Editor’s Note: In case you missed it, Pope Benedict did something rather surprising a few days before Christmas. Dr. Robert Moynihan has the details.
Benedict XVI has done it again: he has broken with past tradition by publishing an article in an ordinary newspaper, something no Pope before him has ever done.
Clearly, Benedict is willing to choose almost any means to reach out to everyone, in and out of the Church, with the message of the Gospel (as he also showed by launching his unprecedented “Twitter” account @pontifex on December 12, from which he is now sending “tweets” to those who have signed up to “follow” him, now numbering more than 2 million people).
What was his essential message in this extraordinary Christmas essay, which must have been conceived as something that would “hit home” to a very special audience: the financial and business “elite” of London, and, by extension, of the whole modern financial world?
Benedict’s message was simple: that the success and wealth and power of this world — money and capital and stocks and metals and derivatives — cannot ultimately satisfy men and women, who are actually made for something far higher, for communion with an eternal, infinite, personal God, who made (and continues to make) Himself known at Christmas.
It was a message especially tailored for those who “have everything” — or, perhaps, think they will soon have it…
A message aimed at provoking a reflection on whether they really do have what they, in the end, desire, even if they achieve (as Simon and Garfunkel put it in the song about the wealthy but unhappy Richard Cory) “power, grace and style.”
The Financial Times of December 20, regarded by many as the Number 1 financial paper of Europe, promoted the Pope’s piece on the front page, calling it “A Christmas lesson in times of austerity.”
There are some very powerful lines in Benedict’s essay. Lines filled with nobility. Lines which, if those who read his words — even CEOs and hedge fund managers — have ears to hear, may cause some to say, “Yes, this is what I believe in my heart to be true.”
Benedict laid things out with almost blinding clarity, very simply, very understandably.
Christians, he said, both under the Roman Emperors and in our own day, refuse to bow down to all “false gods.”
But why such stubbornness?
Because Christians have a vision they do not want to betray, indeed, feel they cannot betray, without risking losing their very selves, their souls, because they are “inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”
And any other vision, any other proposal for mankind’s destiny seems so much less noble, so pointless, that to accept that alternative vision, to bow down to it, to live by its demands, seems ignoble, seems miserable, seems enslaving, seems, in a word, sad. And Christians seek happiness, blessedness, and so refuse to accept a stance toward reality, such a “bowing down” to gods or ideologies leading finally, to sadness.
Here is the key passage (italicized in the full text printed below):
“When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”
These words are worth repeating: “Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today… because they are free…”
It cannot be stressed too much: this Pope is a lover and defender of human freedom.
He preaches, in fact, a profound form of “freedom theology” (it could also be called “liberation theology”).
Again: “Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods… because they are free from the contraints of ideology…”
What is an ideology? Why does an ideology create “constraints”? Why does an ideology diminish freedom, that is, bit by bit, enslave?
An ideology is “a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions” and “a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things.” (Words like “communism,” “capitalism” and “socialism,” all are the names for ideologies, for a set of ideas that become a “comprehensive vision.”)
The key point is that an ideology is made up of ideas, thoughts.
This means an ideology is not, and cannot be, a living person.
And so an ideology cannot be loved as a person can be loved.
Ideas, thoughts, are inanimate things. They are “things thought” by persons who have the capability of thinking.
Thus an ideology can be like a “matrix” of thoughts, notions and slogans that descends on the mind, and on the heart, and persuades the person — the mind, the heart — to act in accord with it.
And so an ideological person, for “ideological” reasons, can run over another person, can be cruel to another person, can oppress another person, can despise or hate another person, without ever meeting or knowing that person at all.
The “ideology” determines behavior — not the meeting and knowing of an actual person.
And so Christianity, based completely on one person (and not on any ideology) can never fully embrace any ideology, but must always return to the deep source of personhood, to the logos… to Christ himself.
And, by returning to Christ, by being in communion with the person of Christ, nourished by the person of Christ, all ideology is relativized — all “false gods” (money, power, fame) are relativized.
And, for a god, to be relativized is, in the end, to be rejected.
To be overthrown.
And so the Pope — speaking to the “masters of the universe” in London and elsewhere (to use Tom Wolfe’s half-serious, half-mocking phrase in reference to the great “movers and shakers” of Wall Street in his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities) explained why Christians throughout history have been unable to comply with “demands made by Caesar” (the greatest “mover and shaker” of any epoch).
Benedict said: “From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century [i.e., Communism, National Socialism, Fascism], Caesar has tried to take the place of God.” And precisely here is where Benedict adds his signature phrase: “When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated worldview. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”
And so the Pope is making quite clear that no ideology, no Caesar, no old or new proposal of global order or government, can be embraced by Christians,can be “colluded” with.
Such “false gods” undermine the ultimate destiny of man (to become like Christ, to take on the divinity of Christ as he took on our humanity in Bethlehem, that is, to become divine).
The birth of Christ, the Pope says, “challenges us to reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life.”
He added: “While Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection, even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene?”
A possible, partial answer: we can learn that God not only loves the poor, but that He Himself was poor. Yes, he was among the poor, but not only that! He actually was poor.
There was no room for Him at the inn… He was born in a stable… And so it is not so much amid great wealth and power, but in true humility and in actual poverty, that one may find Christ.
The Financial Times asked the Pope to write the reflection, and he agreed. As far as anyone in Rome knows, it is the first time ever that a Pope has written an article for a secular newspaper.
However, it is not the first time the Pope has accepted requests to appear in a secular media setting. He once appeared on the British network, BBC, three months after hios visit to Scotland and England in September 2010, and once agreed to respond to children’s questions on the Italian national network, RAI.
On the Financial Times website, the Pope’s article is only accessible to subscribers. But the Vatican Press Office handed out the complete text, both in its English original, and in an Italian translation.
Here is the Pope’s complete essay on Christmas.
ARTICLE BY THE HOLY FATHER BENEDICT XVI
IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES
“A TIME FOR CHRISTIANS TO ENGAGE WITH THE WORLD”
(Introductory note from the Vatican Press Office)
The Pope’s article for the Financial Times (December 20, 2012) originates from a request from the editorial office of the Financial Times itself which, taking as a cue the recent publication of the Pope’s book on Jesus’ infancy, asked for his comments on the occasion of Christmas.
Despite the unusual nature of the request, the Holy Father accepted willingly.
It is perhaps appropriate to recall the Pope’s willingness to respond to other unusual requests in the past, such as the interview given for the BBC, again at Christmas a few months after his visit to the United Kingdom, or the television interview for the program “A sua imagine” produced by the RAI, the Italian state broadcasting company, to mark the occasion of Good Friday. These too have been opportunities to speak about Jesus Christ and to bring his message to a wide forum at salient moments during the Christian liturgical year.
(Here begins the title and text of the Pope’s article as it appeared.)
A Time for Christians to Engage with the World
“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” was the response of Jesus when asked about paying taxes.
His questioners, of course, were laying a trap for him. They wanted to force him to take sides in the highly-charged political debate about Roman rule in the land of Israel.
Yet there was more at stake here: if Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah, then surely he would oppose the Roman overlords. So the question was calculated to expose him either as a threat to the regime, or a fraud.
Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicization of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth.
His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world.”
The Christmas stories in the New Testament are intended to convey a similar message.
Jesus was born during a “census of the whole world” taken by Caesar Augustus, the Emperor renowned for bringing the Pax Romana to all the lands under Roman rule. Yet this infant, born in an obscure and far-flung corner of the Empire, was to offer the world a far greater peace, truly universal in scope and transcending all limitations of space and time.
Jesus is presented to us as King David’s heir, but the liberation he brought to his people was not about holding hostile armies at bay; it was about conquering sin and death forever.
The birth of Christ challenges us to reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life. While Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection, even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene?
Christmas can be the time in which we learn to read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but as the one in whom we recognize God made Man.
It is in the Gospel that Christians find inspiration for their daily lives and their involvement in worldly affairs – be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange.
Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.
Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life.
Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.
Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life.
Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.
Because these goals are shared by so many, much fruitful cooperation is possible between Christians and others. Yet Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.
Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar. From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God.
When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.
In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged.
Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love.
He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society.
He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world.
From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.