Sermon analysis Part 2: Pope Benedict XVIon February 18, 2013 at 7:20 pm
This is the second article in a three part series in which I expose the absurdities in a sermon by Pope Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 20, 2008. The analysis was inspired by a Catholic who told me that the Pope is the most intelligent person in the world.
In this part of the sermon, the Pope highlights the contribution of the Church to development of American society with particular emphasis on its cultural diversity (I have not reproduced this part of the homily here). He then makes the point that unity is provided by faith. He refers to the following reading from Acts of the Apostle (6: 1-7):
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The Pope says:
The first reading also makes clear, as we see from the imposition of hands on the first deacons, that the Church’s unity is “apostolic”. It is a visible unity, grounded in the Apostles whom Christ chose and appointed as witnesses to his resurrection, and it is born of what the Scriptures call “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; cf. Acts 6:7). “Authority” and “obedience”. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a “stumbling stone” for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom. Yet, in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ – “the way and the truth and the life” – we come to see the fullest meaning, value, and indeed beauty, of those words. The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves (cf. Lk 17:33). True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. “In his will is our peace”.
The Pope has focussed on the last part of the verse here that mentions “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith”.
This is actually quite a problematic part of the verse, as it implies that some of the priests had not become obedient to the faith. What happened to the priests who were not obedient? Were they excommunicated? Presumable not, but the Book of Acts does not elaborate. Nor does the Pope, who is not interested to mention such thorny matters.
Rather, he wants to make the point that obedience to the faith, which involves turning away from sin, is the ultimate form of freedom (at this point the Pope has moved completely away from the verse, which he seems to have had only a very superficial interest in). This is despite those in contemporary American society who equate freedom with refusal to submit to a faith.
The Pope’s view on freedom here is problematic. What sort of freedom is he meaning? If freedom means doing and thinking as one likes, as it is normally defined, then turning away from a rigid conformity to Church teachings does indeed constitute a form of freedom. In fact, religious believers should try it some time. Giving up your faith is often associated with an intense feeling of freedom (or confusion for some).
The sort of freedom that the Pope has in mind, however, is freedom from the burden of sin. This is a false freedom of course, because it is the Church that defines the sins that burden their followers. Non-Catholics do not get burdened by sins that they do not believe to be sinful. For the non-Catholic, where is the freedom in submitting themselves to the authority of the Church? There is none. Of course, the Pope is speaking to the faithful flock, who do not know any better.
The Pope continues:
Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32). And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality. When we put on “the mind of Christ” (cf. Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us! In the light of faith, within the communion of the Church, we also find the inspiration and strength to become a leaven of the Gospel in the world. We become the light of the world, the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-14), entrusted with the “apostolate” of making our own lives, and the world in which we live, conform ever more fully to God’s saving plan.
We might agree with the age-old adage that ‘the truth will set you free’. The problem is who defines what is true? The Pope, as an anti-relativist, believes the truth is absolute. Further, he believes that the Church has the authority to define the truth for us. If we accept this, then we are dependent on the Church to define the truth for us to follow. Where is the freedom in that? Further, if the truth being defined by the Church is actually erroneous, then followers of the Church are anything but free (in the sense of being free from error).
The Pope digs himself even deeper into a hole. He notes that not only must we submit ourselves to “God’s saving plan”, but the whole world in which we live as well. So what about the rest of the world’s freedom to believe in what they want, which quite probably disagrees with “God’s saving plan” as the Pope would define it? The issue here is freedom in the libertarian sense, like the US Constitution that ensures the rights of citizens to believe in whatever creed they like. The Pope would like the whole world to be “obedient” to the Church’s teachings. The manner in which the Church has championed against reforms such as gender equality, gay marriage and sexual health in Africa (specifically condom use to prevent HIV infection) robs freedom from many (I could also include the Church’s stance again abortion here, but that particular matter is complex and requires inspection in another article).
The Catholic Church is an institution that discourages questioning of its doctrines. Its ideas are presented more as rules and laws for its followers to obey rather than freely adopt. Without a rational process for evaluating ideas (which Church followers are not encouraged to develop), freedom is a rather empty concept, because it does not encompass the freedom to think.