just as a chest full of great medicines (a silenus) may be misjudged by its dingy exterior, and just as Socrates was judged harshly on account of his external bearing, so Pope Francis is judged to be a poor teacher in light of his “many confusing statements”. In fairness to Rosman, let me cite his thesis in his own words:
I for one find the confusion refreshing and here are the biblical reasons behind it. Jesus consistently scandalizes outsiders…. Christ consistently scandalizes (his fellow Jewish) believers…. Finally, it would seem God isn’t all that big on clarity…. By these standards pope Francis is doing just fine. The onus falls upon the interpreters of his words. They will be judged by how they box him.
Rosman’s point–“Don’t judge a book by its cover!”–is well taken, at least as far as gerrymandering ethical cliches go, but it is thin gruel for those of us who made it through kindergarten. Even one such as myself, who failed kindergarten the first time around, should find it demeaning to be told not to judge a book by its cover, when what I am in fact doing is judging the book by its content. Even the adjuration not to expose the nakedness of our papal Noah is askew, insofar as what I am seeking to do is cover Noah’s drunken nudity with a blanket woven from the fibers of Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition. How can a pope who’s made the cover of TIME, The Advocate, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, among I don’t know how many other periodicals, expect to be any less exposed?* Unless we entirely abstain from “processing” the words of Pope Francis–not a very docile thing to do–we must do read him in the context of the entire Scriptural and Magisterial Tradition. To do any less would be to orphan him from his role as the current rector of that Tradition.
And so it came to pass that I left a comment on Rosman’s articlette, but, sensing that only a certain vector of confusion was actually welcome by the author, I saved the comment here as backup. Sure enough, the comment I left there a few hours ago is no longer visible. So I guess I got…
wait for it…
[27 February 2014 — I am happy to report that Mr. Rosman has clarified that he does not police comments, so my comment must have disappeared for technical reasons. Even so, I’m too much of a punster to pass ^ this one up.]
Sorry. Between Rosman’s cagey conceit and my boxy pun, we’ve had enough laughs.
The problem is that Francis’s chrism of confusion is a fire hose when it should be a blow dart. He doesn’t seem to know, or want, to dial it down, and, even in the face of legitimate criticism, only rarely attempts to redress the confusion. He makes noise about how “the Church’s teaching is clear,” yet consistently–and, by Rosman’s lights, brilliantly–manages to make it unclear, though often with scandalous neglect.
Moreover, Rosman’s biblical exegesis is lopsided. Consider:
Mark 4 — “34 And without parable he did not speak unto them; but apart, he explained all things to his disciples.”
Christ knew how to jar outsiders with aporia without failing to instruct the insiders in clearer terms. Pope Francis, not so much, a fact which Rosman praises.
Romans 16 — “25 Now to him that is able to establish you, according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret from eternity, 26 [but] which now is made manifest by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the precept of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith, known among all nations“.
What new manifestness is to be had if the Scriptures are intended to be obscure and rebarbative?
Colossians 1 — “26 The mystery which hath been hidden from ages and generations, but now is manifested to his saints, 27 To whom God would make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ, in you the hope of glory. 28 Whom we preach, admonishing every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom [or should that be in all confusion?], that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”
And here’s one of my favorites:
2 Timothy 3 — “12 And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution. 13 But evil men and seducers shall grow worse and worse: erring, and driving into error. 14 But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice [but not to confound and demoralize?], 17 That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.”
Since the above may taken with as much a grain of salt as Rosman’s proof texts**, let me explain the larger conceptual problem with Rosman’s conceit. As noted in Romans and Colossians, Christ’s earthly ministry was a veiled, kenotic preparation for the full revelation of the Gospel, hidden for ages but now made clear–and ever clearer (Jn 16:13-15). The Lord Himself said in John 16:25, “I have spoken to you in proverbs. The hour cometh, when I will no more speak to you in proverbs, but will shew you plainly of the Father.” Christ’s chief “parable” was His Passion, and once that lesson had been made manifest, His previously obscure teachings took on a whole new coherence. As we read in Dei Verbum §19: “[A]fter the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth.” If Our Lord’s were meant to be obscure in His time, it follows that they are meant to be obscure now and in all ages, but this claim is absurd from a Catholic perspective.
At the end of the day, even Rosman’s constructivist reading of Pope Francis– when did it become the duty of the faithful to put the pope together like Humpty Dumpty?– resolves into the same old tragicomic tale: faithful blogger stoically deigns to explain ‘once and for all’ how to understand this obviously most pellucid of papal poets. Well, if the value of language depends on how we “box” it, here’s a parable to put in your pipe: “This is not a p[o]pe.”
* “The Holy Father’s becoming a real pop(e) star.” Thus begins the (28 January 2014) Vatican Insider piece titled, “Francis conquers the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine”. Whatever happened to “In Hoc Signo Vinces”? Although it may be too “querulous” of me to expect a professional journalist to have read the article on which he’s reporting, it might have been prudent of the Insider staff to put down its pom-poms for a minute and read some of the content of the Rolling Stone piece on Pope Francis, titled, auspiciously enough, “The times they are a-changin'”. Unfortunately, all the gleeful noises going on at the Insider seem to have obscured the following gem behind the glossy cover which glossy Francis has conquered:
“After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, a staunch traditionalist who looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares, Francis’ basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic….”
Why does the Insider not temper its celebration with an objection to such a defamatory claim? As it stands, one gets the regrettable impression that stepping on Benedict is allowable as long as it affords “us” a victorious Francis. A real “pop(e) star,” indeed. Unfortunately, as one colleague put it, “if you’re being featured in flattering tones on the front page of one of the flagships of Western decadence, a flagship which modifies none of its own positions but rather praises you for moving closer to its, then it isn’t your victory that is being celebrated.” In the same vein, a prayerful reading of Luke 6:25-26 and John 15:18-20 would not be a waste of time.
25 Woe to you that are filled: for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when men shall bless you: for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets.
18 If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. 19 If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. 20 Remember my word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you….
** The proof text that Rosman was really looking for is 2 Peter 3:14-17.
14 Wherefore, dearly beloved, waiting for these things, be diligent that you may be found before him unspotted and blameless in peace. 15 And account the longsuffering of our Lord, salvation; as also our most dear brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, hath written to you: 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 You therefore, brethren, knowing these things before, take heed, lest being led aside by the error of the unwise, you fall from your own steadfastness.
Even then, however, the problem remains that, contrary to St. Peter’s exhortation, Pope Francis just as often as not undermines the faithful’s “steadfastness” in the clarity and security of the Church’s teaching.