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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Does Pope Francis Really Believe the Gospels?

By:   Father X
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A few weeks ago alarm bells went off in my head when someone forwarded me an excerpt from an English-language translation of a sermon he preached in the Pope's recent trip to South America, relating the loaves-and-fishes event to the Eucharist. Let me explain.

Around two centuries ago the liberal Protestant scholar Gottlob Paulus (1761-1851) started what was to become quite a popular trend in the heretical German circles of “higher critical” biblical scholarship. Paulus wanted to recognize some historical foundation in the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry; but his Enlightenment rationalism meant excluding all supernatural, miraculous elements from these accounts. After all, did not every truly enlightened person now recognize that miracles are impossible, so that all accounts of them must be relegated to the category of myth or legend? Professor Paulus and his school of thought therefore opted for a “happy-medium” solution: retain the Gospel accounts as being partly historical, but demythologize them. That is, ‘re-interpret’ them – purify them! – so as to give a ‘rational’, non-supernatural explanation to the wondrous actions attributed to Jesus.


Now, other more radical German rationalists such as D.F. Strauss soon rightly criticized Paulus for inconsistency. They recognized that the miraculous elements are integral to, and inseparable from, the Gospel accounts, so that if we deny the historicity of those particular elements we should logically go on to deny the historical credibility of the entire story in which they occur. According to Strauss and his 20th-century sympathizers such as Rudolf Bultmann, we should dismiss these Gospel stories as mythical from start to finish, giving them no historical credibility whatsoever.

Nevertheless, the ‘half-way house’ position of Paulus has never gone completely out of style. For many soft-core modernists who don’t want to reject the Gospel narratives completely, it offers a comfortable compromise. And unfortunately it has invaded the Catholic academy with a vengeance in recent decades. Many readers of this article will probably have heard or read some collarless priest or habit-free nun assuring silly, old-fashioned Catholics that ‘modern scholarship’ has ‘shown’ that the Gospel miracle of the loaves and fishes – the feeding of the five thousand – needs to be demythologized. (This event was considered so important in the early Church that it’s the only miracle of our Lord’s public ministry recounted in all four Gospels: cf. Mt. 14, Mk 6, Lk 9 and Jn 6.)

There was nothing supernatural going on here, Father or Sister will assure us, no actual multiplication of bread and fish by divine power. No, it’s just that our Lord and the disciples got it wrong in thinking the crowd had practically no food with them. Thus, when Jesus started breaking the boy’s five barley loaves and distributing the pieces to those closest to him, his wonderful example of caring and sharing caught on with many others in the crowd, inspiring them to bring out their own food and share it with their neighbors, so that everyone ended up with enough to eat – and plenty left over! Catholics are often told that this is the latest in cutting-edge, ‘scientific’ biblical exegesis when in fact it is a hoary old chestnut that goes back to Herr Doktor Professor Paulus in the early 19th century.

Fortunately, the papacy held the line on this one even in the post-Vatican II chaos. Paul VI was not exactly a traditionalist pope, but when he preached about the loaves and fishes on several occasions, he never watered down the miraculous element; indeed, he explicitly reaffirmed it. In a homily at Rome’s St. John Chrysostom Parish on March 16, 1969, Paul’s exposition of St. John’s account of the miracle included these words: With exceptional, inexhaustible prodigality, the loaves then began increasing in number in the hands of the Son of God (con eccezionale, inesauribile larghezza i pani crescevano di numero nelle mani del Figlio di Dio)”.

Alas, that was then; Pope Francis is now. A few weeks ago alarm bells went off in my head when someone forwarded me an excerpt from an English-language translation of a sermon he preached in his recent trip to South America, relating the loaves-and-fishes event to the Eucharist. It was taken off the Vatican website and included these words:

The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away.Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among His followers, as they shared what they had, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill. Unbelievably, there were even leftovers: enough to fill seven baskets. (emphasis added by my correspondent).

Uh, oh. But was this, hopefully, just one of those “media misrepresentations” of the Holy Father’s words that conservative Catholics often plead in his defense? The Vatican’s English translations of magisterial and synodal documents are indeed often more liberal-hued than the original. Therefore, since Spanish is a language I know well, I checked out the Vatican website for the original text of this sermon. It was preached by Pope Francis in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on Thursday, July 9th, 2015, at the opening of that nation’s Eucharistic Congress, and can be found here.

This article appeared in the July 31, 2015 print-edition of The Remnant.
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Unfortunately, the boot this time was on the other foot. I was shocked to find that Francis' sermon turned out to be even more modernistic than it seemed at first sight! That’s partly because in this case the Vatican’s English translation airbrushes away some of the radicality of the original Spanish, and also because the above excerpt forwarded by my correspondent did not include some very unsettling introductory remarks a couple of paragraphs further up, in which the Pope says this:

[Jesús] toma un poco de pan y unos peces, los bendice, los parte y entrega para que los discípulos lo compartan con los demás. Y este es el camino del milagro. Ciertamente no es magia o idolatría. Jesús, por medio de estas tres acciones, logra transformar una lógica del descarte en una lógica de comunión, en una lógica de comunidad (emphasis added).

Here's my own translation of the above:

[Jesus] takes a little bread and some fishes, he blesses them, breaks them and gives them to his disciples to share with the others. And this is the way the miracle proceeds. It is certainly not magic or idolatry. By means of these three actions [taking, blessing and giving], Jesus succeeds in turning a 'throw-away' mindset into a mindset of communion, a mindset of community (emphasis added).

Now, here's the original text of the section a paragraph or two further down, the English version of which (see above) had been sent by my correspondent:

Las manos que Jesús levanta para bendecir al Dios del cielo son las mismas que distribuyen el pan a la multitud que tiene hambre. Y podemos imaginarnos, podemos imaginar ahora cómo iban pasando de mano en mano los panes y los peces hasta llegar a los más alejados. Jesús logra generar una corriente entre los suyos, todos iban compartiendo lo propio, convirtiéndolo en don para los demás y así fue como comieron hasta saciarse, increíblemente sobró: lo recogieron en siete canastas"(emphasis added).

My translation of the above:

The hands Jesus raises to bless the God of heaven are the same hands that distribute bread to the hungry multitude. And we can imagine this now: we can imagine how they kept passing the loaves and fishes from hand to hand until the food reached those who were farthest away. Jesus managed to generate a current among his followers: they all went on sharing what was their own, turning it into a gift for the others; and that is how they all got to eat their fill. Incredibly, food was left over: they collected it in seven baskets (emphasis added).

The passages placed in bold type above make it a really uphill battle to give a 'hermeneutic-of-continuity' reading to the Holy Father's sermon - a reading, that is, which would place Francis on the same page as Paul VI and (no doubt) all previous popes who have commented on this very important Gospel miracle.

In the first of the two paragraphs of his sermon reproduced above we note the Pope's insinuation (stopping just short of a clear affirmation) that the traditional understanding of this miracle – i.e., that our Lord supernaturally created new food where there was none before – depicts him as a "magician", and should therefore be dismissed by today's enlightened believers. We are left to read between the lines of this put-down of a straw man that what actually happened was a metaphorical, or at best psychological, “miracle''. Francis is telling us that Jesus' accomplishment or achievement, brought about by three actions (which significantly do not include the bringing into existence of new food out of the original loaves and fishes) consisted in changing the people's selfish, wasteful mindset into a 'communal', caring-and-sharing one.  The Vatican’s English translation fails to translate the Pope’s verb lograr, which means to succeed in doing something, or managing to do it, thus communicating the idea that Jesus’ own purpose was simply to ‘generate’ this new ‘mindset’ rather than to produce a great quantity of new bread and fish by divine power. (We cannot help being reminded of Pope Francis' similarly cheap and dismissive comment, when recently addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to the effect that we shouldn't read the Genesis 1 creation account in a literal way – i.e., the way nearly all pre-Darwinian Christian and Jewish scholars read it – because that would seem to depict God as a "magician” waving a “wand".)

In the second paragraph cited above, the words compartiendo lo propio are weakly translated into English on the Vatican website into an affirmation that Jesus' followers, as a result of the "current" he managed to generate, "shared what they had". This translation is (perhaps) open to the interpretation that "what they had" means what they had just received from the Apostles - namely, new and miraculously created bread and fish, which they in turn divided and shared with heir neighbors as more and more kept coming from the Lord's hands. But this tradition-friendly spin on the Pope's words is ruled out by what he actually said. For lo propio means "what is one's own" - what belongs to one, one's own property. So Pope Francis is clearly saying that the people in the crowd, under the 'miraculous' influence of that wondrous "current" emanating from Jesus, were motivated to start sharing their own food that they had brought along with them; and that then, "incredibly" (indeed!), there actually turned out to be so much, once all those thousand or more lunch-boxes were pulled out and generously shared, that quite a bit was left over!  (And Francis, remember, has already gone out of his way to assure us that "magic" had nothing to do with it.)

Those Catholics who insist that we should at all costs give every papal statement a ‘hermeneutic-of-continuity’ reading will no doubt focus on the first words in the second paragraph cited above, namely, "The hands Jesus raises to bless the God of heaven are the same hands that distribute bread to the hungry multitude.” Taken in isolation and out of context, this statement sounds reassuringly like a depiction of the miracle as faithful Christians have always understood it, i.e., that the bread consumed by the “hungry multitude” originated physically and miraculously in Jesus’ own hands. But that traditional interpretation is plainly incompatible with Pope Francis’ preceding and following explanations, which I have set out and commented on above. If we take these into account (and also assume that Francis is not contradicting himself within a single sermon), it becomes clear that all he means by the superficially reassuring words cited above is that Jesus himself began the process of feeding the hungry multitude by breaking the boy’s five barley loaves and distributing them in a natural, non-supernatural way to those nearest to him. This then supposedly initiated the kind of “miracle” that Pope Francis tells us took place. But it was clearly only a ‘quote-unquote’ sort of “miracle” – one he takes pains to assure us was not “magic” – namely, that mysterious “current” which “generated” a new “mindset” among others in the crowd.

Thus, the ensemble of what the Pope really preached on July 9th about the loaves-and-fishes event leaves us to draw the inescapable conclusion that, along with so many modern historical-critical biblical scholars, he has taken on board the well-known, century-old rationalistic 'demythologization' of this Gospel miracle. So we are left to wonder what other miracles of Jesus he may think require the same treatment.

Of course, most of what Pope Francis says is good and true; but the same can be said of many clerics who are really ‘cafeteria Catholics’: they pick and choose what church teachings they will believe and leaves others they don’t like on the magisterial shelf. If we see a prominent leader on television wearing a shirt that has several clearly visible dirty blotches, no one will try to justify his slovenly appearance by saying, “Oh, but look at how lovely and white all the rest of his shirt is!” To defend a Pope who sometimes says shocking things by pointing to the many excellent things he also says is like that. It is to defend the indefensible.

‘Papa Bergoglio’ has made one of his major priorities clear in the title of his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”. But how much real “joy” will we find in “the Gospel” (singular) if “the Gospels” (plural) on which the Good News of salvation is based turn out to be a historically unreliable blend of fact and legend?

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Last modified on Tuesday, August 18, 2015