Just a reminder to our readers: Perry Dane of Rutgers-Camden (left), who blogged with us a little this summer, will join us again as a guest this fall. For the month of October, he’ll be posting some of his thoughts on law and religion right here at the Forum. We’re delighted to have him back with us and look forward to his contribution. Welcome!
My selection this week from The City of God comes from Book I, Chapter 9, just after Augustine has been discussing the objection from his pagan adversaries that it does not seem right that Christian divine compassion is extended both to the wicked and the good; likewise, why should the wicked and the good suffer the same evils in the earthly city? What kind of God would inflict the same hurts on the good and the wicked alike?
Augustine first says that what matters is not the event of suffering itself, but the person undergoing the suffering: “though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers.” I.8.
Fair enough, one might respond, but if the sufferers are not alike, why should they undergo similar pain? This seems unjust. Augustine argues that it is right that God’s “corrections” be administered in the earthly city to good and bad men alike because these corrections are reminders to good men that “although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer in these temporal ills.” I.9.
What are the particular failings of good people that Augustine emphasizes in this chapter–those sins that warrant their suffering in this world, indeed, that warrant their suffering similar pain to the wicked? Here is Augustine’s answer:
For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them [the wicked], sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are afraid to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners.
If anyone forbears to reprove and find fault with those who are doing wrong, because he seeks a more seasonable opportunity, or because he fears they may be made worse by his rebuke, or that other weak persons may be disheartened from endeavoring to lead a good and pious life, and may be driven from the faith–this man’s omission seems to be occasioned not by covetousness, but by a charitable consideration. But what is blameworthy is, that they who themselves revolt from the conduct of the wicked, and live in quite another fashion, yet spare those faults in other men which Read more
Next month, I.B. Tauris will publish The Dynamics of Coexistence in the Middle East: Negotiating Boundaries Between Christians, Muslims, Jews and Samaritans in Palestine, by Julia Droeber (An-Najah University, Palestine). The publisher’s description follows.
Palestine is often viewed, from afar, through the frame of insurmountable difference and violent conflict along religious and ethnic lines. Julia Droeber looks beyond this, as she draws out the way in which sameness and difference is constructed and dealt with in the day to day relationships and practices of different religious communities in the West Bank town of Nablus. She follows the reality of coexistence and the constant negotiation of boundaries between Christians, Muslims and one of the last remaining Samaritan communities worldwide, and how these relationships are complicated by an occupler perceived as ‘Jewish.’ This is a sensitive and nuanced study of cultural and religious space in a much-contested region. It illustrates how differences are reconciled, accommodated and emphasized, while existing alongside a common sense of belonging. Droeber’s findings resonate beyond the town of Nablus, and the West Bank, and into the broader fields of Middle East Studies, Anthropology, Comparative Religion and Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies.
Well, I said you couldn’t tell much from one interview.
Last week, I posted about Pope Francis’s much discussed interview in an Italian Jesuit journal. I observed that the Pope seemed to be a mystic trying to place the Catholic Church outside politics–either progressive or conservative politics. He seemed to me to be advocating a radical Christian orthodoxy, a return to saving souls. Some of my friends told me I was mistaken. “There’s no getting the Church away from politics,” they said. What I perceived as introspection was really progressivism.
Pope Francis has now given another interview, this time to La Repubblica, and my friends are saying, “We told you so.” And I have to concede this new interview suggests Pope Francis is more of a straightforward progressive than I appreciated. Some things he said in the interview are a frankly a little shocking. He told the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” That’s a rather dismissive way to treat millennia of Christian apologetics. The pope’s views on conscience were also odd, from a Christian perspective. “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” the pope said. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.” With respect, “do what you think is right” is not the Christian view of conscience. That sounds more like Anthony Kennedy than St. Paul. And would the world really be a better place if everyone did what he thought was right? How about jihadis?
All this being said, I don’t think this second interview completely disproves my first assessment of Pope Francis. You have to put it in context. When you read the whole interview, you see how cleverly and gently Pope Francis is nudging Scalfari, a non-believer, to a Christian perspective. Combativeness is not necessarily the mark of piety. And I suspect future pronouncements will clear up some of the more questionable things the pope said. On proselytism, for example,Pope Francis this week gave a sermon in which he quoted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as saying that the Church doesn’t grow through “proselytism,” but “attraction” and “witness.” I believe this refers to Pope Benedict’s statement that the best testimonies for Christianity have been art and the lives of the saints. In other words, the Christian appeal is more about intuition than intellect. At least from my own Orthodox perspective, there doesn’t seem anything terribly wrong with that. I imagine Pope Francis will have more to say about conscience at some future time.
How about mysticism? It’s true that in the La Repubblica interview, the pope rather coyly denies being mystical (“What do you think?”). But that doesn’t prove he isn’t. Read his description of the great light that filled him as he contemplated whether to accept his election. Besides, would you really trust someone who told you he was a mystic? Such a declaration would pretty clearly show the speaker wasn’t a mystic.
Finally, it does seem Pope Francis’s politics are quite progressive, at least when it comes to economics, and that he wishes to emphasize that aspect of the Church’s social teaching rather than others, like sexual ethics. He talked about the worldwide economic crisis, said it was an urgent matter for the Church, and that he personally faulted unrestrained liberalism–that is, free market capitalism. He said the state might have to intervene in some circumstances to correct extreme inequalities.
The pope also said, however, more than once, that the Church should not deal in politics. Political institutions are “secular by definition” and operate in a sphere different from religion–all his recent predecessors had said so, he told Scalfari. Individual Catholics could engage in politics and carry their values with them. But the Church would “never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.” What the Pope seems to mean is that the Church as an institution should avoid getting involved in the workings of government and political parties, but that its prophetic role remains.
You can’t tell too much from two interviews, either. It will be interesting to see how all this develops. One thing hasn’t changed since the first interview, though. Pope Francis seems a remarkable and profound man with real spiritual charisma, a pastor. And he apparently answers letters.