The Pope's Visit

I've always liked Pope Francis. What I like about him, above all, is that he gets out of his security and walks among the people. He's ready to die every day. That's what I look for in a man of God: if he really is what he is supposed to be, he ought to be ready to die at any moment. I don't doubt that God loves Pope Francis for this reason alone, without regard to anything he believes. That is living faith.

For that reason, I don't care especially about the particulars of his statements. Gosh, a lot of people obviously do. I think they're missing the point. Human knowledge is always limited. There are a few points of theology Francis can state that are obviously firmly binding on Catholics. The teaching on abortion is one of these. But they aren't binding because he believes it, or because he says it. They're binding because standing behind him is a massive weight of authority. No one man, Pope or otherwise, can alter it in more than the slightest degree.

Why is that? The Church is the largest religious organization on Earth, with just about 1.2 billion members. That is not binding. To appeal to that would be an ad populum fallacy, an appeal to the popular. What is going on with the Church's authority is something more. The Church does not think it represents 1.2 billion people. The Church thinks it represents all of the members gone before those 1.2 billion into the grave. It takes seriously the proposition that it must remain in fellowship with the dead, because it expects to meet them again -- perhaps tomorrow afternoon.

There is a huge power in that, even apart from the authority it draws from community with the divine. To hold the human family together not just across space or culture but across time, that requires speaking and thinking with the greatest care. When the Church speaks as a whole, it speaks with some thought to the Pope (2015), to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), St. Augustine (354-430), with Jesus who defines the calendar, with the prophets of old who came before. It considers the writings of fairly ordinary men, even, such as Tobias of one of the books taken as apocryphal and in any case written by a fairly ordinary person of his age.

Nothing like it exists. Certainly no greater human organization than it exists. We can imagine a similar organization that somehow embraced the whole of the human traditions of wisdom, from Hinduism and Judaism to Buddhism and Christianity. But there is no such organization, nor could one be constructed now. The Church is as powerful an organization of humanity as has ever been built, whatever you think of its claims of connection to the divine.

Of course it doesn't agree in all its specifics with anyone. It pursues a greater agreement with everyone.

It is good to see the Congress pause and consider. It will do whatever it wants, of course. So does everyone else. But the wise pause. The wise consider.


Anonymous said...

I watched his speech to the Joint Session of Congress, and read the transcript for the one to the UN. In both cases he laid out the problems, and the most general parameters for goals.

He even said that his speeches should not be viewed as political statements, and he surely did not make specific recommendations about how we should handle our many problems.

And afterward, I read all kinds of lies about what he said.

"If you can bear to hear the words you've spoken,
twisted to make a trap for fools…."

So I posted links to the transcripts, here and there.


Grim said...

Indeed, I believe I just read a piece from NARAL claiming to endorse his message -- except, of course, that they understood the message in a most remarkable way.

douglas said...

So what to make of the fact that he takes as close advisors people like Naomi Klein. I don't know. I know he's spoken out quite directly against liberation theology, but then he seems to have a world view so in line with the far left. To mention Global Warming so prominently in his address to the Congress, but to only obliquely mention abortion- especially when a battle over fighting against it given the videos is currently brewing, strikes me as almost callous. And I hear myself, and wonder have I forgotten the words I've told so many others about Papal statements- you have to consider his obligation to speak to the long term, and to be careful not to make enemies of those who might be made to become friends, or even believers. On the other hand, I then contrast that against things like his statements about AGW, and how that abides by none of those cautions.

Let's just say, I have my concerns, but then, maybe he can reach those who would never be reached by someone I would like better.

MikeD said...

Just before he left the US, someone asked the Pontiff about Kim Davis. He responded that all public servants have the right to refuse to perform duties if it conflicts with their conscience. One again, I disagree with his Holiness, but that's not actually my point.

My point is, those on the Left have recently embraced the Pope, many comparing him to the Dalai Lama, others saying that for the first time (shades of Michelle, here) they felt a desire to be spiritual again because of him. But that's not actually true. They like him, and gush over him and his visit, not because they think he's holy, nor because they have any love for Catholicism (and most I've seen comment on his visit don't), but because he was stating political opinions they favored. And then they turned a blind eye to the political opinions he holds that they utterly reject (abortion being the number one topic of avoidance). And then I came across his Kim Davis opinion today. And I honestly doubt a single person who was previously gushing about how we should all listen to the Pope with say a single word about this. Why? Because it's inconvenient.

But here's the heart of the matter. The Pope, like all Popes are, is an authoritarian. He believes (as all Popes do) that mankind must be ruled and told what to do in order to be happy and well. Because that is what the Catholic Church (like all religions) fundamentally is. Please don't misunderstand. This is not a criticism or insult. The Bible fundamentally is a rulebook on how to live. It is an Authority. And the Pontiff is the head of a Church that wants to spread the Good News to every heart. His concern is not with free will, though he rightly acknowledges it, nor is it with personal freedom. He concern is the immortal soul of every believer and every non-believer he can sway.

Now, the previous two Popes were anti-Communist, it's true. Mostly because both of them had seen first hand the horrors of Communism. While they still wanted people to be fed and clothed and housed, they recognized that Communism was the wrong way to go about it. Yet they still encouraged Western Nations to feed, house, and clothe the poor. The difference is, this Pope did not see all that first hand. So his view is different on economics. He sees the chaos of the free market as unruly and dangerous, because there are those who will always be left out and fall behind. Often disastrously. And he sees Communism (or at least managed economies) as a social good because they promise to do away with all of that. John Paul II and Benedict had seen that the promise of planned economies was a lie. Often leading to more disastrous outcomes than Capitalism.

We cheer the Pope when he calls for an end to the murder of the unborn (I choose the word "murder" intentionally, as even the Catholic Church recognizes that in some cases, it is necessary to abort a child in order to save the mother's life, thus the killing is not "murder"), and yet we grumble when he tells the US Congress that they should put an end to all this messy Free Market stuff and just get this "saving the planet" thing he wants done. The annoying thing to me has been all this left-wing over-celebration about how awesome it is that the Catholic Church is suddenly so "hip". But it's not. Sure, the current Pope is more overtly anti-Capitalist than the previous two, but that's only because he doesn't understand the empty promises of a planned economy the way they did. John Paul II and Benedict were no fans of poverty, or the unequal outcomes of Capitalism, but they at least understood that Communism was worse.

So my basic conclusion is, while I think the Holy Father means well, and is no worse (or better) than the previous two, I think it's important to remember that we don't need to take economic advice from a religious authority.

Grim said...

I don't disagree that you're not obligated to take economic advice from the Pope. However, I'd like to draw your attention to a basic contradiction in two things you said.

1) [The Pope] responded that all public servants have the right to refuse to perform duties if it conflicts with their conscience.

2) But here's the heart of the matter. The Pope, like all Popes are, is an authoritarian. He believes (as all Popes do) that mankind must be ruled and told what to do in order to be happy and well.

Only one of those two things can be true. Either the Pope believes that human dignity embraces a right of individual conscience sufficient that public officials must be free to refuse to carry out legal duties conflicting with that private conscience, or the Pope is an authoritarian who believes that mankind must be ruled and told what to do by wiser authority.

I think it's the former claim that is true (and it is, at least, a matter of fact that he said it). Even in the matter of excommunication, it's ordinarily the case that a person excommunicates himself by his actions -- no action by an ecclesiastical authority is necessary, and any action they do take is only to publicly recognize and formalize what the individual has already chosen to do.

MikeD said...

However, I'd like to draw your attention to a basic contradiction in two things you said.

Technically, you are correct. That does seem like a contradiction. But I never said the Pope was an absolute authoritarian. Just as I am not an absolute libertarian. I hold beliefs that are essentially anti-libertarian. One of which is, a public servant (being a servant of all the people, not just those they agree with) is obligated to perform their duties in accordance with the law. If they find that the law is unjust to their conscience, then I expect them to either comply (while maintaining their right to freely express that they believe it to be unjust) or to resign. A private individual is under no such obligation, of course. But the issue as I see it, is that Kim Davis is not acting as a private individual when she opposes the law, she is acting in her official capacity. Hardly a libertarian position for me to take. And yet I do. Yet I remain a libertarian. Just not an absolute libertarian.

So too can the Pope take an anti-authoritarian position, and yet remain an authoritarian. This is the danger of attempting to fit everything in the universe into orderly little boxes and definitions. Very few things actually are orderly. It's why logic and philosophy so often miss the mark. They are predicated on an orderly and precise universe, which does not actually exist.

Grim said...

This is the danger of attempting to fit everything in the universe into orderly little boxes and definitions. Very few things actually are orderly.

Well, the formal logic of the situation is not what I meant to point up. It's there, of course. What I think I want to draw is a distinction between authority and authoritarian.

The issue is not logical, that is, but theological. Ridley Scott's film Kingdom of Heaven nicely captured the issue in a remark by Sybilla: "Islam says obey. Jesus says choose."

The Church has devoted massive writings to trying to understand what it has inherited: what the moral law is, what natural law teaches, what human laws ought to say. It has an appeal to what is (if they are right about God) legitimate authority, to be sure. Yet what the authority commands is freedom. Freedom, with the promise of mercy.

A father might do the same: "Son, I will tell you what I think is right, but you must decide for yourself what to do here. Whatever you do, I will forgive you and love you." The father's authority is legitimate, but it is hard to imagine a less authoritarian structure for an authority to erect.

MikeD said...

I think we may be having a disconnect over the term "authoritarian". I am using the word in this sense of the word. I think you're looking at the more "simply opposes free will" definition.

Free will, in itself, is an interesting topic. Calvinism, like Islam, does not particularly believe in free will. Predestination, like the Islamic concept of "insha'Allah" (if God wills it), states that everything that you have done or will do has already been known to God who is author of all. How can you express free will if nothing you are doing is actually a choice? You're just reading from a script that has already been written.

And yet, this isn't just a religious belief. There's quite a bit of interest in this philosophically from a physicist's point of view. Let us accept that Biology is in fact just Chemistry writ large (as scientists generally accept), and Chemistry is just Physics writ large, and Physics just extremely complex math. If you believe that everything about the mind (memory, reason, intelligence, etc) is a construct of electrical impulses and chemical reactions, and that there is no soul or guiding will, then every action you take and every decision you make is nothing more than those electrical impulses and chemical reactions reacting to stimuli. And those stimuli in turn were created by everything around you acting and reacting to other electrical impulses and chemical reactions. Nothing you do, say, write, think about, or otherwise believe you are responsible for is ultimately a predetermined set of responses. You are therefore no more sentient than a computer program which operates line by line performing the functions its programmer wrote.

I personally point to this (and free will) as evidence of the divine and proof that we are not just bags of meat plodding through life performing nothing more than the most complex mathematical equation in the universe. After all, if all we are is ultimately math, and part of an ordered universe, then there is nothing you or I can do to actually change anything. To paraphrase Dean Wormer "stimulus/response is no way to go through life, son."

Grim said...

That reductive view that endorses determinism is better suited to Newtonian physics than to contemporary physics, of course. It's not clear that it makes sense today.

Materialism has a pretty big problem in any case. What's the difference between a table and the parts of a table laying on the floor? Well, capacity: the table can hold your dinner up at the right position for eating, say. But that capacity exists because the matter of the table is held together in a particular way -- that is, because of a form of organization. Now that form is not itself material. The matter is the same in both cases. The form is immaterial because it is not material. But it must be real because it creates material capacities that would otherwise not exist.

In fact, it proves to be the case that the matter itself is really the form: the difference between a collection of hydrogen and oxygen molecules and water is just a structure of a certain kind. That structure must be immaterial on the same sort of argument as the table's form being immaterial, and yet it is what gives rise to the kind of matter we call water. It is water because it has the capacities it has (e.g., to get things wet at room temperature, to freeze when it does and how it does, to dissolve a certain amount of salt, etc).

So it turns out that immaterial things are not only real, they're what gives rise to the material world as we experience it. That's surprising.

What's even more surprising is the finding that, at the smallest levels we know how to image, the forms fit a wave equation that is really about probability rather than actuality. Now waves are forms too: if you think of a wave in the ocean, the wave is an organization of the material water. But that's actual water. What we're talking about here is the material coming to be because of interactions of immaterial things on the level of what is probable, rather than what is.

At this point, the question shouldn't be whether the physics can determine the immaterial. Clearly, the immaterial is determining the material -- somehow. Indeed, the immaterial gives rise to the material, and continues to inform its qualities and capacities all the way up to our level. Why is there a table there? Because I decided to make one.