Saturday, October 5, 2013

Leonardo Boff Comments on Pope Francis's Latest Interview: Believer and Non-Believer Walking the Path to Truth Together, Implications for the Future of the Church

I like very much liberation theologian Leonardo Boff's reflection on Pope Francis's recent interview with Italian thinker and non-believer Eugenio Scalfari. Bettina Gold-Hartnack has translated it into German at Boff's website. I don't trust my faltering German enough to provide an English translation for readers, though I can read the German text--sort of, with the aid of a dictionary to remind me of the meaning of words I once knew but have long since forgotten.

Here are some points I especially appreciate in Boff's reflection:

• In speaking with Scalfari, Francis speaks person to person. In particular, he puts aside the monarchial, authoritarian trappings of the papacy to speak as one person to another person, both seeking truth (which, for Francis, is God).

• In this dialogue with someone who does not believe in God, Francis accesses emotional intelligence. He speaks from a warm heart seeking friendship with his dialogue partner, not from the vantage point of cold doctrine (nicht mit kalten Doktrinen), nor with the kind of intellectual intelligence devoid of reference to the heart, to emotion, that has come to dominate philosophical analysis.

• Because he is willing to speak person-to-person and to set aside the prerogatives and titles of the pope as he does so, Francis is willing to admit freely that believers do not have all the answers and that our faith itself propels us to share the anguished questions non-believers ask about where God can possibly be in a world characterized by suffering and injustice.

• This moves the discussion beyond the iteration of dogmatic points of truth that one would expect from a pope (and--my addition to Boff's reflection--which many right-wing Catholics positively demand from popes, such that they are livid when a pope like Francis sets aside that method of dogmatic iteration to talk face to face with a non-believer, as he admits that hurling dogmatic statements at his dialogue partner is not the path to finding a truth the two can share). 

• Francis is willing to make himself a seeker for the truth alongside another seeker: as Boff puts the point, in this interview Francis signals that we all are seeking a more complete and fuller truth, one that we do not already possess. To find it, we have to look beyond dogma alone, beyond the abstract formulas of doctrine. We start with the presupposition that not all answers are already given and that Mystery surrounds every "truth" we might utter. (In seinem Brief zeigt Franziskus, dass wir eine vollständigere und weitere Wahrheit suchen, eine, die wir noch nicht besitzen. Um sie zu finden, reicht es nicht, die Dogmen allein zu betrachten oder die abstrakt formulierten Doktrinen. Es besteht Konsens darüber, dass noch nicht alle Antworten gefunden sind und dass alles vom Mysterium umgeben ist.)

• Boff himself puts the point in the following way, theologically: "Truths? Absolute and relative truths? I choose instead to answer questions about this as the great poet, mystic, and pastor, Bishop Don Pedro Casaldáliga of deep in the Amazon, answered: 'The absolute? Only God and hunger.'" (Wahrheiten? Absolute und relative Wahrheiten? Ich ziehe es vor, zu antworten wie der große Poet, Mystiker und Pfarrer, der Bischof Don Pedro Casaldáliga im tiefen Amazonien: "Das Absolute? Nur Gott und der Hunger.")

• Boff thinks that, through his willingness to enter into dialogues such as the one into which he has entered with Scalfari and through his previous dialogue with his Jesuit confreres, Francis is signaling that he envisages a wide-reaching reform of the church that will comprise reform of the Curia. He is also signaling that many topics ruled off limits by the previous papacies, which became impossible to think about and discuss previously, are now discussable.

• These include, Boff specifies, clerical celibacy, women's ordination, sexual morality, and homosexuality.

• Because of what he thinks Francis is signaling through dialogues like the one with Scalfari, Boff concludes that the long winter through which the church has been living in recent decades is over, and a new springtime is on the horizon, in which it will be possible for Catholics once again to live their faith with a human face that has not been so strongly in evidence in the recent past (and here, I'm very loosely translating the final sentence of Boff's reflection, which reads, "Der lange Winter der Kirche ist vorbei. Wir erwarten einen sonnigen Frühling voller Blumen und Früchte, wo es sich lohnt, Mensch und Christ zu sein auch in der Form der katholischen Kirche."

Two points that Boff makes strike me as significant. The first is his reading of Francis's way of "doing" papacy as about the wedding of emotional intelligence to intellectual intelligence. This approach to understanding Francis opens the door to the recognition that the "truth" the church seeks and proclaims to the world is not merely dogmatic truth (the "cold truth" of doctrine), but also the truth that connects mind and heart.

Truth that connects mind and heart is not so easily formulated in aphoristic statements. It's truth that is sought. It's truth that comes from walking on a journey. It's truth that is shared. It's shared with others walking along the same path to discovery one is walking oneself.

It's truth that comes from listening, from relating. It's truth that comes from listening with the ear of one's heart, from linking the mind to the heart so that the mind thinks with the heart. It's truth that comes, very precisely, from relinquishing the desire to control others, from relinquishing the intent to use one's own truth as a weapon to defeat others.

Francis is stirring such a fearful and even anguished reaction among members of the Catholic right because they have become absolutely confident, under the leadership of the previous two popes, that they and they alone possess the Truth. And the Truth which they possess is, indeed, a weapon. It's there to be brandished about in order to vanquish fellow Catholics who dare to disagree with them, to be used as a scalpel to excise those fellow Catholics out of their church.

It can most certainly be captured in neat dogmatic formulations, and this is why the catechism exists. It exists to sum up the Truth for all time, to capture it and lock it into dogmatic boxes, and to make that Truth patent as a neat formulaic weapon, a scalpel, to be used to separate real Catholics from unfaithful ones.

Francis is (second big point I take from Boff's interview) deconstructing that way of understanding Catholic truth. He's placing the discussion of Catholic truth back within the context of religious journeying, alongside others in the human community who may not share the religious presuppositions of Catholics. This approach opens the door, as Boff observes, to renewed discussions of issues that Catholics of the right have long since declared off-limits in the name of their weaponized Truth--of clerical celibacy, women's ordination, sexual morality, and homosexuality.

This approach to Catholic truth, which is very deeply rooted in scripture, tradition, and the last ecumenical council's (Vatican II's) ressourcement, which pointed the Catholic church back to scripture and ancient tradition, does very much represent a new springtime for many Catholics. But some Catholics would vastly prefer the glacial age to continue, and will fight tooth and nail to keep winter in place.

The graphic: a photo of someone walking in Jerusalem at night, August 2011, by photographer Gillaume Paumier, available for sharing at Wikimedia Commons.

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