Faith and/or Works?

 

Over five centuries ago, Christianity in Western Europe became split in what is known as the Reformation. On the one hand, Catholics tended to confuse faith with belief in a list of church teachings or dogmas. On the other hand, “Protestants

”, especially Luther and his

followers, tended to confuse the good works stressed in the Gospels, and especially in the Epistle of James, with the customary devotions (like fasting, penances, pilgrimages, indulgences, etc.) of medieval piety.

Something of the same thing had happened much longer ago in ancient Israel, when the Torah (the Law) and its pious observances became more important to many Jews than the Hasid (love and mercy) stressed by many, indeed most, of the prophets, and most of all, by Jesus.

And then, even today, we see the Islamic world split between a still largely silent majority who worship a God who is above all seen as “merciful and compassionate”, as compared to a relatively small but still growing fanatical fringe who are intent upon imposing their version of Sharia Law, not just on all Muslims, but on anyone who happens to live within their reach, with harsh penalties, even death to those who would resist them.      

One doesn’t have to have a degree in psychology to understand why such outward observance of religious laws and practices tend to, over time, gradually crowd out or even strangle authentic religion. It is much easier to feel “justified” or “saved” when you think it can be measured by bonus points earned by regular or even extra attendance at a church, synagogue, or mosque than by love or sacrifice for your neighbor’s well-being. It is much easier to measure what you think is your own or your neighbor’s true worth in terms of conformance to the letter of the law.  It is much easier to confess and be sorry for your sins than to actually change your behavior.

Thus we see this same phenomenon of appearances dominating over substance repeat itself over and over again in the history of religions.  This is how the great religions so often go wrong. It happens whenever mercy is sacrificed to ritual, wherever the message of salvation is replaced by “correctness”, and as often as the letter of the law replaces the Spirit.

 

 

In my estimation, it is out of a firm determination that this must not be allowed to happen again that explains much of the thinking and actions of Pope Francis.    Years back, when he was the still very young “Provincial” or chief of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he was the cause of much discontent among many other young Jesuits there who had become zealous promoters of a “liberation theology” that advocated a radical structuring of society along socialist lines of thought largely mapped out in terms of Marxist economiceconomics theory.    Instead, Jorge Bergoglio, while urging the priests under his command to live among and minister to the poor, kept warning them to steer clear of the politics being promoted by some Catholic radicals and especially to steer clear of any involvement with the Marxist-inspired guerillas.    Not all the priests under his command obeyed him.    And although he did his best to save even these from retaliation, even assassination, from the right-wing military dictatorship, he was not always successful.

                Now, forty-some years later, we can see Fr. Jorge, now Pope Francis, following much the same philosophy.    Still critical of dog-eat-dog free-market capitalism that leaves the poor behind in the name of almighty profit, he still steers clear of Marxist or socialist ideology, stressing instead the century-plus long history of Catholic teachings regarding social and economic justice, the rights of the working class to just wages, the dignity of work, a just distribution of wealth, and all else that is necessary to achieve this.

                Of course, there are still many, even among Catholics, who fail to see the difference between what Pope Francis preaches and socialism.    This is understandable, when Pope Leo XIII, after launching the first of the Church’s social encyclicals in 1893, was called a “Communist”, even by some Catholic industrialists.    But there is a difference, and again it all has to do with the difference between the letter and the spirit, and between mercy and sacrifice.

                For those for whom their Christianity or perhaps even their humanity, is only skin deep, to have this sort of mercy on the poor and disadvantaged of the world, seems to them to be an intolerable sacrifice.    And of course, to those who lack the spirit seeing the resources of the world as ultimately being God’s gift for the good of all, rather than something to be exploited for their own wealth and benefit, any restructuring of society to try to make sure this could happen will seem like an intolerable interference with the letter of the laws as they are now written.      But it is precisely for this reason that Pope Francis preaches not political revolution, but a truly religious change of mind and heart, better known as “conversion”.

 

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