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Why Satire is Funny: Debunking “Pope Francis Condemns Racism and Declares that ‘All Religions Are True’ at Historic Third Vatican Council”

December 29, AD 2013 32 Comments

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So there’s an article out there on the interwebs that seems to be causing some confusion amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the original source here: http://diversitychronicle.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/pope-francis-condemns-racism-and-declares-that-all-religions-are-true-at-historic-third-vatican-council/.

Let me lay out some basic facts about the Diversity Chronicle’s amusing piece:

First, the Third Vatican Council has neither been called nor concluded, as jokingly alluded to in the article. I promise, you would have noticed if it had—there would have been announcements from the pulpit, articles in your diocesan paper, articles in major-city newspapers, live media coverage, and your bishop would have gone off to Italy for a few months (or years).

Second, this article was published by the “Diversity Chronicle” which, as you can tell from the name, has a very specific bias. Not that having a bias is a bad thing. As I am always writing on my students’ papers: does the author’s bias help or hurt his argument? In this case, the author has picked up on several real events from Francis’ papacy to bolster the basic argument that the Catholic Church, under Francis’ guidance, is coming more in line with the Diversity Chronicle’s agenda, that is, a championship of “human rights” including the right to abortion and tolerance—understood as acceptance—of the world’s religions, ethnicities, social classes, and sexual orientations. Now that the bias has been identified, it’s up to us, the readers, to decide if the author’s argument holds.

Third, the Diversity Chronicle admits to being a satirical site. See their disclaimer here: http://diversitychronicle.wordpress.com/disclaimer/

Now for some basic facts about satire:

Satire is funny because it takes a grain of truth and does something to showcase what is terrible or perverse or confusing or outrageous about it, whether by making it bigger or smaller or more black-and-white or more grey.

Satires are pretend. Although based in some truth, they are intentionally outlandish to make a point. They say, “see, if you extend the logic of x idea, or practice, or system of thought, you’ll end up with this.” But in real life, x idea does not extend that far.

Think about Jonathan Swift’s famous A Modest Proposal in which he, pretending to be an English gentleman, suggests the Irish might alleviate their poverty by simply selling their babies to upper class families for consumption. He even suggests butter sauces and side dishes appropriate for accompanying the tender flesh of a newborn human being. Swift does not, however, intend such a thing to actually happen. Rather, he is poking fun at the—horrifying—“modest proposals” made by economists of his day which made distinctions between the “able” and “impotent” poor, often allowing or even encouraging the demise of the latter. What a satire says, in other words, is often the opposite of what it means.

Reading a satire requires knowing (1) the grain of truth being referenced, (2) the agenda of the author, and deciding (3) if the author’s interpretation of (1) is accurate.

How my article responding to Diversity Chronicle (DivC)’s will proceed:

After looking through some message boards and other blogs, I’ve chosen a selection of what seems to be DivC’s toughest passages. For each I (1) identify the grain of truth (2) point out how DivC’s presentation of (1) helps their case, and (3) offer some guidance as to whether DivC’s interpretation is or is not accurate.

(A) CLAIM: All religions are true.

DivC: “In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them.”

(1) Grain of truth: Pope Francis indeed maintains that “An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions” (Evangelii Gaudium, #250). This, he argues, is required especially of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, allowing followers of both faiths to “acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their [the other’s] demands and shed light on shared beliefs” (Evangelii Gaudium, #253). Further, quoting the International Theological Commission’s Christianity and the World Religions, “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live ‘justified by the grace of God,’ and thus be ‘associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ,’” and, “they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony” (Evangelii Gaudium, #254).

(2) DivC’s bias & interpretation: DivC, which promotes the equality of all religions for the purposes of human equality, interprets Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of the possibility of non-Christians entering heaven (i.e., being justified) means that the Pope thinks the any religion can “get” a person into heaven, because truth is in the heart of the believer. Remember, this is satire, so DivC is partially saying, “the pope would never do this” but also saying, “wouldn’t it be great if he did?”

(3) Accurate or Not?: Not. First of all, living according to your “conscience” means obedience to Natural Law, that movement written into every human being to behave morally. This has nothing to do with finding truth in your “heart.” For instance, I might believe in my heart that I always deserve the last slice of cake or cookie in the jar, but Natural Law and my conscience tell me I ought to share with my husband. The “heart” is typically understood as the metaphorical seat of the appetites, what do I want? While the “conscience” is understood as functioning from the intellective will, choosing what is right.

Secondly, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us Catholics that, “A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters. True openness [to interreligious dialogue] involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being ‘open to understanding those of the other party’ and ‘knowing that dialogue can enrich each side.’ What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says ‘yes’ to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with others. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another” (Evangelii Gaudium, #251). In other words, all religions are not true, and it is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to divorce interreligious dialogue from evangelization. Part of dialoguing with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters is witnessing to and promoting the Catholic faith.

RESPONSE: People of any religion can be justified, but the idea that all religions are “true” ignores the value of religion itself.

(B) CLAIM: Hell is not “literal.”

DivC: “Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God.”

(1) Grain of truth: As far as I am aware, Pope Francis has yet to speak directly about Hell. What he has talked about is the possible justification of non-Christian believers in the Divine and atheists (see, for instance, the quotations in A.1). The assertion does, however, sound like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?

(2) DivC’s bias & interpretation: Hell, or a final punishment, is not compatible with the idea that truth and morality are relative, or that following your heart is what it takes to be a good person. After all, nobody tries to be evil, people just fail at being good (or, from DivC’s perspective, choose a different kind of good). Why, DivC asks, would a loving God force people to suffer for choosing the wrong kind of good? Again, this is satire, so DivC has picked up on Pope Francis’ emphasis on God’s love and expanded it to mean that God will not allow suffering.

(3) Accurate or Not?: If the Catholic Church really abandoned the concept of a “literal Hell,” it would be embracing an understanding of the human person which disallows the possibility of rejecting God. In other words, rejecting Hell because of the infinite love of God would involve rejecting the doctrine of free will. . .now that does not sound like a loving God, does it? People go to Hell because they freely will to reject God. God does not want any of us to go to Hell, He wants us to be with Him in Heaven, but He will not take away our free will to reject him.

Now, there is a small but vocal minority of theologians who believe that while Hell is very real/literal and available for human beings to choose, it is empty. These theologians maintain that upon death every human person meets God face to face and is given the opportunity to accept or reject him. Who, they ask, would look into the face of Love and say “no”? Hell, therefore, is real but empty.

Perhaps Pope Francis is privately one of these theologians, but it is not the sort of thing he would declare as Pope. The existence of a literal Hell is not up for debate (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1035f). Hell’s population and citizenship, however, have never been determined by the Church, and indeed cannot be: there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition to tell us definitely that Hell is empty or that it is well populated with Hitlers and Judases and Caligulas. What the Church does teach, and what Pope Francis undoubtedly affirms, is that going to Hell—or Heaven—is a choice, freely made by the human beings whom God loves well enough to honor their decisions.

RESPONSE: There is a literal Hell; Jesus speaks of it, the Tradition perpetuates it, and no pope, not even Pope Francis can, or would, overturn it.

(C) CLAIM: The Bible is outdated.

DivC: “One statement in the Pope’s speech has sent traditionalists into a fit of confusion and hysteria. . . ‘The Bible is a beautiful holy book, but like all great and ancient works, some passages are outdated. Some even call for intolerance or judgement. The time has come to see these verses as later interpolations, contrary to the message of love and truth, which otherwise radiates through scripture.’”

(1) Grain of truth: There are passages in the Bible which seem scandalously contrary to the message of love and truth, for instance, the idea of total war/holy war in Deuteronomy 9:5. The Catholic Church has traditionally understood that passages such as these are not to be taken as literally true, but as revealing a deep and significant spiritual truth. In the case sighted here, that sin cannot be uprooted merely be saying “I shall sin no more,” but must be totally obliterated from the landscape of a person’s soul. Catholics believe in a form of Scriptural truth called limited inerrancy, maintaining that everything in the Bible is true, but that some things require a particular interpretation. You are probably familiar with the 7-day creation story in Genesis, but did you realize it is immediately proceeded and followed by an instantaneous creation story and a 1-day creation story? All three of these stories are true because they all say something about what and why God created, but we need not try to bully these diverse stories into a single narrative. Pope Francis affirmed this practice of reconciling Scripture with Tradition and logic in his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission on April 12.

(2) DivC’s bias & interpretation: It is impossible to read Scripture without noticing the themee of sin, repentance, and dependence on Christ for salvation. By stripping these things away DivC is able to promote a “modern” church with a “modern” reference for “morality”—ourselves.

(3) Accurate or Not? Sort of? The Bible is not “outdated” but many of its passages ought not be taken literally. To do so is un-Catholic. Scripture is beautiful but it is not ultimate. Catholicism is not a religion of the boom it is a religion of the Word, that is, in Jesus the Christ, who reveals himself to us through Scripture and Tradition. We strive to learn more about and to understand Christ through both Scripture and Tradition which must be read through and in each other. Pope Francis explains this very well and briefly in his April 12 address. If you have a little more time on your hands, feel free to skim through Dei Verbum for a fuller explanation of how Catholics interpret Scripture. (P.S.: Pope Benedict particularly talks about the “dark parts” of Scripture [like those that seem to promote total war] in his post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini, #42.)

RESPONSE: The Word of God is never outdated, but the Bible is just one expression of Him.

I hope this, admittedly very long, article is helpful to those who might have been confused by the DivC article or been wondering how to respond to social media messages either decrying or applauding the “pope’s” words/actions. Remember, DivC’s article is completely fictitious. Knowing the truth behind the satire is the first step to responding charitably and intelligently to those who miss the joke.

About the Author:

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.