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There are two kinds of people: those who think that everyone will (or should be) saved, and those who don’t. Among the former are many – communist, socialists, and most present-day liberals – who assert that human agency can right all the world’s wrongs. There also are religious millenarians who believe that God has a plan for universal salvation, but because things do not work out this way, they feel obliged to help God accomplish what he does not seem eager enough to do on his own.
That is a religious outlook rejected by the Catholic Church.  After Pope Francis I’s journey to the Holy Land this weekend, though, it is hard to suppress the perception that in his heart he yearns for universal salvation, although his public discourse, to be sure, is consistent with Church doctrine. The Holy Father really seems convinced that he can fix the world, starting with a part of the world that no one has been able to fix, and in any case does not especially require fixing.
His intervention into Middle Eastern politics, I believe, arises from deep theological convictions that override perceptions of fact and practicality. He appears to believe that a miracle will move the recalcitrant hearts of the contending parties in the Middle East. I believe in miracles, but I don’t think they can summoned at will.
Why focus on the Israel-Palestine issue to begin with? The Muslim world long since put it on the back burner, as Lee Smith observed last year. In the pope’s mind, the problems of the Palestinians – benign as they are compared to those of Syrians, Iraqis or even Egyptians – stand as a symbol of the ills of the world that a just God would want to fix. Francis has mistaken windmills for giants.
The pope’s strangest gesture, but perhaps his most characteristic, was to invite Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestine Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican next month to pray for peace. Peres does not pray, as he has acknowledged in public.
In the unlikely event that he were to pray, he could not do so in the Vatican, for Jews are forbidden to pray in buildings with Christian religious images. In any event he has no mandate to speak on Israel’s behalf, and will resign his largely ceremonial position in July. Outside of the world of miracles the exercise is triply pointless. According to most Islamic authorities, the same stricture applies to Abbas, who is not a religious man, either. A prayer session with Peres and Abbas is the stuff of the real maravilloso.
Everything a pope does should be viewed through the prism of theology. And a purely theological impulse led Pope Francis to wade into the minefields of Middle Eastern politics, as the champion of what he alone among the leaders of the West hails as the “State of Palestine.” For 20 years, the Israelis and the Palestine Authority along with the major powers have debated whether and on what conditions there might be a State of Palestine. Francis seems to believe that it will be so if he declares it to be so.
Kindness radiates from this pope, whose gestures to the Palestinians were balanced by unprecedented gestures to the Israelis – a wreath on the grave of Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl, and a declaration that the Holocaust was a uniquely evil act in world history. There is not a hint of ill will towards the Jews in Bergoglio’s public record. On the contrary, in his November 2013 encyclical he reaffirmed, “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’.” The subject is neither the Jews nor the Arabs, but rather the new pope’s vision for the Catholic Church.
A controversy erupted in the Catholic world after Francis preached “universal redemption,” arguing that all people naturally seek the good because of the good ness of creation. The pope argued that atheists can do good just like Christians, and that “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation … The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us.”
But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.
“Yes, he can… The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”
Father, the atheists?
“Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good.”
But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!
“But do good: we will meet one another there.”
By the pregnant word “there,” Francis did not necessarily mean Heaven. Catholic theologians hastened to point out that “redemption” means the potential for “salvation” after Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, which in Catholic doctrine redeems the whole world. Francis nonetheless blurs the distinction. The (mostly anti-religious) media hailed Pope Francis’ remarks as a declaration that one doesn’t have to adhere to Church doctrine to be saved. Those were not his words, to be sure, but that’s how the music sounded.
As the Church ministers to a shrinking number of individuals, it is tempted instead to try to save everyone. The Church is still growing in the United States mainly due to Hispanic immigration, but it is almost certain to shrink as Latinos leave the faith. In 2010, two-thirds of Americans in the United States of Hispanic origin identified as Catholics; by 2014 the figure had dropped to only 55%. Latin America is still majority Catholic, but not with strong conviction. A gauge of diminished faith is the decline of Latin American fertility from four children per female in 1985 to just two today.
How to respond to shrinking numbers of communicants is the subject of a quiet but impassioned debate. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, advocated a small church strategy; he wrote in 1996 that the time may have come to “abandon traditionally Catholic culture” and consolidate the Church around “small seemingly insignificant groups” that nonetheless “bring the good into the world.” The alternative view is millenarian and messianic: despite the shrinkage of the Church itself, he believes, the Church in the person of its Supreme Pontiff will intervene in and transform the world.
Pope Francis’ sudden passion for a Palestinian state is not arbitrary. It is yet another expression of his millenarian hopes for the renewal of a Church that saves fewer individuals than ever but hopes instead to save everybody. We observe the same messianic universalism in his New Year’s message denouncing market-based capitalism, and in his willingness to soften doctrinal restrictions in order to broaden the Church’s tent. This troubles conservative Catholics, for example New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who worries that small exceptions (permitting divorced Catholics to take Communion, for example) will lead to what he calls:
the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions – like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks – and not actually trying to teach a living faith.
Francis has said nothing in public at variance with established doctrine, contrary to the impression given by media reports. It is all a matter of words and music. Putting the Church’s earlier emphasis on social issues such as abortion and traditional marriage in the background, Francis famously called the Church “a field hospital after battle.”
Leaving aside the niceties of dogma, that is a view quite different from most of his predecessors. It may portend a revolution in the Church unprecedented in its 2,000-year history. When the Church emerged in Europe in the Dark Ages, it was Europe: it assembled Europe out of the migrating riffraff of pagan tribes. European mainstream culture was Catholic culture, and by construction. The marginalization of the Church is an anomaly so at variance with its origins at character that it has elicited a truly novel response.
Traditionally, the Church taught that salvation comes through acceptance of its Sacraments and the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ by the proxy of a duly-ordained priest (although exception is made for righteous non-Catholics who have not explicitly repudiated Catholic doctrine). As the Church’s influence shrank in the aftermath of the two world wars, though, an alternative theology of universal salvation poked its head up through the rubble.
What Catholics believe, of course, is their affair; I am not a Catholic, and I do not share the Church’s views of sin, salvation and damnation. Nonetheless, the Church is the core institution of Western civilization and what it does affects the rest of us. Without presuming to instruct Catholics about their religion, I wish to call attention to some of these implications.
The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed to hope that hell itself was empty (in two books published in 1986 and 1987, translated by Ignatius Press under the English title Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?). He wrote: “I would like to request that one be permitted to hope that God’s redemptive work for his creation might succeed. Certainty cannot be attained, but hope can be justified.”
That, to be sure, was a speculation carefully advanced at the end of a long and distinguished career, but it elicited cries of heresy.
Urs von Balthasar insisted that the Church must “contrast Christian universality of redemption to Jewish salvation-particularism.” For most of its long history, the Church taught that it was Israel and that Gentiles were saved by adoption into Israel; not until the 1980s did John Paul II declare that the living, breathing descendants of Abraham still were “Israel” in a theological sense. John Paul II’s declaration (restated by his successor, Benedict XVI, as well as Francis I) that the Old Covenant never was revoked was a revolution in the Church’s relationship with the Jews. Nonetheless, the new universalism
also raises the prospect a new form of anti-Judaism. It abhors the notion that God has a particular love for any section of mankind.
Pope Francis’ impatience with Jewish particularism roils below an amicable surface. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned during his public meeting with Francis that Jesus spoke Hebrew, the pope corrected, “Aramaic!” Netanyahu patiently observed that Jesus spoke both languages. Israelis, for example the distinguished Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, read this (I believe correctly) as an effort to attenuate Jesus’ Jewish identity, that is, his association with the particularity of Israel. It is not that Francis does not want to love the Jews: he wants to love everyone in exactly the same way.
Not long ago, Catholic practice was nearly universal in the Catholic countries and admitted heretics were few; today, Catholic practice involves a small minority and the mainstream culture repudiates religion altogether and Catholicism in particular. Even most Catholics reject a great deal of Church doctrine, which explains the great popularity of Francis I; they believe the media stories that the new pope doesn’t much care about issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
From the viewpoint of traditional Catholic teaching, the vast majority of humankind, including the vast majority of citizens of once-Catholic countries, will suffer eternal damnation. Urs von Balthasar simply couldn’t stomach the notion: how could God be so cruel as to condemn the preponderance of his creatures? What would that say about the goodness of creation itself?  Inspired by his mystic soul-mate, the visionary Adrienne von Speyer, Urs von Balthasar formulated a novel and hugely influential mystical doctrine of universal salvation.
That is one drift inside the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, sought instead to consolidate the Church around a stronger core of faith. In his 1996 book Salt of the Earth he put the matter as forcefully as possible:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live and intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.
This formulation made headlines when the book’s first, German edition appeared. The largest-circulation news publication in the country, Der Spiegel, featured Ratzinger’s willingness to abandon “traditionally Catholic cultures” (the German read rather die Volkskirche, the popular Church). The distinguished Catholic philosopher Alisdair McIntyre also proposed a small-church strategy. I do not know why Ratzinger resigned his office, but sentiment in the Church clearly has shifted away from this view of the role of the Church.
Among Catholic writers in the English language, Joseph Bottum has addressed the problem most directly. He argued in a 2013 essay that the Church should not make a stand on the issue of gay marriage where it was bound to lose, but rather concentrate on broadening its tent: “We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981).”
Conservative Catholics heaped opprobrium on the author without, however, addressing the core issue: how should the Church respond to its marginalization by mainstream culture?
Ratzinger, in my view the last great man of the West, anticipated this problem from the 1950s onward. Not so his peers in the Church. The fall of communism during the papacy of John Paul II persuaded many Catholics that a glorious new era of Church history was at hand, in which Catholic Poland would set the tone for the industrial world (see First Things Last, Asia Times Online, July 22, 2013). On the contrary, Poland, like most of Eastern Europe and a good deal of Western Europe, is on course for a demographic catastrophe later in this century.
Benedict XVI believed in God’s special love for Israel, for the same reason that he believed in the particularity of a Church whose institutional and doctrinal integrity he fought to preserve. When he visited the Holy Land in 2009, Israeli newspaper columnist Aviad Kleinberg noted that Ratzinger
… was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves … . John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.
Benedict made no attempt to insert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he understood his role as spiritual; Francis, by contrast, has declared the plight of the Palestinians “unacceptable” and has inserted himself into a political process. It would be wrong to think of Benedict as “spiritual” and Francis as “political.”
On the contrary, different theologies are at work. The Palestinian problem is “unacceptable to Francis” not because the Palestinians are being butchered, as in Syria, or because they are starving, as in Egypt, or subject to constant terror attacks, as in Iraq. Except for the oil-rich Gulf states, Arabs in Judea and Samaria have the best living standards, health and educational levels in the whole of the Arab world. They suffer inconvenience and occasionally humiliation, but they are not at risk.
Other popes have taken political stands, notably John Paul II’s role in the Cold War. But St. John Paul did so under conditions when humanity was in real danger; Bergoglio staged a political theater when nothing more is stake than his own salvific ambitions. Benedict XVI offered a public critique of Islam’s propensity for unreason and violence; Francis offered a public embrace of his “dear brother” Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who has earned international condemnation for advocating the extermination of the Jews.
For Pope Francis, the Palestinian problem is “unacceptable” because it represents the failure of the world to elevate a people perceived to be downtrodden and oppressed: it is important for its symbolic value rather than its factual content. Never mind that the Palestinians have painted themselves into their own (rather comfortable) corner; their perceived plight is an offense to Pope Francis’ millenarian vision of universal salvation. Francis evidently feels he must intervene to right a perceived wrong, like an ecclesiastical Amadis de Gaula, because it is there.
I fear that the Church, the founding institution of the West, its pillar and mainstay, has lost its moorings. The State of Israel will do quite well without it; it was founded in 1947 against the opposition of the Church then immeasurably more influential, and does not require the blessing of the Church to flourish today. But Bergoglio’s behavior in the Holy Land bespeaks a dilution of the Church’s self-understanding and a deviation from its mission. In 2005 I wrote, “Something is stirring in the ashes of the West, and Benedict XVI yet might bring forth a flame.” I am less sanguine today.
1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 676, states: “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism.
2. How, indeed, can a good Creation produce an overwhelming preponderance of damned souls? That paradox lies at the heart of the particularist-universalist divide. Judaism is not a salvific religion in the Christian sense: the World to Come figures only hazily in Jewish thinking, and the rabbis taught that righteous Gentiles have as much share in the World to Come as pious Jews. But rabbinic Judaism has quite a different view of the goodness of Creation: God left Creation in an unfinished, imperfect state, so that humanity would have the task of perfecting it. See Why Intelligent Design subverts faith, Asia Times Online, October 23, 2012.