The pope's recent speeches showcased what is becoming the predominant theme of his pontificate.
In his now classic text Christ and Culture, the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr outlines various types of relationship between the Christian church and the surrounding culture. He explains how some Christians see themselves as being in constant conflict with “the world while others see history as the the story of God’s spirit interacting with nature and human history. A third view is that of the synthesist. He sees human history as a positive preparation for the coming kingdom of God. Niebuhr calls the “conversionist” one who sees history as the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s reaction to them. The conversion of the world comes through the conflicts of history.
While all these viewpoints have merit, the final understanding is the most fully Catholic. Catholics see God’s purpose for the world being worked out within the often troubled and challenging relationship with the worldly powers. Down through history we have seen the popes engaging with the worldly powers fearlessly. Whether it was Pope Leo the Great challenging Attilla the Hun, Pius XII resisting the Nazis or Pope St John Paul the Great taking on the communist powers, down through the ages the best popes have shown how the church does not shy away from engaging and challenging the worldly powers.
Pope Francis’s speeches this week to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe show this tradition in action. The Pope did not withdraw from interaction with the world powers or merely take a passive role. He did not sit back to wait for the coming of the Lord, nor did he regard the worldly powers as a kind of necessary evil to be endured. Instead Pope Francis, like Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI before him, stepped into the conflict and addressed it head on.
John Allen reports in detail on the pope’s speeches in Strasbourg here. What emerges from the Pope’s words is an astounding reproof for the European authorities. Pope Francis challenged their opulence, complacency and torpor. Saying that they come across as “elderly and haggard” he asked,“Where is your vigor?…Where is that idealism that inspired and ennobled your history?”
He blasted the Europeans for wasting food in a world of starving children, for not dealing with the immigration crisis, neglecting to protect the environment and ignoring the most basic human right—the right to life. Once again he denounced the “throw-away culture,” reminding the lawmakers of the needs of “the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.”
Most of all, Pope Francis engaged the Europeans with the underlying spiritual malaise of the developed world. Noting the cynical and weary attitude of Europeans, said there is a “great vacuum of ideals” in the West. An essential forgetfulness of God will lead to an ideology of uniformity in which human uniqueness and individual strengths will be swallowed up in an ever burgeoning secular, bureaucratic, and ultimately sinister empire.
Intriguingly, one of Pope Francis’ favorite books is The Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. This dystopic novel is set in the future when the world is dominated by just the sort of uniform bureaucratic ideology that the Pope warns of in his speeches to the European Parliament and Council of Europe this week. As Russell Shaw points out in this article, Pope Francis is not shy about referring to the end times. His speech to the Europeans should be seen in this light. Does Pope Francis see the bland, pan European secular bureaucracy as a sinister power that threatens the whole world? Is there an apocalyptic edge to the Pope’s powerful challenge to Europe? This may be emerging as the predominant theme of this papacy—a challenge to the one world power that threatens to sweep the globe in a frightening efficiency, creating the climate for the anti-Christ.
If so, what is Pope Francis’ answer? It is for return and renewal at the heart of Europe and the developed world. For Francis this is not simply a mindlessly obedient adherence to the Catholic religion, but a call to a fresh understanding of man’s relationship with God and a dynamic spiritual search that will bring Christ into the heart of culture, converting it from the inside out.
TheRev. Dwight Longeneckeris the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book isThe Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty.Visit Dwight Longenecker’swebsite atdwightlongenecker.com.