Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Pope and Conservatism

The Maverick Philosopher has a post here on the recent election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. He notes that people drawn to religion tend to be of a conservative bent and that conservatives don't like change, tolerating it only when necessary. In his view, "The Church ought to be a place of stability and order, an oasis of calm, a venue where the ancient is preserved as a temporal reminder of the eternal." The Mav is not at all approving of the election of Pope Francis.

I am certainly of a conservative bent, and am sympathetic to preserving the ancient, but this misses the essence of Christianity. Christianity is not primarily about the eternal, or remembering the eternal, but is the news that the eternal has broken into the temporal in a decisive way. This gives the Catholic Church a fundamentally revolutionary nature despite its ancient Sacraments and rituals. Or, rather, the Catholic Church embodies the paradox of ancient rituals in service of ongoing revolution. Chesterton captures this perfectly in his description of Christianity as the "Eternal Revolution."

The mission of the Church is to preserve and proclaim the Gospel to the world, and to provide the concrete encounter with Christ in the Sacraments. The conservative aspect of the Church comes from the fact that it is the authorized proclaimer and interpreter of the Gospel, but is not its author and has no authority to modify or "improve" the Gospel message in any way. Christ established the means of transmission of the Gospel through a Church founded on twelve hand-picked apostles, the successors of whom are the bishops, and the Church has no authority to modify this structure (by making the Church a democracy, for instance, or making the authority of bishops subservient to biblical scholars).  The revolutionary aspect of the Church comes from the fact that the Church is charged with challenging the world (and itself) with the Gospel, as Christ challenged the world when he walked the Earth. The paradox of this revolutionary challenge is that it loses its force as it is routinely proclaimed; the words are worn down to nubs and gradually lose their ability to effectively communicate, and the Church, despite itself, settles into a worldly conservatism that has nothing to do with the genuine conservatism of the Gospel. At such times a radical personality is called for, one who renews the Gospel challenge, with words, yes, but words proclaimed in new ways and also, and perhaps more significantly, with his actions - a St. Francis.

Our new Pope seems to capture this truly Catholic paradox of the Eternal Revolution. The progressive types aren't even writing their usual false hopes that the new Pope will change basic doctrine on abortion or married priests, as Francis has been rock solidly orthodox on doctrinal matters. On the other hand, Francis's ascetic life, obvious humility, and public eschewals of the perquisites of status are an existential rebuke to our indulgent, celebrity obsessed and self-absorbed culture. Just the man the times call for, it seems.

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