The Pope Takes a Poke at Paganism
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Dec 20, 2013 at 09:14:19 PM EST
A sympathetic reading of the recent remark by Pope Francis would be that he was trying to say the right thing about the nature of Christianity when he stumbled. A less sympathetic reading would suggest that Francis and the Church generally has a very long way to go in showing respect for non-Catholics.

Whatever one thinks of Pope Francis, the cult of celebrity is obscuring at least as much as it is revealing about the state of the church and even the direction of this papacy. This is something to which everyone who values religious pluralism and separation of church and state needs to keep both an open ear and an open mind.

The occasion for this post is how astounded I was when I read how Francis, in an apparent effort to denounce religious supremacism, engaged in religious bigotry and supremacism himself.

Vatican Radio reported:  

"Pope Francis concluded his Audience by pointing out two considerations we can take away from these considerations on the Nativity of Jesus: The first is that God reveals Himself not as one who remains on high and dominates the universe, but as one who humbles Himself. This shows us that in order to be like Him, we must not put ourselves above others, but must humble ourselves and serve others. He had strong words for Christians who refuse to humble themselves: "It is an ugly thing," he said, "when you see a Christian who doesn't want to humble himself, who doesn't want to serve, a Christian who struts about everywhere: it's ugly, eh? That is not a Christian: that's a pagan!" [emphasis added]

The New Advent Catholic encyclopedia defines paganism:

Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism.

A large fraction of the people of the world are pagan by the above definition.  Indeed, there are many pagan religions -- and to be fair, on a good day, even Francis might acknowledge that these religions include many include fine people.  Nevertheless, denouncing as pagans, Christians who behave badly, is an insult to millions of people who are for example, Buddhist, Confucianist, Hindu, or who adhere to Native American religions; not to mention the many people who identify specifically as pagans.  

As glad that many of us are that Francis, among others, are addressing inequality of late, inequality is not merely an economic issue.  Ideological religious supremacy is at war with religious equality under the law and in our culture.  When we say that we value religious pluralism what we mean is that we respect people of all religious traditions and none, and show that via equality in the eyes of the law.  There are Christian Right leaders who aggressively seek to revise history to make fantastic claims about history in an effort to establish their particular religious and political views as having the endorsement of the framers of the Constitution.  The latest outrageous but illuminating example came from Brian Fischer of the American Family Association who claimed that when the framers said "religion" they meant Christianity only. This is baloney, and the historical record shows that the framers were not speaking in code, and that the development of the idea of how to manage religious pluralism and equality under the law was decades in the making and included and embraced Islam.

Religious supremacism is one of the usual consequences of the politicization of conservative religious orthodoxy as we have seen in the United States. Indeed, that is one reasonable way of looking at the war of aggression being waged by the Religious Right, (aka the culture war).

Earlier this year I noted in an essay in The Public Eye magazine, for example, the mutual abhorrence between the Southern Baptists and the Vatican.

While conservative Roman Catholics have long been a vital part of the broad religious/political coalition known as the Christian Right, finding ways to broaden and deepen the coalition of right-wing evangelical Protestants and Catholics has been a difficult and controversial undertaking. A case in point is the famous appearance by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on CNN's Larry King Live in 2000. "As an evangelical," Mohler said, "I believe the Roman Church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office." Mohler's views are unexceptional in much of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism. (More recently, Mohler insisted that the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is "not a church," because, in 2013, it elected as a bishop a respected, gay professor of theology.)

The abhorrence has been mutual. In 2000, the Vatican issued a proclamation titled Dominus Iesus, which declared that other Christian churches "are not `churches' in the proper sense." The Vatican declared this a "definitive and irrevocable" doctrine of the Church.

Navigating a religiously plural society is a tricky thing. As a country is is one of our defining features -- and we are pretty good at it, even as the Pope is clearly not. Still it is not easy to stay true to our own views, whether religious or non-religious, while respecting the rights of others to hold deeply contrary views. It requires some knowledge, some dedication and a relevant skill set. And we reinvent that knowledge, dedication and skill set in every generation.

Because that is so, it may be there are some things that the leader of an ancient religion on the other side of the world can learn from the ever uppity Americans, many of whom do know a thing or two about how to adhere to both religious freedom and separation of church and state.  


I'm curious as to what language the Pope was speaking when he made these remarks, and whether "pagan" was his term, or a translation by the Vatican radio. Both Italian and Spanish would use "pagano" to mean a polytheist, and "ateo" (or in Spanish, "infiel") as a more generalized pejorative, similar to the English "heathen." It would still denote a considerable tone-deafness on the part of the Pope, but it could be more of a vernacular term of contrast in behavior than a theological statement about the nature of non-Christian religions.

by MLouise on Fri Dec 20, 2013 at 11:35:53 PM EST

Pope Francis makes positive comments about atheists but negative ones about other theistic or naturalistic religions?

by Villabolo on Sat Dec 21, 2013 at 02:33:19 PM EST
with his predecessors. Over at Daily Kos, some are claiming its an issue of translation into English. But as attractive as that explanation might be for Francis fans, I don't buy it.  If Francis does not want to be misunderstood, he has the power to make it right.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Dec 21, 2013 at 07:17:37 PM EST

still, we must be careful not to attempt to make every word a person speaks stand alone. Fredrick, we share a background where "verbal" inspiration extended to every word, and where exegetical preaching often focused on one specific word in a text. Some of it was great preaching - some of it was far more a task of reading into the text something already in the mind of the preacher, not necessarily in the mind of the speaker/writer. I am hopeful that we will not fall into the trap of focusing so much on a specific word that we miss the context. I know there are many ill-spoken words in my old sermons. My philosophy was to avoid the micro-scope approach and to use the telescopic approach. Details are important but we dare not miss the big picture. I remain hopeful in listening to Pope Francis - I worry that within the powers that be within the Catholic Church there will be opposition enough, without the larger community bringing opposition of their own. Still a good read, and wonderful that people are listening and reacting to who he is, and what he is saying.

by chaplain on Tue Dec 24, 2013 at 10:18:01 AM EST
and although your point is well taken, the context supports my point completely.

We all hope for and wish the best from leaders of all kinds. They can make such a difference for so many if they succeed.  But it is my sense so far that there is much less actual reform associated with the celebrity of Francis than meets the eye, and that his diction is not the exception that can be explained away by the context in which it appears -- rather it epitomizes his thought in ways that are consistent with his predecessors.

I think the healthiest approach to reading Francis, or anyone, is not to second guess his meaning.  He and his advisers are very aware that they have people's attention and that what they say and how they say it, matters.  I think he meant what he said and said what he meant. He can always let us know if he issues a stray word and pull it back. It would be a humble and important acknowledgement that would add to his credibility and be meaningful for us all.

That said, I hope I am wrong, and I intend to keep an open mind to evidence that may demonstrate that that is the case.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 24, 2013 at 04:48:31 PM EST

I look forward to seeing just what actions are taken by the papal admin. in following up on his recent remarks. If he does nothing about the vehement disregard of his words by the Catholic right and their libertarian bedfellows, then I would conclude that his words were mere window dressing, similar to Gov. Jindal's words to conservatives about not being the "Stupid party" which were followed by more of the same ideological smears and anti-poor/working class actions like his execrable tax bill, thankfully successfully opposed by his own party's membership in the state legislature.

by trog69 on Tue Dec 24, 2013 at 10:49:10 PM EST

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