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Matthew Fox (hearts) Pope Francis — but is hoping for more

The onetime Dominican theologian who was booted from the church -- by the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI -- says Francis represents a chance for real change in the church. But in a new book he also challenges the new pontiff to act on his better instincts. Not that Fox will be rejoining Rome anytime soon, as he says in this Q&A...

Theologian Matthew Fox, a former catholic priest who writes an open letter to Pope Francis

Photo: Courtesy of the author
Theologian Matthew Fox, a former catholic priest who writes an open letter to Pope Francis Photo: Courtesy of the author

Theologian Matthew Fox, a former catholic priest who writes an open letter to Pope Francis
Photo: Courtesy of the author

Pope Francis is feeling the love from some of the unlikeliest places: an Esquire article gushed about him and Italy’s version of Vanity Fair declared him “Pope Courage” and their Man of the Year. The article even included a blurb by Elton John: “Francis is a miracle of humility in an age of vanity.”

Now Matthew Fox, a prominent theologian who has long found himself at odds with Roman officialdom, has found himself inspired — or infected — by Francis-mania. Fox’s response is a series of open letters to His Holiness contained in a new paperback: “Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion.”

Fox was for decades a Catholic priest and theologian who was an early exponent of “creation spirituality” and other concepts that delighted readers of his books but gave the Vatican agita. In 1993, after a long struggle with Roman authorities – and in particular Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI – Fox was expelled from the Dominican order. He then joined the Episcopal Church as a priest and continues to write and lecture widely.

Fox says he has been encouraged by Francis’ humility, his reform-mindedness, and his strong message on the economy and the environment – ideas that Fox says once got him in trouble. He says Roman Catholicism has a chance for a “new direction” and his book challenges Francis not to miss this opportunity. He writes:

“Very early after your election you cited the phrase, ‘Repair my church in ruins.’ Those are strong words, a ‘church in ruins.’ You seem to have a sense of our times and how you have come along at a remarkable crossroads of time and history, not just church history, but more importantly planetary and human history. I beg you to keep that in mind in all of your decision-making. Remember you are not in this alone. I have sought to make some connections between your choice of St. Francis as your namesake and the deep needs of our present moment. We are in this together. No pope can save the Church alone, or should imagine he or she can do so. The people, who are the church, are already busy trying to. But it would be a great blessing if the Church’s hierarchy, beginning with a refreshingly humble Bishop of Rome, would begin to assist rather than flagrantly obstruct these efforts.”

In an email exchange, I posed some questions of my own to Fox:

Q: Do you see a chance that the Catholic Church is reformable?

Only from the grassroots up … and out. That is why small communities are so important (and why I devoted a full chapter to them in their own words in my book). But to have someone at the top who gets it (and I cite Pope Francis and his awareness that the church began as small communities, etc.) is a very useful thing.

Q: Are any institutional religions reformable? So many seem beset by troubles and scandals, and people are losing faith in all institutions. Should they be saved?

Unfortunately humans can’t live without some kind of ‘groupings’. And of course it is not just religious institutions that are failing us today–have you checked out education? Congress? The Supreme Court? Wall Street? Etc. etc. Renewal begins with individuals and moves to communities and then to organizations. Can we invent flowing, organic, more alive groupings and organizations based on values that matter such as the sustainability of our planet and our species? One hopes. And one works.

Q: Could you see any scenario under which you would return to the Catholic Church?

I never really left it. One contemporary sociologist has said that in these post-modern times we should all write “etc.” after our name because we belong to so many communities at once. I never signed any papers saying “I’m outta here.” I was happy to receive religious asylum from the Anglicans when I most needed it and I think they have some orthopraxis issues (such as ordaining women and lay input) in better shape than the current Roman Catholic Church. And I am able to work within that tradition to create worship that works for twenty-first century people who don’t think all prayer is about reading prayers.

"Letters to Pope Francis" cover Image courtesy of the author

“Letters to Pope Francis” cover
Image courtesy of the author

Q: What about your own current precinct of Christianity, the Anglican Communion. It seems to be racked by some of the same issues you raise with the pope. Would some of your suggestions apply there, or would they be different?

The Episcopal Church in the US has taken unequivocal stands on ordination of women, women bishops, gay clergy and bishops, etc. so they are ahead of much of the Anglican Church. Of course they allow a married clergy also. But the simplification, the stripping down of ecclesial narcissism that Pope Francis talks about is a requirement for all Christians. Recovering the teachings of the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ of the early church (and some periods since) is how one renews a tradition. Return to the source! And return with science as an ally, not an enemy. Turn out mystic-prophets or contemplative activists. The church is not buildings; it is alive people caring to redirect human history. The church is a verb, not a noun.

Q: What is it about Pope Francis that inspires so much hope in you and others?

First, that he is from the Third World and has lived a simple lifestyle very different from the princely hothouse of the Vatican (which he refuses to move in to). As a Jesuit, I expect him to have some intellectual depth and breadth and to put an end to the inquisition against theologians waged under the two past papacies. His book of dialogues with Rabbi Skorka reveal a person 1) committed to ecumenism who can learn from others and 2) one willing to dialogue with science as well (Skorka has a PhD in science). I have hope he can learn on the job including and especially regarding the emerging role of women in society and church and also in applying science instead of catechetical regurgitations to the subject of homosexuality. He also endorses small communities, calling them rightly the origin of the church.

Q: You draw an analogy between the Church running without theological debate and General Motors running without engineers. What do you mean?

The idea that the Vatican is the only Teacher or magisterium is both silly and heretical. Thinkers and teachers throughout the church and across diverse cultures ought to be encouraged to think, debate, publish, and teach. They are like engineers—the thinkers, designers, questioners, interpreters and planners for the future—of our spiritual legacy. When they are gone, an organization dies. Take the engineers away from General Motors and you only run on yesterday’s cars. A European theologian told me years ago, “the present pope [i.e. JP II] has killed all theology in Europe.” Then they wonder why 7 percent of Catholics are practicing in Europe. A dumbed down church is an empty church. And it has nothing to say to the future and to the young.

Q: As the Pope travels to Rio for the upcoming World Youth Day, do you think his heavy emphasis on poverty and economic justice will affect the social unrest Brazil is currently experiencing?

I think his strong stand on those subjects—and on calling out consumer capitalism and “savage capitalism” as a form of “terrorism” for its exaltation of avarice and growing gap between rich and poor—will lend some credibility to his words. But in my opinion, the young rising up around the world (consider the Occupy movement) is about the growing realization that the disappearance of so many species, the polluted air and waters, the extinction of rain forests, climate change, joblessness—all these symptoms cry out for a redefinition of how humans live on the earth. Issues for the young, also include failed forms of education and of worship that do not speak to our day but rather to the privileges of a few. If he is true to his namesake, Pope Francis will call out these topics also. He has spoken of the need for an “extremely creative justice” that reinvents culture. Let him join the young in this revolution and renaissance.

Q: What would you urge Pope Francis to say to today’s youth?

Saint Francis was 23 years old when he launched his revolution in the church and society and his friend Clare was only 19 and her sister Agnes only 17 when they left their privileged family to join him. We need a burst of intergenerational wisdom today—it is the only hope for our planet. Elders must get off the golf courses and away from playing the stock market and out of their religious palaces and be with the young, first of all listening because the young are inheriting a frightful mess on this earth and they are very open to new (and often ancient) alternatives. But they also have lots going for them—lots of access to information and learning and world-wide friendships via the internet. The young are not waiting around for permission or even to hear what a pope has to say—but if the Pope wants to join them and encourage others to do so, that would be a positive thing. There is also the issue of sexual morality. I recommend in one of the letters in my book that the Vatican stop talking about sex for at least fifteen years—just two words will do in the meantime—Responsible Sex. The young adults I know do not need priestly voyeurism especially from a totally discredited clerical class. The young are ready to move.

Q: You write quite a bit about the Church’s antagonistic posture toward the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Do you foresee a shift with Pope Francis?

I think that he has a lot to learn about women (most Jesuits do, as Ignatius who founded the order was a military man and there have never been women Jesuits). But I think he could be a fast learner. He must listen to women! He must realize, as I point out, that one of the signs of our times is that women all over the world are waking up to their oppression and to their wisdom and, as Francis knew, a balance of the feminine and masculine is necessary for any healthy person or culture or institution. Studies show that when women get educated the birth rate goes down and economic fairness rises. There is a relationship between gender justice and economic justice. He should call off the frankly misogynist attacks on the LCWR and instead join the people in PRAISING the Catholic sisters who, unlike the past two papacies, have faithfully lived out the Gospel values and imperatives of Vatican II—and done so with joy, generosity and panache. Surely he is aware that today’s biblical scholars agree that women held leadership roles in the early church. Why not today?

Q: You studied with the great French Dominican, Marie-Dominique Chenu. What did he teach you about St. Francis and how has that message shaped these letters to Pope Francis?

Saint Francis suffers from the “bird bath syndrome,” that is to say, we can easily sentimentalize him. Yet he was a warrior taking on the new capitalism of his day (his father was a frontrunner as a very successful businessman in and beyond Assisi and Francis broke dramatically from him) and the old, discredited feudalism (including the monastic establishment that had grown fat and lazy). He also was a warrior in his own inner life. I invoke Chenu in some depth in this book because he was a brilliant historian of Francis’ era and he understood the deep cultural and sociological issues that Francis faced. Chenu’s classic work, “Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century,” serves us well to understand Francis in a non-sentimental way. Chenu was my mentor when I studied in France and taught me about the creation-centered spiritual tradition of the West that has been so often neglected in favor of a sin-oriented and fundamentalist ideology—one of “original sin” instead of “original blessing.” Chenu combined a love of art and creativity with a passion for justice; he played a pivotal role at Vatican II and he can be called the grandfather of both liberation theology and of creation spirituality, which both came into their own following the Council. If Chenu were here he would agree that in the simplicity of Pope Francis there are strong echoes of his namesake, as well as in many of his pronouncements so far. We desperately need more than just echoes.