The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Pope Francis and his paradigm shift

Simon Mercieca Monday, 17 December 2018, 07:38 Last update: about 2 years ago

When my friend Philip Beattie asked me to review Jose Antonio Ureta’s book,  I hesitated. In this book, Ureta seeks to assess the first five years of Francis’ pontificate. He states that Pope Francis brought a paradigm shift in the Church. This paradigm shift becomes the main theme of his book. However, there is also a subtitle which attempts to analyses whether Pope Francis represents continuity or rupture in the Church.

There is no need to await the conclusion to realize that for the author, Pope Francis represents rupture. According to Ureta, Pope Francis has broken the continuity in the Church’s magisterium of the Church, in particular, where issues of marriage, family and sexuality are concerned. Ureta is also in total disagreement with a number of stands that this Pope has adopted regarding issues of diversity.

Despite the fact that many have welcomed the way this Pope has opened up the Church, Ureta is not convinced of these initiatives. Pope Francis has shifted the emphasis from a discourse about sexuality to one about integration of the needy. He has stopped condemning the use of condoms and abortion, but this does not mean that he is approving them. Instead, he is tackling issues related to migration and the homeless. Yet, this shift in emphasis has not changed, in my opinion, any of the Church’s teachings. Abortion is still condemned by the Church and despite some arguments to the contrary, life is still being seen as starting at conception, even though it is Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic reasoning  has shown that there could be different gradations on how one can understand the steps of procreation.

Therefore, the theological debate that we are witnessing at the moment does not reflect any break with the past. I believe it reflects a return to the complex theological debate that existed within the Church in the Middle Ages. The problem is one of language. In the Middle Ages, this debate was in Latin. Therefore, very few could participate. Now it is being conducted in the language of the people. What has remained unchanged is the fact that this discourse remains charged.  It reflects the complexity and richness of theological teaching within the Catholic Church. Therefore, those individuals who support Pope Francis will definitely not enjoy this book. I did. It is well structured. Even though the author has his own prejudices and is definitely partial to the traditional family, he allows a lot of space for Pope Francis’ teachings.

On the basis of my blogging experience, I enjoy telling my students that there is no such thing as negative publicity. All publicity is positive even when it appears to be negative. Nor should we be afraid of criticism. Criticism helps us develop.

The author refers to other historical periods of crisis within the Church, particularly during the Arian controversy. This controversy gave Catholicism one of its greatest thinkers, Augustine of Hippona.

Augustine became important because he did not create a break with the past but formed new systems of continuity. This continuity helped Christians, in particular, Catholics to understand the signals of the times and start afresh. But new beginnings do not mean abandoning or destroying what already exists. It means consolidating what there is and building and improving on it. This is why I do not share completely Ureta’s views. I understand and acknowledge that Ureta wants to consolidate the Church. The disagreement lies in the method.

Ureta calls the heterosexual family the traditional family. Obviously, in the past there were families comprising persons of the same sex, as was the case of siblings, who continued to live together after the death of their parents. What this family model lacked was a sexual relationship. This is the innovative aspect of today’s relationships.

The dominant model of the family will remain that between a man and a woman. This is why I do not agree with Ureta for identifying this model as the traditional one. There is no tradition in this practice, unless one does not understand this word in the manner of the Romans who understood it as being the passing of memory from one generation to the next. The ‘traditio’ of this family memory was and will remain the winning model. No State can exist without it. Even Greek terms, like economy, erotics and philosophy, were created to accommodate the family.

Perhaps, the crisis within our contemporary concepts of the family derive from the fact that the economy, erotics and philisophy are no longer seen as objects created to serve the family. Many politicians, who in the past gave their allegiance to the Church, promoted economic policies that were not beneficial to the family. No doubt these politicians did not see the economy, erotics and philosophy as the Greeks used to see them. The Christians built a whole civilization on these principles. It is here where, I agree with Ureta. Perhaps, we need to start studying the current crisis in Europe with the changes that have befallen these three basic concepts. Liberalism and capitalism made us believe that the economy, erotics and philosophy were not created to serve the family but the State.

This paradigm shift has brought about the real crisis. But this crisis was not brought to the Church. This crisis is hitting Europe at large. I don’t think that Pope Francis’ theology is challenging these very basic concepts. On the contrary, with his actions, Pope Francis wants to bring back the economy, erotics and philosophy into the fold of the family. He wants them to be of service to the family. The error of the previous pontiffs was to keep erotics separated from the family and philosophy. By adopting such a paradigm shift, Pope Francis is reinserting erotics within the fold of philosophy and the economy.

The current debate and lack of comprehension, therefore, is more related to methodology than praxis. The so-called traditionalists are not liking the way Pope Francis is doing things. I am calling them ‘so-called traditonalists’ as I loathe also this term. They are not traditionalists but another voice that is enriching the Church.  This change in methodology is being understood by the traditional front as a strong signal for a sudden change in the Church’s magisterium on sexuality.

They think that this will bring about an unexpected break with the Church’s magisterium. I honestly think that this is not the case.

In the old magisterium, there was a lot of political hypocrisy. In Italy, divorced politicians received communion. Even here in Malta, divorcees were receiving communion without anyone objecting. Perhaps, in America and Latin America, certain bishops were stricter in their approach. I will not go into the theological debate and declare whether this is good or not. But it was this political hypocrisy that brought about the downfall of the old Church. Many powerful cardinals, both under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, made alliances with corrupt politicians. Homosexuality ran rife at the Vatican and promotion within the Church was sometimes based on same sex alliances. The Church started to get entrapped in its own scandals. Therefore, looking at this situation from a historical point of view, there was need for a paradigm shift to change the way the media and many of the faithful were seeing the Church. The faithful started staying away from the Church before Pope Francis was elected. I think that he has been instrumental in making a number of Catholics feel proud again to profess their faith in public.

There are also two references to Malta in this book. One concerns the fact that the Maltese bishops were the first to follow the recommendations of the encyclical Amoris Laetizia and put it into practice. They were ready to allow communion to divorcees. The second reference is to the Maltese EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella who, after the publication of the encyclical, Laudio Si, went to the Vatican, in his official capacity, to congratulate the Pope for his stand in defence of the environment.

Yet these two encyclicals are not revolutionary. Nor are we faced with any form of cultural revolution within the Church. We are presented with a continuity in the magisterium of the past but expressed in a different format and with less political and theological hypocrisy.

Obviously, it is not the typical bourgeois religion we have been accustomed to. But one cannot deny that Pope Francis’ theology is more humane. It is also less legalistic.

Before this book was published, the author may not have been well-known in Malta, but I am sure that with this work, Ureta will become a household name.

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