25 September 2015

A slightly disappointing speech

It is probably bad form to compare the pastoral styles of two different ecclesiarchs serving two highly different flocks, but it is what I intend to do here – briefly, anyway – and so I shall endeavour to do so with care and with caritas. I was in Saint George Cathedral in Worcester, Massachusetts on the 19th of July this year, when our Patriarch, His Beatitude John X of Antioch and All the East, came to visit the United States from Syria. I confess to having been awed at the presence of His Beatitude, who has already borne so much spiritual responsibility for a profoundly endangered flock, and who, living as he has done in Syria in the midst of the political turmoil, has already seen so much of the fear, flight, need, bloodshed and material wrack of the civil war – and yet faced it without growing bitter or cynical. In light of this spiritual strength he showed, I made it a point to listen with care to his homily.

He spoke to us both in English and in Arabic. His homily was concise, pointed and direct, having very much to do with the specific geopolitical situation from which he had emerged. Even in the midst of killings, repressions and abductions (including those of Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo and Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim), he bore both words of hope – that Christians through Christ are the light of the world even in the midst of such darkness – and of exhortation, of challenge. Christians must stay in the Middle East; ‘we cannot imagine the Middle East without the existence of Christians’. The hopeful message, that of familial and organic oneness in Christ, even throughout the world; and the challenge, an unpopular message to hear in some quarters (including official ones) who would rather that Middle Eastern Christians did not exist, that Christ’s family must be rooted in its own homeland – both were delivered in gravitas, in a language which bore the full weight of the subject.

On the other hand, Pope Francis’s speech to Congress (of which the full text may be found here, courtesy of Mark Shea), though longer and more wide-ranging, was mildly disappointing and, I dare say, overly-diplomatic. I must first caution, that I do not have that many problems with Pope Francis’s stated anthropology and politics, on the occasions where he does state them clearly and unambiguously. I have absolutely no problem with his care for immigrants and refugees, with his advocacy for the environment, with his solidarity with the poor. I was delighted when he mentioned, in particular, Dorothy Day. Yet the diplomatic way, even the America-centric way, in which he delivered his remarks, offered little but flattery to the Senate he was addressing. In no sense, listening to his remarks, would one be called to mind that there might be a moral crisis of any kind facing that same chamber! Pope Francis came close, so infuriatingly close, on two points: on abolishing the death penalty and on ending the arms trade. On other evils, like homelessness, hunger, unemployment, abortion… his address was, shall we say, more oblique.

I wonder if part of this diplomatic approach may be an attempt to ward off certain popular conceptions of his political agenda. Certainly misconceptions about Pope Francis abound, as does ridiculously stupid commentary on the same (most of it from The Federalist and First Things). But these are ultimately surface-level problems. The big problem is an ecclesiological one. Listen to how he is introduced to Congress by the Speaker: ‘Pope Francis of the Holy See’. He is not presented in his religious capacity; he is speaking to them as the political sovereign and head of the nation-city-state of the Vatican. We shouldn’t be surprised that he is speaking with the eggshell caution of a diplomat, when those are in fact the terms on which he is engaging Congress – as a visiting, secular head of state to a foreign nation! (Thanks be, though it’s hardly a surprise, that his sense of decorum and respect clearly exceed those of Benjamin Netanyahu.)

This is one of the dangers that haunts the unbalancing of relations between Church and state. Praxis follows from doxa: if the Church takes on the powers and privileges of the state, and organises itself along the same lines as the state, we should not be surprised when it begins to act like a state amongst other states. A millennium ago, when the ‘reforming’ Popes of post-Schismatic Rome began to see themselves as the head of their own state, in the same capacity as feudal kings, they began to wrangle with kings over rights of episcopal nomination and investiture. (The reverse danger, of course, is what has historically haunted the Orthodox clerics: the abdication of powers over Church matters to secular authorities.) But papocæsarism, as can be seen, does not always embolden the clerical authorities which assume the secular authority of states.

None of this is meant to bash Pope Francis, of course. As I said, when he explicates clearly his views on society and politics I find I agree with him far more often than not. At the same time, after his speech to Congress, as such a supporter I found my expectations somewhat deflated.

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