Continuity in a changing church


Statue of Pope John Paul II framed against blue skyOn Friday Pope Francis did two quite traditional papal things. He authorised the sainting of two predecessors: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. And he published an encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei. These things were in continuity with the past. But as is now expected of him, he tweaked the continuity in distinctive ways.

In recent years continuity in the Catholic Church has been the object of controversy. Continuity has come to stand for the continuing claims of the forms of liturgy, governance and theology of the pre-Vatican II church within the present church. John Paul II has been seen as an emblem of continuity and his prospective canonisation as its vindication. Those making claims for radical change often appeal to Pope John XXIII who called Vatican Council II.

In the encyclical and the decision to canonise both popes, Francis has refocused continuity. It has to do with honouring different perspectives in the name of a greater common mission, not about choosing between them.

The double canonisation certainly endorses the claims both of change and of continuity in the Church. But it also points to a deeper cause dear to Francis: the call to Christians to look beyond church and to take the Gospel into the world around them. Both popes were notable for that: John XXIII by reorienting the Church through the Council, and John Paul II by his international mission.

The encyclical makes a similar statement of continuity between Francis and his predecessor. It also expresses the self-confidence of a pope who is happy to celebrate and own his predecessor's insights while doing things in his own way. The encyclical completes Benedict's trilogy on faith, hope and charity. Francis describes it as the work of four hands, but to an inexpert eye his contribution may appear to have consisted more in pruning than in adding.

Lumen Fidei is a retrospective exhibition of Jozef Ratzinger's gifts as a theologian and as a European intellectual, showing him to be deeply read in the Christian tradition and in European intellectual history. He also displays a poet's eye for developing the possibilities of biblical and Patristic images.

His presentation of Christian faith is rich and positive. He portrays it as a discovery that changes people's lives and fills them with enthusiasm. It touches their hearts deeply but also engages their questioning minds. It gives them confidence in living, and grounding for their relationships and their aspirations for a better world.

This view of faith is inclusive. Although the encyclical focuses on Christian faith, it states that faith is shared by all good people who ask deeper questions about their lives and see in all human beings a value that cannot be denied by treating them simply as objects of policy. Given the prevalence of this instrumental value the encyclical deserves a wide reading.

But the limitations both of the encyclical form and of Benedict's scholarly style may hinder that reading. Encyclicals are normally addressed to Catholics who find God's presence through scripture and within their church. Other readers may find the argumentation hard to follow.

As a theological teacher Benedict is at home when using abstractions to describe movements of thought and the seasons of the spirit. He also habitually develops his argument by attending to the questions asked by others and differentiating his position from theirs.

These qualities of thought can suggest that he stands against the world as represented by the beliefs and attitudes with which he engages. The encyclical is not polemical, but it can be seen as so by friends and critics who read it hastily. Furthermore because his own intellectual and cultural world is deeply European, it can seem narrow to those from other continents.

The limitations of Benedict's thought as theologian and as Pope, however, are the inverse of its virtues. The four hands involved in the encyclical allow its readers to celebrate Benedict's gifts. They also allow them to anticipate that Francis will commend faith in a pastoral way through gestures, images and pithy words.

Certainly his visit to the people encamped on Lampedusa has embodied a faith that refuses to see asylum seekers as objects of policy, to be sent from place to place and stamped like parcels. To a society that even debates the merits of a policy that would have our sailors look on as people drown, Francis has put the abiding question of faith, 'Who wept for the people who were on board the boat?'

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Statue of Pope John Paul II image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

I must confess to a slight distaste to the phenomenon of sainthood being handed out so easily since the Middle Ages. To me that tends to devalue the place that some of the great heroes of the Church, such as the Apostles, hold. I am not one for making saints speedily almost like a production line. Having said that, I agree with the theme of the article, which I understand is that the Catholic Church, within its broad and comprehensive bounds, without in any way straying from doctrinal orthodoxy, encompasses a number of equally legitimate approaches to salvation. You see it in the various religious orders; their founders (whose deserved sainthood I would not cavill with) and the charism within them. This is a very worthy, valid and thoroughly necessary theme. There are far too many religious people whose spirituality is infantile and who see the Christian life as something overly simplistic. They cannot comprehend the hard times; spiritual struggles and graced (as in "with Grace") victory of the likes of St John of the Cross; St Teresa of Avila or St Ignatius of Loyola. That is immensely sad.
Edward F | 09 July 2013

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. Saint Augustine
Game Theory | 10 July 2013

That sainthood is reserved for those who are Roman Catholic is a concept that turns holiness into some club privilege. That the whole process of canonisation by the powers in Rome goes unquestioned by most Catholics reveals the very problems of power and influence that have brought the Church into its present state of internal conflict. When popes decide which popes should be canonised, what we see is sadly little more than the politics of Rome writ large. The Pope Emeritus was clearly working behind the scenes to have his man Pius XII canonised, now the Argentine wants to canonise his favourites. This has nothing to do with genuine sainthood, but is a way to hand out the medals posthumously and state papal positions. Most actual saints themselves would regard this rigmarole askance, it has nothing very much to do with humility or genuine saintliness.
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE | 10 July 2013

the stroke of a pen, Pope Francis not only unites the Church but also tells the whole world that there is not a way -whether liberal or conservative- leading to God. Only Jesus is The Way. And although I admire his genius of authorising the sainting of his two predecessors, I cannot wonder the speediness of canonisation of Pope John Paul II and the tardiness in declaring sainthood to Pope John XXIII. The Church would be much better had the latter be declared saint as speedy as the former. And I agree with some previous comments that by seemingly making saints so easily, Pope Francis should, as a Latin saying goes, Festina Lente, if sainthood still means anything in contemporary societies.
Toan Nguyen | 10 July 2013

I wonder if Australian politicians and non politicians will take any notice of the Pope words re asylum seekers especially the one who is always talked about as being a devout catholic as if the rest of us were of a different ilk.
irena mangone | 10 July 2013

Benedict the intellectual theologian and Francis the pastoral man of the people. A bit like Rowan and Justin in the CofE. Leadership in a church is complex that's for sure and an unenviable task. I'm reading the prophet Jeremiah at the moment and his laments are very heart-wrenching. Especially his words "Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay." Thank God for our leaders.
Pam | 10 July 2013

Devil's Advocate! That role was abolished by jp2 in 1983, though I knew one['Promotor of the Faith'] who was investigating a candidate in the Pacific region. He gave me a copy of the issues raised re candidates and guess what DA? There are searching questions re not just humility but the heroic practice of such. Humility still remains intact, in the JP2 1983 streamlining of Canonisation process. I totally reject your assertion, that canonisation is a rigmarole "it has nothing very much to do with humility or genuine saintliness." Just you try living virtues in mundane fashion let alone permanent heroic virtues.
Name | 10 July 2013

Toan Nguyen the comparative speed of recent proposed canonisations [vis a vis JP2 and j23] is due to recent decades fine tuning of Canonisation processes: "A complete revision of the norms for canonization, set in motion by Paul VI, was completed during the pontificate of John Paul II and promulgated by the apostolic letter Divinus perfectionis magister (Jan. 25, 1983) which provides directives for the organization and working of the Congregation and norms for carrying our the process for canonization. The norms published by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in that same year (Normae servandae in Inquisitionibus ab Episcopis faciendis in Causis Sanctorum, Feb. 7,1983) and the new Code of Canon Law complete the modern legislation governing causes for sainthood. Structure of the Process. The 1983 norms were formulated in the light of modern notions of history, contemporary methods of research and newly available means of communication."[CF New Catholic Encyclopaedia,2003] "Festina Lente"[hasten slowly] remains an inbuilt factor in the stream lined though most rigorous processes from Diocesan level up to Vatican scrutinies.
Father John George | 11 July 2013

Edward regarding dis-valuing the apostles,the process is far more rigorous now than apostolic times their canonisation requiring mere popular veneration/acclamation "In the first centuries the popular fame or the vox populi, sometimes called canonization by acclamation, represented the only criterion by which a person's holiness was ascertained. A new element was gradually introduced,namely, the intervention of ecclesiastical authority, i.e., of the competent bishop"(New Catholic Encyclopaedia[2003]) All far removed from modern reformed canonical finecombing of virtues-mind you apostles needless to say would pass all criteria 'summa cum laude'[there is nothing gung ho about todays processes. Remember re time factor the first canonisation[viz Calvary's St Dismas who had nano second proclamation even before his death["This day you will be in paradise with me" ]. A lifetime of heroic vice of a 'dismal' criminal thief,come good.
Father John George | 14 July 2013


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