Ominous Galumphing

Since early October, Catholics have peeked through the looking glass to see if the Jabberwock of doctrinal plasticity could be slain. It is a destabilizing place to be. Never in their lifetime have most Catholics been here before. We watched, pawns in “a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know.” Laity have become as uncertain as Alice of the reality of the match in play.


The Jabberwock has been checked for the moment, but it was not slain. Its nose is in the tent, burbling tidings of user-friendly doctrine. Conservatives have little reason to let their guard down and none to gloat. Bring on more synods. Pack the bench and keep on voting. Eventually, what is shunned today as change will look tomorrow like sweet development. Give it time. Florida’s Bishop Robert Lynch applauded Francis’ initiatives with this:

Even doctrine evolves, don’t let anyone tell you it hasn’t and doesn’t.

Doctrine develops because our grasp of the fullness of truth is ever partial. Truth is unchanging but human understanding and phrasing of it is not. The means by which truth is distinguished from falsity are rooted in time. But progressives in the Synod did not offer deeper understanding of Catholic doctrine. They aimed to upend it.

Talk of doctrinal development is a smokescreen for the shallowness, dishonesty, unctuous sentimentality—e.g. the trumpeted Year of Mercy—and demagogic temper of the current pontificate. Catholics are not customers or clients of an ecclesial bureaucracy. Nor is doctrine the plaything of a pope. Any revisit to pastoral interpretation of doctrine, any nuanced shifts of emphasis in wording or practice must be approached with in trembling and with reserve. That is “theology on its knees” – not authoritarian efforts at remodeling engineered from the papal grandstand.

Anyone who troubled to read Leonardo Boff’s love letter to Jorge Bergoglio: Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi, met no surprises in the conduct of the Synod. Nor do they expect any in Paris later this month or for the remainder of this pontificate. Boff, former Franciscan and celebrated apologist for Liberation Theology, has the pope’s ear. They are allies and confidantes, a point better attended by the Spanish language press than our own. When Boff talks about this papacy, it pays to listen.

Published in Spanish in 2013 and in English last year, Francis of Rome is Boff’s canticle to the mission of this pontificate. The subtitle is telling: A New Springtime for the Church. The theologian yokes a reprise of his Saint Francis: A Model of Human Liberation (1982) to a declaration of Pope Francis’ intention to depose “all the institutional arrogance of a church that saw itself as the exclusive bearer of certainty, outside the daily lives of human beings and their ever-changing societies.”

The text presages Boff’s words on BBC Mundo at the beginning of this September. In anticipation of the Synod, Boff was asked in a radio interview if he anticipated any doctrinal changes to come out of the Synod. His response:

I think the Pope will not discuss the doctrines. He always says that reality is above doctrines.

But doctrine is what the religious mind has to express certain dimensions of reality. Without doctrine, we are abandoned to the chaos of our own untethered inklings and desires. Worse, our own politics. But let me stay with the text.

Juan Arías, columnist for El País, reported that Francis asked for a copy of Boff’s newly published book when he arrived in Rio in 2013. It is fair, then, to assume Francis assents to the tenor of it. Did he not, we would have heard demurrals from the Vatican Press Office.

A brief 160 pages, its length would double if every innuendo and veiled assertion submerged between the lines rose to print. To illustrate: we are told Francis is “a pope who will preside in charity.” Translation: Francis is unlike his predecessor who presided in . . . what? Cold rationalism, suggestion has it. Boff insists “the heart’s reason is more effective in presenting Jesus’ ‘dream’ than any learned doctrine.” Or “the sensitive heart’s reason is more at work than intellectual reason.” That phrase heart’s reason is scattered through the text like a motto on needlepoint pillows.

Boff applauds Francis for wanting to bypass our inherited “jungle of tangled doctrines.” But which ones to untangle? And on what grounds? Certain doctrines, e.g. indissolubility of marriage, have profound and lasting pastoral implications. Others, e.g. recent Marian dogmas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, have none. Boff is silent on all distinctions. He approaches doctrine as something that, by its nature, inhibits the Gospel message and frustrates “a possible refoundation of the Church:”

Most Catholics are tired of doctrines and skeptical of campaigns against real or imaginary enemies of the faith. We are fed up to the teeth with intellectual, functional, analytic, and pragmatic reason.

Francis, we are told, is not ecclesiocentric, not “obsessed with doctrines and disciplines.” Neither is he Eurocentric. Coming from “the periphery,” he rejects the “logocentric paradigm of Mediterranean and Nordic cultures.” [That the traditional pride of Buenos Aires lies in its European heritage does not fit the narrative.] He wants only to “warm hearts,” and to be with people “as they are, with compassion.”

In other words, Francis targets the emotions—what an earlier and less cuddlesome authoritarian called “a weapon of the first order.”  Sentimentality cloaked as charity appeals to the cluster of feelings and instincts that is the lifeblood of fascist persuasion. Francis’ attention to the blandishments of emotionalism is the trademark of his pontificate.

In Boff’s rhapsody to Francis, the agonistic aspects of redemption flatten into sensitivity. The sublimity of it dwindles to the utopian imagination of a first century humanitarian and his “cause.” Boff extricates the historic Jesus, “preacher and prophet of Nazareth,” from the Christ of faith, a product of the apostles. The tradition of Jesus is “a noble dream.” And Francis “is closer to the tradition of Jesus than to the Christian religion.”

Something crucial goes awry here: Only in light of the Christ of faith—the Resurrected One—is Jesus more compelling to us than other charismatic Jews at work in first century Palestine. Among these were a recorded number of holy, charitable miracle workers active in Galilee. Discount apostolic trust in the Resurrection, and Jesus dwindles to no more than a commanding example of early Hasidim.

Francis validates Boff’s view of his pontificate with every public word and gesture. Ancient intimations of spiritual combat dissolve in a tepid bath of Francis’ selectively applied mercies. It is a womanish—if you will permit the word—approach to Christianity that suits a feminized clerical culture. It is this very culture that skewed a supposed conference on the family away from children, the raison d’etre of family life, and onto the ambitions of homosexual advocacy groups.

Sentimentality does not yield easily to reason. And reason, in the form of systematic theology, comes in for a drubbing. Boff warns that no pope should align himself with a single theology. Benedict and John Paul held to a narrow “type of theology that presented itself as an expression of the official magisterium.” Such constriction yields only censure and mistrust, hallmarks of a Church in winter. Thanks be to God, Francis speaks not as a theologian but with “an open and feeling heart in tune with the globalized world of today.” Spring is here:

May Pope Francis put theology in a minor key so that liberation may ring out in a major key .  .  .  . What we need is less theology and more liberation.

Anyone who balks at references to Francis’ Peronist seasoning should note Boff’s chapter “Liberation Theology and Theology of the People.” Is Francis a supporter of Liberation Theology? Boff is coy; he dismisses the question as irrelevant:

It doesn’t matter that Pope Francis does not use the expression “liberation theology.” The important thing is that he speaks and acts in a liberating way. In Argentina a tendency developed, not as an alternative to liberation theology but as a typical expression of the local culture: a theology of the people or theology of popular culture. The people under Juan Domingo Perón developed a high level of political consciousness and created a rich and popular culture participating in the destiny of the nation.

Boff cites Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone, leading Argentine architect of a “theology of the people.” Educated in Munich, he was Jorge Bergoglio’s mentor in college and close associate for ten years:

Father Bergoglio always supported this theology of the people. So, without having to use the more common expression “liberation theology,” he never departed from his basic insight and fundamental aim: to make the faith an instrument for the liberation of the oppressed.

The comment echoes Boff’s earlier statement to Juan Arîas, wrtitng in El País, July 23, 2013:

In that sense, we could say that Francis is a liberation theologian along the lines developed by Scannone, which was the one that in some ways supported some of the attitudes of Peronism,” Boff added.

The sage of Nazareth was no little-minded Pecksniff. That is why—Boff assures us—Francis favors the historical Jesus over the Christ of faith. Francis draws “closer to the tradition of Jesus than to the Christian religion:”

The tradition of Jesus is a noble dream, a spiritual path that can take many forms and that can also have followers outside the religions and the church setup.

Noble dreams, like tenderness, can bend in directions we cringe to think about. That sentimental education does us little good is the testimony of  Fr. Simon Smith, an unconventional priest in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome:

Do you know where tenderness always leads? …To the gas chamber. Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.

It is a paradoxical insight but one that the twentieth century affirmed in blood. Kindly notions like the “greatest good for the greatest number” and concern for “quality of life” nourished Weimar eugenicists. Today they support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals seconded by Francis.

Percy knew what Francis chooses to forget: If tenderness is all we have, it can lead anywhere.

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