The Scriptures, Christianity, and Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
When it comes to warfare, seldom will modern popes take sides openly. Instead, they pray for peace, leaving state decisions to political leaders to whom they give the benefit of the doubt; religion, it goes, ought not to be involved in power politics.
Days after the Russian assault against Ukraine began, Pope Francis called for a cessation of hostilities, for prayer, and for his willingness to involve the Vatican in mediating the conflict. Without addressing Putin directly, Francis was critical of the Russian President denying that his invasion of Ukraine was only a special operation to protect Russia. The destruction caused by Russian bombs and missiles, the millions of Ukrainians forced to migrate, disruptions of families, and the number of civilians killed and maimed attest to the fact that this was not simply a small fracas. As the attack continued, Francis referred to it as shameful, while also being critical of NATO powers’ decision to increase their spending on weapons, calling it madness.1
On the other hand, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has publicly justified the Russian invasion by blaming the West’s Russophobia, despite knowing that the attack is nothing more than a preventive war, the type of conflict that is condemned both by international law and the Christian and secular moral concept of Just War. Patriarch Kirill also blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the West’s violation of God’s divine law through its acceptance of gay rights. In essence, he was preposterously suggesting that gayness threatens the national security of the Russian nation. Granted, from a Christian standpoint many sins are committed in the world, including in Russia. However, attempting to justify violence through preventive warfare by reducing Christian doctrine to one sin (presuming it is so) is nothing short of perfidy.
Kirill’s justification of such an insidious attack ought to be revolting to the Christian conscience. At the very least he could have asked Putin to stop the attack and pray for peace. Interestingly, someone who is well acquainted with Kirill has suggested the Russian Patriarch had no choice but to justify Putin’s actions, otherwise, he would be killed.2 By not allowing his Christian conscience to dictate his actions he chose to avoid what his faith would have called for: martyrdom.
Patriarch Kirill appears to have distorted political reality blaming the West’s Russophobia for Putin’s actions.3 Unless he resides in an alternate universe, NATO is not driven by hatred or fear of the Russian people but by Vladimir Putin’s disregard of international and moral norms. Nonetheless, misperceptions both by NATO and Putin, weak diplomatic efforts, and unwillingness for compromises led to a war that could have been avoided.
NATO’s claim that each nation is sovereign therefore ought to be free to join the alliance is nothing but a truism that in a few years converted the alliance into a military country club. Likely, countries that had been under Soviet domination were afraid that Russia, given its historical resume, could still present a threat to them. Nonetheless, NATO and the US failed to recognize that Russia was no longer the Soviet Union, militarily, economically, or even religiously. Fear of the past was driving its policies without recognition of how Putin would react.
It was a difficult situation, indeed. For NATO to deny these nations access to the alliance could be misperceived as giving Russia a green light to threaten them again. But granting membership could also be misperceived (or used) by Russia—as it seems to have happened–that NATO was trying to encircle Moscow. The popular revolt by a Ukrainian mob in 2014 against their duly elected president for fear that he was tilting toward Russia’s economic offerings (presidential corruption was not a crucial issue at the time), violated (once again) the liberal principles of the democratic process that Western democracies have pledged to uphold. This incident was abetted and supported by the United States and European NATO allies. The so-called Revolution of Dignity propagated through Western media was an enormous and humiliating defeat to Putin who likely saw the writing on the wall. Ukraine, a potential buffer territory between NATO and Russia could become (and was in fact begging) to become part of the NATO alliance. Following the outcome of the Maidan uprising, Putin accepted that ninety-five percent of Ukraine would not remain neutral, so he settled for the lion’s tail by illegally annexing Crimea. Misperceiving how Putin would evaluate the fall of Ukrainian democracy, the West further misperceived this annexation as evidence that Putin could not be trusted and accused him of doing what other European countries and the United States had done before: relying on preventive warfare to accomplish political goals.
This interpretation of events or any other cannot possibly be extracted from the Gospels or even from Paul’s letters that showed no interest in a conflict with the Roman Empire. Although both sides of the conflict are Christian, at least on paper, religion is not likely to play a significant role in this war. A potential outcome, assuming the conflict does not escalate into a nuclear conflagration, is likely to confirm the failure of diplomacy, misperceptions, and intransigence on both sides. If anything may prevent escalation is the dreadful yet all too real concept of Mutual Assured Destruction that may extend to other nations all over the world.
At this time, we may want to ask how the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, help us to understand the moral aspects of this war. In the exhaustive study I conducted on the Gospels there is a striking empirical observation: Jesus had little if anything to say about warfare despite being aware of historical wars in which his people participated, and the suffering brought by Roman domination. He condemned killing—Thou Shall Not Kill—except that his commandment was intended as personal (not social) teaching. Jesus’s concept of peace also was limited to relations among individuals, not nations. Although we may extrapolate his teaching to wars among nations, Jesus refrained from doing so. His teachings indicate, judging by the way he died, that he was personally a pacifist. Numerous examples in the Gospels allude to this view, but none more than a most bizarre parable instructing his followers not to intervene in killings or wars because of the risk of collateral damage to the innocent (Mt 13:24-30). If the Christian world were to accept this teaching as divine and follow it, nations would not be able to intervene in acts of genocide; essentially it would mean the end of civilization as we know it since the concept of law and order would become meaningless.
For some time, some Catholic theologians have been urging the Church to repudiate the concept of Just War, created by Christians–Catholics and Protestants–as a means to mitigate the risk of war. They suggest that the concept has run its course and become insignificant. Nevertheless, these advocates have failed to indicate what practical replacement would fill the moral vacuum its rejection would create in international politics. A proper understanding of the Just War concept, however, reveals, not its insignificance, but its indifference by religious and political leaders under the pretext that power politics is out of bounds in Christianity.
For example, Pope Francis has said that no war is just, apparently rejecting a concept that has existed for nearly two thousand years, albeit without always preventing wars. At the same time, Francis has indicated that Ukrainians have the right to protect the homeland from invaders, suggesting that some aspects of warfare may be morally just. The point is that we cannot have it both ways. If the mere defense of the homeland with defensive weapons is morally allowed, it must be because there is some justice to it. Defending the defenseless from genocide appears to obey Jesus’s first commandment, love of God and love of neighbor. How the faithful can love God by rejecting warfare but love their neighbor by defending them through military conflict is an intricate moral proposition, one that is difficult to extract from the Gospels or even Paul’s letters.
In the end, we are left without divine guidance and to our own beliefs and values as different and contradictory as they appear to be. There is a reason for this behavior. Ethnocentrism, nations’ tendency to judge events from their perspective inserts a biased view of relations among them when evaluating international politics. No nation is likely to see itself as being evil, hence by default the opposition are the bad guys.
This war, however, calls for perspective lest we think we are always the good guys. That Vladimir Putin has engaged in brutal actions is indisputable, whether because NATO powers cornered him, or he perceived that such was their intention. It is not known when or how it will end. So far, according to the United Nations, there have been over 6,000 civilian casualties (killed and injured in one month) since the attack first began.4 In the eastern regions of Donbas and Luhansk combats have been going on between Russian-aided separatists and Ukrainians since 2014. The number of casualties although difficult to estimate, ranges between 32,000 and 40,000 including combatants.
We may want to compare the above to other outcomes of preventive warfare. During the first two months of the 2003 US preventive invasion of Iraq (dubbed preemptive by the administration, US Congress, and US media) there were nearly 4,000 civilian deaths according to IraqBodyCount.org database, following President George W. Bush proclamation banner “Mission Accomplished.” Throughout 2008, the end of the Bush presidency, there had been 80,000 civilian deaths. Following the Law of Unintended Consequences that the Just War concept takes into account, the US invasion of Iraq accounted for between 186,143 and 209,349 civilian deaths. When the number of combatants killed is added, figures go as high as 288,0005
Do comparisons allow us to establish moral and political equivalence? Yes, although with a distinction. NATO forces were attempting regime change driven by disingenuous intelligence, violations of international law, and questionable moral intentions. Their objective to destroy Weapons of Mass Destruction that were supposed to be inside the country (but were never found) was the rationale to remove Saddam Hussein (a dictator who had been previously involved in criminal activities). Although the US did not annex any part of Iraq’s territory, the invasion led to the creation of new terrorist organizations we are still battling and the chaos they have created in the region. Putin, on the other hand, has attacked a nation he perceived as potentially threatening Russia, headed by an honest and heroic president who naively failed to make clear his intentions regarding NATO. Moreover, in violation of international law, he has occupied Ukrainian territory.
Both wars were preventive, illegal, and immoral. This is to say that the staggering number of civilian casualties; the fact that the conflict in Ukraine is not over and that combatants on both sides have no choice but to obey orders and die for their leaders or questionable reasons and values make preventive warfare indefensible from a religious and humanist standpoint.
From the Gospels’ perspective, it is difficult (if not impossible) to trace a proper moral course in international politics to avoid preventive warfare and the subjective and insidious reality of power politics. It is left to the liberal democracies of the world to assume the necessary leadership to establish a new world order. However, such a task requires the good guys to abstain from violating the values they claim to defend.
1) Inés San Martín, Pope condemns ‘shameful’ Ukraine war, but calls Western defense expenditures ‘madness’, Crux, March 24, 2022.
2) Inés San Martín, Russia expert says political pressures forcing Kirill to back Putin’s war, Crux, March 23, 2022.
3) Elise Ann Allen, “Orthodox Patriarch blames Ukraine war on western ‘Russophobia’,” Crux, March 11, 2022.
4) United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Ukraine: civilian casualty update 23 March 2022,” 23 March 2022.
5) IraqBodyCount.org. There have been various estimates on this war. For example, Gilbert Burnham, Shannon Doocy, Elizabeth Dzeng, Riyadh Lafta, Les Roberts, “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq – A Mortality Study, 2002-2006,” Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore Maryland, and School of Medicine, Baghdad, Iraq, places the numbers of people killed at 600,000; Amy Agopian, et al, “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study,” NIH, National Library of Medicine, Oct 15, 2013. The study reported approximately 405,000 people killed from 2003 to 2011.
How Serious Are The Sins of the Flesh According to Jesus?
Late in 2021, Pope Francis asserted that sins of the flesh are not the most serious. The statement did not reverberate as much as when he asked, who am I to judge? indirectly questioning the degree of sinfulness involved among gay people. He followed up by embracing a good friend of his and his partner, both supposedly sexually active, before millions of people around the world.
His latest remark, in a Catholic culture that is intensely preoccupied with sexual morality, did not create what amounts to a religious scandal, although likely it burned up the ears of many bishops and Christians. Previously, he is said to have told Italian writer Carlo Petrini that sexual pleasure as well as the pleasure we gather from eating, is divine, granted by God for our enjoyment. He even charged Christianity with overzealous morality as responsible for reducing moral behavior to human sexuality.
Although neither of the above statements or overt actions has become part of canon law and has yet to appear in the Catholic Catechism, his actions have changed the moral landscape far more than anyone may have anticipated. For centuries, the Church had been teaching that the ultimate end of human sexuality is procreation although lately, it has recognized that couples may engage in sex for its sheer pleasure as long as the ultimate end (procreation) is still observed; indeed, a tough act to follow. How will the hierarchy react to the pope’s statements will be interesting, perhaps with the election of the next pope.
Those who take sexual relations outside of marriage more frivolously seem to relish in Francis’s “cool” behavior, at times in unabashedly boorish manners. They welcome this ‘modern’ pope with an eagerness that would seem to justify their behavior.
Now, Francis did not say that casual sex by unmarried people, sex among committed partners, or that adultery was not sinful; it still is, particularly if physical attack, deceit, or infidelity are involved. His point likely was that humans are prone to sinfulness and lust can be a strong craving that motivates people to seek their desires with little or no regard for the other; behavior that may justify selfishness and non-profit prostitution.
Francis, however, added other personal teachings that unfortunately may not stay long in people’s memories or become a cultural meme. He wanted to emphasize that other sins are far worse than the lust that drives our sexual habits such as pride and hatred.
At this stage, we may want to inquire if Francis went off the rails in his statements. There is strong evidence indicating that Pope Francis is right. In the empirical study I conducted on the Gospels, it is astounding to learn that although Jesus mentioned lust and adultery as being sinful, given the significance he gave to other sins, namely pride, anger, hatred, selfishness, and killing, his teachings on sexual behavior seem to have been offhand remarks.
The results of a content analysis of the Gospels among more than one hundred categories, all of which are directly relevant to Christian teachings, indicate that sinful sexual behavior scores very low; as low as righteous sexual behavior. Selfishness, killing, hypocrisy, and hatred, score higher in their significance when contrasted with sexual sins whether grouped together or individually. For example, Jesus’s teachings on marriage are surprisingly lacking except when he defines its teaching only in terms of adultery while bypassing any of the words Pope Francis uttered or the sacredness and positive aspects of the institution. And we know that when confronted with two cases of adulterous behavior he gracefully (and understandable of human behavior perhaps) forgives the two female sinners. He never confronts men who commit adultery although it is clear that his disapproval applies to both genders.
Hence, Francis was not putting words in Jesus’s mouth. Undoubtedly, sexual behavior and eating, as with any other type of moral activity, require a modicum of regulation. Eating is, indeed, pleasurable, too much eating, however, leads to editing disorders and diseases such as diabetes that costs individuals and society a pretty penny. Likewise, sexuality devoid of a moral code invites rape, human trafficking, deceit, fragmentation of families, drug addiction, and other crimes. Moral behavior, like civil behavior and its laws, require a balancing act. In this case, Francis was following the Gospels.
The enigmatic nature of the scriptures
A close friend called me to recount a vivid conversation about an informal social gathering at his home, when some of the guests, most of them friends of mine, aired their views about my new book, In Search of the Public Jesus. They had an idea of what the book was going to be about, having read the first chapter and the back cover of the book on Amazon.com.
These guests regard themselves as good Christians, even though given the religious and political divisiveness that exists nowadays it is difficult to define the term “good Christian.” Reacting at what they had read, one issue came to the forefront. Some were concerned that my study could harm the Christian faith by subjecting it to intense critical questioning of the scriptures, in which case it would be best to avoid it. I am told that two of the guests vehemently reacted, asking whether the conclusions ought to be concealed even if the historical record and the answers to the questions I would raise were correct and reasonably stated.
My reply was simple and to the point both as a Christian and as a detached student of the faith: would Jesus hide the truth from the people he supposedly came to save, and if so, toward what purpose? Known for his maxim ‘the truth would set us free,’ it appears that Jesus would favor transparency. And yet, both my syllogism in chapter one and numerous sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels point to his intention (and God’s) to keep his mission and his teachings a mystery, at times purposefully seeking to obfuscate the crowds. This is a clear-cut case of the Gospels not being able to provide answers to a crucially existential question that in turn cast doubts about the divine revelation ascribed to the scriptures.
The only answer I could provide was to insist that both reason and faith compel us to offer empirical, logical, and scientific evidence to discern sensible answers to existential questions regardless of the outcome. I figured that if indeed, the Christian faith and the Church have a divine foundation, God would find a way to sort things out.
Dealing with uncertainty about Jesus
After reading the book, a reader concludes that despite good effort on my part there is no way to define Jesus with certainty. Several observations may be gathered from this conclusion. Granted, the title itself seeks to find out who is Jesus. It appears that I fail in my attempt to search for the public Jesus as he remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there is no lack of certainty in the book. What I found to be certain about Jesus is that not even the experts, i.e., theologians, exegetes, church authorities, or non-believing critics, can define Jesus or his life with a high level of certitude. Hence, other than reaffirming my initial hypothesis that God is an abysmal communicator with regards to his creatures, such a lack of transparency in the scriptures accounts for the current state, not only of Christianity but of religion in general.
As we enter a hyper-critically yet fairly indifferent age of skepticism towards the idea of God, and Jesus, this lack of information does not portend well for the future of humankind. We are being left to our own flawed devices, i.e., emotions, reason, science, technology, and faith to formulate a universal set of moral values and attitudes that might lead to a better world, at least while the world lasts. Such has become our responsibility and our burden. Unless an extraordinary event(s) will force humankind to attain this objective, it is not likely that we will succeed in the next decades or even centuries.
A believer’s dilemma
A reader, good friend, highly educated, with an open mind, and unwavering faith in Jesus provided me with his feedback about the book. He admits that the passages and inferences I cite are well documented. Also, he does not question the quantitative results. It is the narrative about Jesus, however, that makes him feel uneasy. He readily acknowledges that on many occasions I place Jesus in a good light, which of course, he likes. Nonetheless, he has problems accepting parts in which I depict Jesus negatively either on account of his actions or his teachings. This is not done willfully. A critical view of Jesus is the result of the many incongruences and questions that his behavior and his teachings raise (presuming the Gospels are an accurate reflection of what transpired at the time).
My good friend is exhibiting a case of cognitive dissonance, a moment in time and space when the subjective reality, i.e., his beliefs and understanding of his faith, confront external information that if true might compel him to doubt; to question his beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance is not an anomaly among human beings. Probably, it happens to all of us on an everyday basis, only that in most instances we choose to disregard it. Confronting our convictions, whether in religion, politics, or interpersonal relations leads, not only to the possibility that our personal truths may be incorrect or misguided but to having to admit it to ourselves and others. Without possessing a deep sense of humility, cognitive dissonance is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant sensations we may experience. In an era of disbelief and divisive politics, we are showered with these sensations every day, forcing us to distinguish between news and fake news, truth and falsehood, and dealing with shades of gray instead of viewing events in black and white. In some cases, when reality requires us to accept that which goes against our entrenched beliefs, we do so with a sense of resignation while contriving unsubstantiated or imaginary ‘reasons’ that may soften the realization that sometimes our truths are held simply to make us feel emotionally secure.
As for my friend, I did not argue with him. This instance reminded me of someone who told me that his family had opted not to be vaccinated against Covid 19 because they had found on the internet a copy of a letter written by Jesus indicating that whoever had the letter in their possession would not become sick. Months later, the entire family acquired Covid 19 and had to be hospitalized. He died after three weeks in the hospital.
How would I have persuaded him that no such letter has been authenticated by those who know? At the time, I chose not to debate the issue with him. I did not think it would have made a difference.
A dejected reader
A reader writes that the book did not address the reader’s understanding of the book’s objective: to discuss what Jesus said and did. Instead, the reader continues, the author attempts to understand what the Gospels’ authors attribute to Jesus. The comment, I think, calls for some degree of clarification.
It is vital to emphasize that the book is almost entirely about seeking to understand the Jesus that appears in the Gospels; what he did, where he did it, how, why, and when. Jesus’s actions and his teachings are discussed throughout the book although not in a biographical narrative but by relying on explanations of categories that are relevant to the Christian faith such as salvation, sinfulness, miracles, grace, prayer, the kingdom of God, and many others. It is through these categories that we get to know the public Jesus.
There is, however, an important caveat that I point to in many instances throughout the book: despite Jesus being quoted numerous times (as if he had been recorded), the experts (and I am not one of them) tell us with a high degree of confidence that neither God nor Jesus wrote the texts; humans did, likely several of them in addition to the four evangelists after whom the Gospels are named. God may have inspired the authors of the Gospels to put in writing, whether verbatim or by paraphrasing, what appears in the texts. Nonetheless, these are copies of what are believed to be the original texts, but no one knows (so far) what the original texts read like. Most experts, including Christians of all denominations, agnostics, and atheists have concluded through elaborate methods that include language, archeology, history, etc., that many hands took part in the writing of the Gospels. A few denominations, however, believe that what we read today has been handed down from God in the exact manner God wanted the texts to appear. Hence, it all comes down to what each person desires to believe.
The point I wish to make about the reader’s comment is that what we know about Jesus cannot be directly attributed to Jesus; he did not write the Gospels. What we know about him is the result of oral transmission (chapters 1-3), whether directly from God or through humans. Indeed, in the first chapter, I indicate that suggesting the scriptures are the product of divine revelation carries an enormous responsibility since it entails attributing to God and Jesus events and teachings that are mistaken, incongruous, contradictory, nonsensical, or downright inhumane. Only an imperfect God could be responsible for these actions. So far, however, most faiths deny the possibility of an imperfect God.
Pope Francis and the Law (Torah)
Attaining perspective on a thorny issue, be it about religion, morals, politics, or culture in general is probably among the most excruciating mental exercises anyone can endure. Perspective entails having to reject popular demands to take black or white positions while purposefully looking for the gray areas. After dissecting the issue, examining its parts, and relating them to the whole, seldom there is satisfaction with the outcome because of the darn gray areas. As there are no simple answers or solutions, seeking perspective is often misconstrued with being indecisive, spineless, and yes, wishy-washy too.
At the risk of being labeled any of the above I take this opportunity to address Pope Francis’s talk to a general audience in August 2021 regarding the Torah. Pope Francis, perhaps inopportunely, affirmed that the Law or Torah, corresponding to the first five books in the Jewish Bible and among the most sacred of all Jewish documents, “does not give life,” suggesting that it is not conducive to eternal salvation. “Those who seek life, Francis said, “need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ.” Upon reading these words, immediately I remembered what I wrote at the beginning of chapter 2 recalling that, after all, according to Christian theology Jesus is not Christian. Jesus was born a Jew and seemed to be a practitioner of the Law. Once he began to be referred to as the Christ, i.e., the resurrected Jesus, his followers began to call themselves Christians or followers of Jesus Christ.
Confusion ensued once Jesus Christ began to be regarded as divine as indicated in the New Testament, both by himself, Paul, and later by his followers. Nonetheless, both Judaism and Christianity accept there is only one God (Islam too), and neither Jews nor Muslims accept Jesus’s divinity. Thus, from the Christian standpoint only Jesus Christ is left as being God–partaking in a divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit according to most Christian denominations. Hence, in the eyes of Christians Jesus is the god of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Shintoists, Taoists, Jains, Spiritists, even agnostics, and atheists.
The conflict seemed inevitable. In essence, Pope Francis was telling the world that according to Paul’s Christology anyone interested in seeking eternal life needs to transcend Jewish Law and accept Christ since only through him can the promise of salvation be attained. Francis could have remained purposefully vague while affirming the Christian faith. But he went a step further and insisted (again taking his cue from Paul) that the Jewish Law “does not give life.”
As expected, Jewish rabbis raised their voices in protest sensing that Francis was denigrating that which is crucial in Judaism, and suggesting that in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy Judaism falls short of attaining God’s promise. In their complaint to Pope Francis, they were requesting nothing less than the Jewish faith be considered equal to the Christian faith.
According to Jewish belief, the Law (instructions on how to become righteous in the eyes of God) was given to Jews by God through Moses. Although the idea of eternal life had been entertained and hoped for among some Jews at the time of Jesus, previously it had not been a central point within the faith. Hence, the debate between Jewish and Catholic authorities today seems to be about who or what makes eternal life possible.
My perception of Pope Francis makes it difficult to accept the view that his statement was anti-Semitic or that he was purposefully seeking to undermine Judaism. Evidence abounds both in Francis’s actions and statements, and in dogmatic pronouncements issued by the hierarchy, including Vatican II, insisting that Catholicism considers Judaism an intrinsic part of Christianity. So, could Francis have misspoken?
Insofar as he was citing Paul the answer is an irrevocable no and yes. Without necessarily entertaining thoughts whether Paul was anti-Semitic, his disregard for the Law in favor of Jesus’s teachings is amply stated in his letters. His new faith made him realize that as useful as the Law had been at the time, it had been superseded by Christ’s law. Jesus himself suggested a similar understanding through the parables of putting an old patch in a new garment or new wine in an old wineskin. Moreover, Jesus took strong action against the Law by contravening the Jewish Sabbath: the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mk 2:24-28).
It appears that Pope Francis inadvertently had walked into a well-known minefield.* On the one hand, in being true to his faith he risked being politically incorrect. On the other, there is little doubt that the words were offensive and demeaning to Jewish ears, once again opening a wound that has remained freshly raw after two millenniums.
Judaism’s hyper-sensitivity to the issue, given the history of anti-Semitism propagated mostly by Christians (chapter 6, p. 127), is understandable and forgivable. Moreover, Jewish authorities could have chosen to dismiss Francis’s remarks by saying, ‘the Pope merely expressed his or the Catholic hierarchy’s views that, of course, we categorically reject as being untrue and unacceptable.’ Interestingly, Francis himself voiced such a relativistic view in a 2015 speech that would settle the issue today, reiterating that while the Christian faith finds its unity in Christ Judaism finds it in the Torah.
Although it merits to repeat that Francis was not seeking to demean the Jewish faith, stating the Christian confession inevitably leads to such an outcome. Even worse, coming from the Pope no less, Paul’s theology makes Judaism appear inferior to Christianity, thereby fueling predispositions on the part of existing violence-prone anti-Semitic groups throughout the world.
Nowadays, unless we wish to continue to open more wounds, religious toleration requires a dosage of relativism. Islamic authorities could also claim they are not only not inferior to any other religion but superior, a statement that violent jihadists are attempting to confirm. Although “doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated,” as a Catholic prelate stated seeking to mend fences with his Jewish counterparts on behalf of Pope Francis, it must be remembered the statement applies to all religions not only to Christianity. However, likely, accentuating and evangelizing based on those differences can only lead to increased conflict. As of today, even Christians are debating among themselves whether eternal life can be attained outside the Catholic Church.
* Pope Benedict XVI also caused a religious earthquake in September 2006 when his address at the University of Regensburg in Germany was ill-received by Muslims who felt that Benedict was insinuating that Islam is a violent religion.
Note: Two interesting articles covering this issue appear online:
Covid 19 leads to a crisis in religious identity
The Covid 19 pandemic not only has resulted in questioning medical science but the issue has worked itself through into a crisis in religious identity. Although I will be referring to a news story concerning one person, there are thousands of people in the United States and probably even more in other countries facing the same problem.
A health care worker who claims to be Catholic was interviewed on TV1 making her case for seeking a religious exemption to the vaccine both on scientific and religious grounds. She does not believe the vaccine works despite loads of scientific evidence of its efficacy in preventing serious or mild illness and death, and the hundreds of millions of vaccines administered worldwide.2 She states that although she is a Catholic she does not follow the Pope’s moral recommendations because he is a ‘hypocrite’ for not following the Bible.
Despite not being a theologian but a health care worker, she is suggesting that she knows better than the Pope how to interpret the Bible and how the Covid 19 vaccine relates to Christian morality. It would be difficult, however, for the health care worker and the Pope to establish a relation between the vaccine and the Bible since the Bible does not address the morality (or the science) of administering vaccines on humans in very explicit terms. Indeed, some Christian groups have raised the issue that some vaccines have relied on cells derived from aborted fetuses. Nonetheless, both the Pope and other Protestant denominations have morally cleared most vaccines of the charge. Moral guidance, nonetheless, is the primary responsibility of religious leaders, and most of them incorporate scientific data when they issue pastoral teachings to their flocks.
The journalist interviewing the health care worker, however, missed an occasion to further question the health care worker. He was surprised that she would not follow the moral recommendations of the leader of her church, Pope Francis, who has been vaccinated but is seen in many circles as having largely liberal views. It suggests the health care worker is more conservative or is perhaps a traditionalist when it comes to Catholicism. It would have been interesting if the journalist had asked her (since she is claiming religious exemption) if she would follow Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who is known to have been (still is) a very conservative pope. I say it would have been interesting because even Benedict XVI, a sound theologian, also has been vaccinated. It appears that she might not have been aware of this information. Hence, the health care worker either did not do due diligence regarding Benedict XVI, is simply afraid of the vaccine’s possible side-effects, or no longer cares to follow any Catholic leader. Additionally, she claims to understand the Bible better than the Pope, a traditional Protestant view.
Two points merit attention: first, it is too clear that Christianity has evolved into religious and political tribalism. This has not only happened among Catholics but among numerous Protestant denominations too. The outcome is divisiveness, polarization, and inadvertent self-proclaimed religious relativism.
The second point is that religion has become politicized, apparently because individuals are acting largely on personal wishes, desires, or whims that can be easily expressed politically through their personal interpretations of Jesus’s teachings. It reminds me of the political nature of the US Supreme Court whereby justices seek to fit their ideological views when it comes to controversial issues to their interpretation of the constitution. Once again, this episode tends to support the view that God’s (and Jesus’s) teachings are difficult to understand and cannot be easily deciphered, which leads to the question, is Christianity part of the solution or does it constitute an obstacle to it?
1. “‘He is a hypocrite’: Health care worker on Pope getting vaccinated – CNN video. https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2021/09/29/health-care-workers-vaccine-mandate-ac360-marquez-pkg-vpx.cnn
2. Center for Control and Disease Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/effectiveness-research/protocols.html
‘Listening to God’
The Catholic Church has opened a worldwide “Synod of Bishops on Synodality” that is expected to last two years. The process will attempt to engage all Catholic bishops in an effort to–temporally speaking—democratize the Church. What exactly this means is uncertain, but it implies involving the laity in the decision-making process of the hierarchy by paying far more attention to what, where, and how the faithful think, feel, or believe the Catholic Church ought to be heading in the future. Pope Francis desires the Church (hierarchy and laity) to be “an open square where all can feel at home and participate.” To this end, he is calling on all the people of God to become active participants. Although he does not wish the process to become an exercise in parliamentary discussions or an opinion poll, at least from a temporal standpoint this is what it will likely end up being.
To prevent it from becoming a parliament or an opinion poll, Pope Francis is appealing to the Holy Spirit to guide the procedures thereby giving the process a supernatural dimension. The synod will rely on spiritual discernment, an Ignatian method through which prayerful believers engage in a dialogue with God to seek what the Almighty wishes his followers to do. To that end, a series of questions will be given to all bishops throughout the world to distribute to their parishes that in turn will be discussed as a means to receive input from the laity. If an unadulterated report makes it up to the pope, likely it will be a first. Moreover, if this type of spiritual discerning gathering is successful it would be miraculous, humanly speaking. Ignatius conceived spiritual discernment as an individual exercise to guide the believer to become a better Christian, not as a means to collect mass input to provide directions to the hierarchy. Given its configuration, we may say that the Synod on Synodality may be depicted as a global ‘spiritual’ parliament and opinion poll.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the process, and also its most difficult hurdle, will be to reach all the people of God. According to the Catholic Catechism, the people of God are those who are baptized within the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the process’ guidelines call for inviting everyone else, regardless of their religious affiliation, since Jesus’s salvation, it says, is extended to everyone. This means that Protestants, with whom the hierarchy maintains a filial, first cousins relationship, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths (does it include agnostics and atheists as well?) are invited to participate provided they attend in good faith and with sincere humility.
The guidelines are characterized by their open-mindedness. The process is supposed to be inclusive and non-ideological and calls on its participants to remain above the existing worldwide religious and cultural polarization.
The task will be daunting. How the world bishops will manage to bring into parishes Catholics who no longer attend religious services as well as non-Catholics remains an unanswered question. Attendance by these groups might be an empirical indicator of whether the Holy Spirit will respond to human prayers. Moreover, to imagine that Catholic bishops and priests will be willing to voluntarily surrender the hierarchical authority they have enjoyed for nearly two thousand years over the laity seems, well, unimaginable.
Ultimately, the outcome of the process is to come up with a new way of being a Christian and with new structures that will facilitate this endeavor. It will be about generating a new type of behavioral morality that takes into account Jesus’s and the Church’s teachings, and the changes that will be required to accomplish its end. Hence, the results will be evaluated by how open the hierarchy will be to implement radical changes in structures, beliefs, and moral behavior. Will the hierarchy allow a less ‘Catholic’ image to predominate in the end, assuming it is what God wishes of his people? If the Catholic Church, and Christianity at large, is to restore its influence in world affairs and humanity, the answer may lie in what amounts to be a proto-Third Vatican Council; one in which the voice of the laity supposedly will be effectively heard. At a time when the temporal world is undergoing generational changes involving values, attitudes, and moral behavior, seeking a commonality of values amid existing polarization seems illusory though well-intended and necessary.
Interestingly, though awkward, an initial critic of the synod who became an active participant after being persuaded of its frank mission, summarized what the process is all about. Dominican Father Olivier Poquillon, whose religious mission took him to Mosul, Iraq, stated that while the process is about listening to one another, it is first about “listening to God.”
In my book, I present historical and scholarly evidence that points to God being an abysmal communicator, and to numerous incongruences, contradictions, and errors in the Gospels, the basic foundation of Jesus’s teachings. Since humankind is extraordinarily limited and flawed with a propensity towards sin and division, we must assume that we simply cannot understand God, and God does not seem willing to change his way of communicating with us; that is, stoop to our level of understanding to be better understood by humans. Hence, the question must be raised, if the times call for listening to God, what have all the good people of God being doing throughout thousands of years? What will make us listen to God in a fraternal, inclusive, yet ideologized and polarized setting? Humans tend to be more reactionary than pro-active, which suggests that it may take a crisis of extraordinary (perhaps inconceivable) proportions for a highly secularized, divided, and relativistic humanity to listen to one another. And that is only the easy part. The most difficult one is listening to God, whose language we do not seem to comprehend.
Notes: Information about the synod has been taken from the sources below.
Inés San Martín, “Pope opens Synod on Synodality saying it can’t be an ‘elitist’ exercise,” Crux, Oct 9, 2021.https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2021/10/pope-opens-synod-on-synodality-saying-it-cant-be-an-elitist-exercise/
Inés San Martín, “Pope opens synod journey with reminder it’s not a convention or a congress,” Crux, Oct 10, 2021. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2021/10/pope-opens-synod-journey-with-reminder-its-not-a-convention-or-a-congress/
For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality, Vatican City, July 9, 2021. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2021/09/07/0541/01166.html#Whocan
Inés San Martín, “Iraq-based priest says synodality must begin with ‘listening to God’,” October 12, 2021. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2021/10/iraq-based-priest-says-synodality-must-begin-with-listening-to-god/