Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leonardo Boff on the Latin American Context of Francis's Papal Style, and the Shift from Doctrine and Discipline to Human Search and Human Inquiry

Another essay by theologian Leonardo Boff, which, to my way of thinking, glosses the analysis of his reflection on Pope Francis's dialogue with Italian intellectual (and non-believer) Eugenio Scalfari, about which I blogged yesterday. Here, Boff talks about how the third world has come to the Vatican with Francis (the English translation of this Boff essay is by Melina Alfaro). Boff maintains that many of those perplexed by style that the new pope brings to the papacy have not given sufficient attention to the fact that Francis "comes from a different manner of being Church, which has matured in the Third World."

Because of the profound social injustices that mark the cultures of Latin America, it has long been apparent to many Catholics of this region that the mission of the church cannot be confined to a specifically religious one, but has to comprise an urgent social mission, as well--"to stand with the weak and oppressed, and to struggle for their liberation."

And so Francis brings to the papacy a lived experience with the option for the poor that was, for the previous two popes, "purely rhetorical and conceptual." The lived experience with the option for the poor in Latin American Catholicism also stresses living the faith in community networks and praying in terms meaningful at the popular level. 

In contrast to John Paul II and Benedict, who spoke of the option for the poor in "purely rhetorical and conceptual" ways, "Francis does exactly the opposite: the good news is affective and effective praxis" for Francis. And so Boff's conclusion, which, to my way of thinking, dovetails with his analysis of the pope's recent discussion with Eugenio Scalfari (and which explicitly cites that discussion):

Therefore, centrality is not given to doctrine and discipline, so dominant lately, but to humans, and their searches and inquiries, be they believers or not, as Pope Francis showed in his dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari, the former editor of the Roman daily, La Repubblica, who himself is a non-believer. These are new winds that blow from the new peripheral Churches, touching the whole Church. Spring is really coming, filled with promises.

As I said yesterday, it is that transfer of emphasis away from doctrine and discipline to the "searches and inquiries of human beings" on a shared spiritual journey, no matter their religious leanings, that is going to prove to be a serious sticking point for the Catholic right in the U.S. Because journeys to the larger truth who is God are, by their very nature, not about having the truth already captured in neat, controllable, weaponized formulas, and not about using those weaponized formulas to whip others into shape (discipline).

Spiritual journeys are about something else altogether, about something altogether different from the doctrine and discipline that captivated the imagination of the previous two popes and still dominate the imagination of right-wing Catholics in the U.S. They're about the possibility that no one of us owns the truth, and that we who are Catholic pilgrims on the spiritual path may learn about the truth from pilgrims representing other religious traditions or, as in Scalfari's case, no religious tradition at all. 

Spiritual journeys are about relinquishing control, not exercising it. They're about sharing, not ruling others out as unattractive fellow pilgrims who can't possible teach us, the bearers of the truth, anything at all. They're about humility, receptivity, and community. They're about keeping our feet on the ground, since it's only by putting our feet onto the earth and keeping them in the pathway shared with our fellow pilgrims that we have a chance of encountering the divine.

And I'm not sure that those virtues count for very much at all in the thinking and spirituality of those who imagine they already possess Truth in all its fullness, and want to use their Truth as a weapon to trounce and exclude others. 

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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