Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pentecost Homily of Pope Benedict

Kontakion of Pentecost, Tone 8
When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit.

Here is Pope Benedict’s remarkable Pentecost homily for this year. Until I read this, I shared with many of my fellow Orthodox Christians the impression that this pope might be a pretty good theologian.

The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family; persons, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, reached by the Spirit of Christ, open themselves to the experience of communion, can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new organism, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the “business card” of the Church in the course of her universal history. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages.

The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with states nor with federations of states, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier.

From this, dear brothers, there derives a practical criterion of discernment for Christian life: When a person or a community, limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit. The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always confront itself with the path of the one and catholic Church, and harmonize with it.

This does not mean that the unity created by the Holy Spirit is a kind of homogenization. On the contrary, that is rather the model of Babel, that is, the imposition of a culture of unity that we could call “technological.” The Bible, in fact, tells us (cf. Genesis 11:1-9) that in Babel everyone spoke the same language. At Pentecost, however, the Apostles speak different languages in such a way that everyone understands the message in his own tongue. The unity of the Spirit is manifested in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts. She responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 1) only if she remains free from every state and every particular culture. Always and in every place the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.

“The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality.” Notice how this diverges from the ancient and Orthodox doctrine, in which the entire Church is fully present in each local church, and therefore no "universal Church" can preceed a local one in any sense. I’m not sure, but it even sounds as though Pope Benedict may be contradicting his own Catechism, as well. The latter is too vague, as usual, to be sure of this, but here is a relevant section of it:

832 "The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament. . . . In them the faithful are gathered together through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord's Supper is celebrated. . . . In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present, through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is constituted."312

833 The phrase "particular Church," which is first of all the diocese (or eparchy), refers to a community of the Christian faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop ordained in apostolic succession.313 These particular Churches "are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists."314

834 Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome "which presides in charity."315 "For with this church, by reason of its pre-eminence, the whole Church, that is the faithful everywhere, must necessarily be in accord."316 Indeed, "from the incarnate Word's descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior's promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her."317

835 "Let us be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the simple sum, or . . . the more or less anomalous federation of essentially different particular churches. In the mind of the Lord the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she put down her roots in a variety of cultural, social, and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world."318 The rich variety of ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and theological and spiritual heritages proper to the local churches "unified in a common effort, shows all the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church."319

“From this, dear brothers, there derives a practical criterion of discernment for Christian life: When a person or a community, limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit.” Well, how about our own way of thinking about, say, abortion? Or homosexuality?  Diversity is good in many things, but not in Christian doctrine or ways of life.  St. Peter says (Galatians 1:8,) “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”

Now - most remarkably of all - notice how the Pope has completely reversed the biblical and o/Orthodox meaning of Babel in relation to Pentecost. In the Scriptures, the confusion of tongues was a punishment, a chastisement, for man’s arrogance; and Pentecost was the healing of that confusion and division, when the Apostles spoke in ONE tongue, which was nevertheless understood by each person in his own language. “The unity of the Spirit” is not “manifested in the plurality of understanding”, but in oneness of mind and heart and doctrine; see Romans 15;6, II Corinthians 1: 10 and 13:11, Philippians 1:27 and 2:2, I Peter 3:8, and multitudes of other biblical passages. To an oft-burned, more than twice suspicious person such as me, the pope is sounding very much as if he meant, “Believe in your own way, so long as you are subject to me.”

“[The Church] responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 1) only if she remains free from every state and every particular culture. Always and in every place the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.”  This would sound pretty good, in parts, if it weren’t coming from a pope. That is, yes, the Church must never be defined by nor subject to any state or any particular culture. Phyletism is a curse, and one to which the Orthodox are prone. But one can only find it strange when the pope, himself head of a state, says the Church must be free from every state. Again, the homily sounds like a speech in support of One World Religion, where “each one can find a place,” meaning each person, retaining his own culture and his own understandings of things, can find some agreeable way of submitting to the pope. 

This pope, my dear Orthodox brothers and sisters, is not showing himself to be who we had hoped he was.

3 comments:

Genevieve said...

Thank you for this post. Very informative!

James the Thickheaded said...

Interesting. Thanks for these thoughts!

Sounds to me as if he is speaking of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue almost exclusively and arguing their ecclessiology is not incompatible with ours so long as we add the need for a universal bishop... which he's willing to supply. Bishop shopping, like king shopping... was pretty common through much of European history as I read it. So not much new here... only perhaps his sense that Orthodox may increasingly be dissatisfied with their local bishops and therefore vulnerable to the appeal. Nice story to sell along with it as fitting into Pentecost. Worthy of Madison Avenue? Nah.

If only the marginalization of the local bishops had worked out better... perhaps the theory would have more legs to it on the ground. Yet there are those who'd suggest Orthodoxy has survived BECAUSE of strong bishops (even to the point of less-than principled obstinancy in some cases), and contemporary Catholicism suffers because of correspondingly weakened ones. Other than that, I think Bene's rep rests on his intellectual curiosity, socratic style and measure of courage less than on his insistence on being a genius and always getting it right. My own reading of Catholic stuff is that without a measure of brilliance, it is difficult to not get tripped up in some acrobatics required to balance increasingly complex dogmas. It can be done, but it lacks clarity and directness of Orthodox thinking in many cases - or at least to my taste. In my case at least, Orthodoxy starts with a few ideas which are obscure to the modern mind but not inaccessible on their own, and then weaves them together in a simple way that is accessible, and the focus seems to be on God. Catholic approaches seem to stick with simpler base ideas.. though they may be difficult in themselves to penetrate... and then works a wonder of interrelationship that as marvelous as it is to behold as it reconciles and explains them somehow, yet the product is nevertheless obtuse... which perhaps leaves you with an ability to do no more than focus on God's presence and work closer at hand. We're supposed to have the good parts of both of these: Orthodox theology together with Latin focus on doing good... but inevitably it seems sometimes we seem better at the reverse... and other than that I'm agnostic on ecumenism so far as I know. I'd say this parallels Lossky's analogy but then I'm Thickheaded.

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