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Buenos Aires, Moscow, the Vatican, and Baghdad: News without change?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 14, 2015

If our age is characterized by anything at all, I’ll lay money on the conflict between desire and reality. At least this is a major theme in the news over the past few days. Everybody seems to want to latch on to something that isn’t really there.

Take for example, the decision by Cardinal Mario Poli of Buenos Aires to take the local branch of the Society of St. Pius X under his wing, for the purposes of ensuring the SSPX receives government support mandated by the Argentine constitution for the Catholic Church. This was doubtless a signal act of generosity, and one hopes it will bear good fruit. But it raises more questions than it answers.

After all, the SSPX has a separate set of bishops of its own, all of whom claim an ecclesiastical jurisdiction that, in fact, they do not possess. This is why some of their sacraments are invalid (those requiring jurisdiction).

If Cardinal Poli’s intervention were to prompt the local SSPX priests to make an act of ecclesiastical submission to the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then his kindness would be a brilliant strategic move. One would, after all, rejoice to see the members of the SSPX brought back into communion with the Church at every local level, irrespective of their own anti-canonical and jurisdictionless bishops.

But if the local SSPX does not repudiate its own separate hierarchy, this can only be a strategy for confusion. The conflict between desire and reality looms large here. Saying something does not make it so.

From Russia with Love

In another case, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church used his Easter message to talk about what he apparently regards as a fundamental spiritual reality—the Russian defeat of the Germans in World War II. For Patriarch Kirill, that unified defense of the homeland is evidence of a kind of spiritual sublimity among the Russian people, to “vindicate lofty ideals and values”. It represents “enormous spiritual strength which no disasters or enemies are capable of overcoming”.

To Kirill, these truths are “evidently attested by the Victory in the Great Patriotic War.” In his Easter message—I repeat, Easter message—the Patriarch noted that “we shall mark the seventieth anniversary of this glorious date in the current year.”

The only problem is that Josef Stalin was about twenty years into his reign of terror over the Soviet Union when that victory took place, and he would remain in power for eight more years. While we will never be certain, the best estimates place the number of people executed under Stalin’s reign of terror at about 15 million. If victims of famine are included, we can add five to ten million more.

So much for reading resistance against Germany as a vindication of “lofty ideals and values”. We know that the Orthodox Churches are intensely territorial—and among them especially the Russian Orthodox Church. But those in touch with reality must learn to place limits on their identification of national politics with the message of Easter.

La plus ça change...

In a somewhat more subtle case, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will sponsor a workshop later this month to encourage inter-religious collaboration on sustainable development and climate change. This is actually a perfectly good topic for the Academy, and God knows that Christians should be in the forefront of intelligent, person-centered stewardship. One purpose of the gathering is to highlight “the moral dimensions of protecting the environment,” in order to set the stage for the release of the forthcoming papal encyclical on this topic.

That is certainly a good thing, but it is the kind of good thing that is easily co-opted by worldly advocates of proposals that suit their own interests. So far, the drama of climate change has unfolded in an atmosphere of very limited real knowledge, exemplifying the usual secularist tendency to seek political and economic traction by forecasting material disasters of cosmic proportions. Most proponents utterly fail to realize that the solutions to the deepest human problems depend on spiritual change.

Though there is some danger that Pope Francis will couple his encyclical too tightly with a particular analysis of climate change, there is little doubt that his main concern will be the deeper spiritual and moral focus which must characterize our care for God’s gifts. Clearly, whatever knowledge we do have about environmental problems must be used for moral ends, and so the Pope’s point will be to draw the world into the purposes of Christ. But there is already something of a juggernaut here, and our secular media will want instead to draw Francis and the Church into the purposes of the world. The world, of course, is where desire and reality are divorced.

A Brutally Practical Anomaly

What makes the disconnect between desire and reality newsworthy is that it renders workable solutions impossible. Perhaps the clearest recent case in point is found in the encouragement expressed a few days ago by the Prime Minister of Iraq to Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi affirmed that “there is no Iraq without Christians.”

This is a nice sentiment, and perhaps we can be grateful for small favors. But it is ironic that, when I pulled up this news story, it appeared directly under a large ad from Aid to the Church in Need asking help for the Christians who are “fighting for their lives” in Iraq. A Christian presence in this region cannot be preserved and enhanced by lofty desires. That presence depends on the will to effectively counter both immediate threats against Christians and their long-term economic and political disadvantages.

We see this problem repeatedly in contemporary news: The failure of the principals in a story to give reality its due. Yet we must see things as they are to have any hope of changing what is really wrong. What we usually learn, when we see things as they are, is that constructive change bears a striking resemblance to charity. It is rooted in humility; it requires self-denial; and it begins at home.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: skall391825 - Apr. 17, 2015 2:49 AM ET USA

    "Climate change" is NOT a perfectly good topic for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, unless, of course, the Academy were to tell the truth: there is no actual evidence--none--that man has caused so-called climate change. What IS man-made is the garbage-in, garbage-out computer models by "scientists" looking for perpetual grants.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 15, 2015 6:04 PM ET USA

    In fairness, if one were looking for a realistic summary of the move by Cardinal Poli in Buenos Aires perhaps the SSPX website DICI has one of the best. Some straightforward commentary from its website: "Cardinal Poli’s document has no canonical authority for he cannot substitute himself for the Roman authority that alone can settle the Society’s canonical status... ...it is nothing more than a strictly administrative procedure in the restricted context of the Republic of Argentina."