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By Tom Cushing

A Pope that a Unitarian Can Love ? Part One of a Series

Uploaded: Dec 8, 2013

I just finished reading Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation EVANGELII GAUDIUM (stay with me, here), which I understand to be a sort of State of the Union address to frame his papacy. Perhaps I was inspired by my confession last time out. I had also seen commentary on this document that didn't ring true, so I wanted to get to the first source. As a semi-dormant Unitarian Universalist by creed, I came to it with an abiding distrust of rigid organized religious institutions (UUism being a blessedly flexible foundational approach to spirituality).

It is a fascinating document ? by turns ethereal and mundane, remarkably colloquial (I never expected to read the term "sourpusses"), dealing with subjects as weighty as world economic doctrine, and as specifically remedial as how to write a better sermon. It was also organized in what seemed to my linear brain to be haphazard fashion, but there are linkable passages of great power and import. If it is to be his lodestar ? the principles that will direct his time leading the Vatican -- it points a very true north. He is this UU's kind of Pope.

There's too much in its 225 pages to summarize in one blog. This being a relatively religious month, (whether your worship takes you to the sanctuary or the mall), kindly indulge a series of reflections on various elements of that text. I'll address bold, interrelated themes this time, next the Catholic Church institution and its role in the world, and finally his remarkable endorsement of a kind of Liberation Theology that has received most of the ink, to-date. I'm no theologian, and occasionally fallible, so any mistakes in understanding and interpretation are mine.

The first of his great themes I'll call Integration. Francis views societies around the world as increasingly stratified, with too little contact among people of different ethnicities, incomes and viewpoints. Isolation both virtual and real, he writes, may contribute to the many pleasures available in a contemporary consumerist economy, but it saps the joy that comes with human contact and community. It is an interesting contrast ? pleasure vs. joy. He envisions a world in which people's joy is enriched by empathic sharing of the passions of life ? both delights and tribulations. He writes:

"If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good?. Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore, and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others." (9)

Second, as opposed to a monolithic Church of static dogma and unquestioning obedience, Francis calls for Decentralization of power and encouragement of diverse viewpoints. Perhaps seasoned by his experience as a Southern Hemisphere cleric in a Eurocentric sect, the text reflects an appreciation of deep cultural differences among the global flock, and an acceptance of various liturgical interpretations ? and specific social solutions. He wants a living, breathing, and yes, evolving Church. This theme makes ample reference to the Second Vatican Council of Pope John 23rd, and he writes:

"Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God's word." (35)

No all of the flock will appreciate this course correction -- some sheep simply prefer to be led. And he is careful to note that he recognizes his Church's role as a bulwark against modern relativism. There are baseline absolutes in that faith that he considers timeless, and will remain in-place. He mentions the uncompromising Catholic opposition to abortion specifically.

"? in Catholic doctrine there is a hierarchy of truths, since they vary in relation to the foundation of the Christian faith...What counts above all else is faith working through Love." (32)

I can almost hear The Beatles.

The third theme I'll call Humility and Service. Here, I'm taking a few liberties with the term evangelism. From my sense of the document, it has both its traditional meaning of spreading The Word and recruiting new members -- and especially a call for social activism: an institutional emphasis on The Good that his Church can do in the world. As opposed to a focus on the majesty, pomp and ceremonies of the Church traditions, he sees it as a vehicle to serve the most basic needs of its people. He exhorts
Catholics to live it to the point of "taking on the smell of the sheep," (22) and to celebrate incremental successes.

This is a Pope who has washed the feet of prisoners, and who is said to sneak out occasionally to minister directly to folks in-need. It is leadership by example, and a clarion call to emulate his actions. It's a remarkable and welcome contrast with his predecessor of the ruby red slippers.

"Sometimes we are tempted to ? keep the Lord's wounds at arm's length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those ? riches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead enter into the reality of other people's lives, and know the power of tenderness." (201)

Finally comes Francis' call for Ecumenism among various religious traditions specifically, and active engagement in conflict resolution generally. He wants Christians of every stripe, as well as Jews, Muslims and followers of other traditions, to focus on their commonalities as a foundation for dialogue -- and joint action. People can always find ways to split hairs of difference ? which tends to create barriers and tension, paralyze the conversation in the name of purity, and prevent joint accomplishments.

In keeping with Service and Humility, this Pope calls for combined engagement by followers of religion in solving society's problems ? based on their shared commitment to ethical living. To be sure, there Are elements of the different traditions that matter deeply to their adherents, and that are antithetical to each other ? but that is not the point. If the religious communities are to maximize their influence against worldly conflicts and oppressions, they will do it better, together.

"We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must ? put aside suspicion and mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God's face. Trusting others is an art and peace is an art. Jesus told us: Blessed are the peacemakers." (183)

In summary, I believe this Pope has decided to take the New Testament at its Word, and seriously. There are ways of convoluting Scriptures to justify many things ? generally, the more complex the argument, the more likely it is to serve ulterior motivations. Francis appears to have little patience for complexities in directing the Church away from the latter-day scribes and Pharisees and toward simple, direct and timeless interpretations of ethical precepts attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.

We know precious little about the actual, historical Jesus, but readers of the recent book Zealot get a pretty good sense of the context in which he lived and preached. Francis appears to be informed by that context, if not that book. His back-to-the-basics-of-why-we're-here approach, regarding especially the plight and blessings of the poor, seems to make him a very true disciple for our time.