Pope Francis had a go at apophatic theology yesterday, telling us that God “is not a magician with a magic wand.” I am frankly disappointed that he stayed in such shallow waters–via negativa-lite, if you will. Every serious person knows quite a lot about who and what G-d is not. The giant Dumbledore, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, these are easily repressed illusions. If Francis had said with his winning smile that the name of G-d cannot be uttered truly because G-d is no-thing and no-where and beyond being or nonbeing despite having 99 names, or 33 million shapes, then we would be on the path toward understanding the stakes between kataphatic and apophatic theologies. But no! And what of the question of potentiality vs. actuality? Which comes first? And is Spinoza an atheist or the truest theist? We need leadership from this pope, not just fine speeches that merely scratch the surface.
Headlines of stories about this fall’s synod of Roman Catholic bishops have referred repeatedly to Pope Francis’s focus on “mercy” and “compassion” and “leniency” (e.g., yesterday’s online NYT story). Enough already! No doubt it is not easy for many bishops to grasp what the synod’s special secretary, Archbishop Bruno Forte, said yesterday: “the fundamental idea is the centrality of the person independently of sexual orientation.” John Paul II spoke often of “the centrality of the person” and the “dignity of the human person” but never in the way Bruno Forte declared Monday. And I doubt Cardinal Raymond Burke intended comedy when he said that “a large number of bishops do not accept the ideas of openness, but few know that.” In fact quite a few people have noticed that many princes of the Roman Catholic Church prefer non-openness to openness.
Whatever the internal struggles and dramas in Rome may be, could independent, nonsectarian reporters please lay off the notions that the Vatican is showing “mercy”? Victims of priestly abuse and the indifference and nonchalance of higher-ups are in a position to show mercy and forgiveness–or not, as they may. Bishops and archbishops who are on the path to discover their own humanity and the positive possibilities of the religious faith they purport to promote deserve some respect and some “space,” but calling what they may be moving toward “mercy” or “forgiveness” or “leniency” is a dangerous misrepresentation.