A Religion of Compassion: A Letter to Pope Francis

Will Pope Francis set the Catholic Church against the powers of injustice in our world today? Credit: Creative Commons/Catholic Church England and Wales.

I have taken note of the fact that you and Rabbi Abraham Skorka in Argentina have become good friends; he speaks highly of you to the press. I have enjoyed reading your dialogs with him and I commend you for learning and listening from him. This pleases me very much because as we both know anti-Semitism has haunted Christian history since its earliest days and it built up over the centuries, spurred on by the sixteenth century pope Paul IV who invented the ghetto for Jews in Rome. It became even more fierce and unchecked with the horrors of Hitler’s crusade and fascism in general has always dined on that sordid, anti-Semitic legacy. As we both know, Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish, so surely church renewal has something essential to do with embracing and celebrating a Jewish consciousness and with undoing our ignorance of, and what is sometimes contempt for, Jesus’ lineage.

Recent scholarship on Pope Pius XI reveals how he asked a North American Jesuit, Father John LaFarge, who had written about racism in America, to draft an encyclical on the evil of fascism. LaFarge unfortunately sent his document first to his Superior General, Father Wlodimir Ledochowski, who it turns out held fascist sympathies and did not pass it on to the pope. Eventually he did release it but the whole process was slowed down and Pope Pius XI died the night before he was to deliver an anti-fascist speech and before he published his anti-fascist encyclical. (Cardinal Eugene Tisserant of France, who was the pope’s best friend, wrote in his diary that the pope had been murdered.) The next pope, Pius XII, as we know, never wrote an encyclical condemning fascism. How much history might have been changed—how possible is it that Pius XI’s encyclical might have prevented Hitler’s and Mussolini’s advances had it been promulgated—we will never know.

I too have been blessed by knowing and working with rabbis including Rabbis Zalman Schachter (founder of the Jewish Renewal movement), Arthur Waskow, Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun), Rami Shapiro, and others. But I especially want to invoke in this subject of religious renewal the brilliant spirit and solid analysis of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote so many books of depth and beauty including the classic work, The Prophets. He not only composed that scholarly volume, he also lived it. He literally walked his talk when he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma to protest racism and segregation and he was vilified by his own Jewish community for doing so because they felt his public presence on behalf of black people would arouse still more anti-Semitism. He marched anyway and when his ten year old daughter asked him what it was like marching amidst the dangers at Selma he replied: “I felt my feet were praying.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warned of religion becoming irrelevant and oppressive. Credit: Creative Commons.

I noticed that Rabbi Skorka cited Heschel in his dialogs with you and for good reason. Thus I feel emboldened to cite him about the all-important topic of when religion goes sour or sick. Heschel had this to say about religion in our time: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.” (14.29) These wise and prophetic words on the demise of religion in our time speak very strongly to me.

He is so right—it is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy. So many essentially cynical religious apologists begin their theology with a loud dualism—the “secular” thinkers vs. themselves, though rarely defining what and whom they mean by secular. There are remnants of the “abhor the world” religion of 17th century France lurking in such grand dualisms along with a deep intellectual laziness. “We are the spiritual ones and those worldly ones ought to be damned.” It is always dangerous to ground one’s religion on dualisms—is God the Creator not also Creator of the whole world including the world humans create? There also lurks a dangerous element of righteousness in the “we are holding all the answers” component of such dualisms. It is such righteousness that opens the door to religious fanaticism.

Religion has been responsible for wonderful art, music, and social justice movements. How is it that it has also been an incredibly brutalizing force? Credit: Creative Commons/Ken Yonekura.

“It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.” Yes, believers need to cease projecting onto imagined or real enemies their shortcomings and take a hard and critical look within. Self-criticism is part of any authentic spiritual (as opposed to mere ideological and projection-filled) spiritual journey. What has religion done or failed to do?

“Religion becomes irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

Religion is irrelevant when it ignores science and when it does not stand up against powers of injustice, whether they are corporate powers pillaging nature and destroying our climate, media powers peddling entertainment addictions and distractions, or religious bigotry masquerading as “tradition” in opposition to homosexuals or women and their rights.

When religion puts people to sleep in church because reading prayers from a book and fumbling through page after page to find them is, well, dull, it precipitates its own demise. The opposite of dull is interesting and alive and lively. Why not engage in worship that truly draws in the new art forms of our day, that includes rather than excludes the body—that encourages dancing our prayers instead of reading them?

Religion does not have to be dull. It chooses to be. Why? I think of the holy and great Bishop Casigalida whose diocese was the Amazon and how he created a special Mass with black Brazilians using their music and their culture and dance, but know-it-alls in the Curia forbade him to do so again after just one celebration.

How is religion oppressive? It is oppressive of women when it forbids them to hold leadership roles even though the early church championed them and counted them among the earliest followers of Jesus. One of his most startlingly breakthrough teachings was the gesture of welcoming women and entrusting them, as he did to Mary Magdalene, with authentic leadership roles. (13.217-222) The first Christian theologian, Paul, announced that “in Christ” there is no distinction of “male and female.” What happened to this foundational teaching? Male clericalism replaced the revolutionary teachings of Jesus so that today only so-called “secular” society is advancing women’s roles and justice toward women while the Church hierarchy lives in denial.

One example of how religion has been oppressive is the church-led oppression of revolutionary thinkers, like Galileo Galilei, pictured above. Credit: Creative Commons/garrettc.

Religion was oppressive toward science when it locked up Galileo in 1633, forcing him to sign a confession denouncing his scientific discoveries. In the same way it is oppressive today when it denounces gay love while, once again, ignoring what science has to say on the subject.

Religion is oppressive when it silences 105 theologians and infects other thinkers with fear that obstructs thinking and promotes falling in line and obeying.

Religion is oppressive when it tolerates priestly pedophilia, spends hundreds of millions of dollars on lawyers to interfere with civil trials against pedophile priests instead of providing victims with support they so need.

You get the picture. The power of religion cannot be denied (liberals underestimate its power). It can be used to liberate or to oppress. Unfortunately, it is not always working on behalf of liberation.

“Insipid.” Heshel, a poetic wordsmith, picked an interesting word to indict oppressive religion. Webster’s Dictionary defines insipid as “tasteless” and “lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate or challenge; dull, flat, vapid, jejune, banal, inane and “devoid of qualities that make for spirit and character.” Insipid is the opposite of “zestful.” Yes, Heschel reminds us that religion can bring about its own insipidness. Many in the hierarchy and priesthood today do not even know their own tradition, or have the slightest understanding of mysticism or the Cosmic Christ or Creation Spirituality or the great souls like Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman and more.

“When faith is completely replaced by creed…” Faith is not just creed; it is not a list of doctrines. Faith in the Bible is about trust. It is not about head tripping around centuries-old formulations of dogmas; it is about living with trust and living deeply, pursuing lives of purpose and commitment, of peace and of justice, of creativity and gratitude, compassion and generosity. How much easier it is to run a church on creed instead of on trust of spirit and trust that the Spirit is still alive and well, still at work in birthing new versions of community and new expressions of compassion in the world. Creed has been held up during the new inquisition (as it was in the old) to destroy all signs of new birth and fresh ideas and new life in the church. Creed has been used as a bludgeon to abort thinking and therefore theology in the church. Faith is something else and it endures where trust endures. It is ironic that a church that proclaims its opposition to abortion so loudly in fact is busy aborting life and signs of live, creativity and imagination everywhere it turns.

How can believers tap back into the excitement and wonder of ancient rituals, like the Catholic Mass? Credit: Creative Commons/Greater Boston Tridentine.

“Worship by discipline…” We have already discussed the dullness of worship but Heschel nails it when he notes how discipline enforcers can readily kill worship and stifle the spirit in worship. This has occurred countless times in the dark sanctums of the Curial Netherlands where bureaucrats shoot down any possible imagination applied to Liturgy and where they even take glee in undoing translations in the vernacular to replace them with more Latin-sounding phrases. The first reform at Vatican II was the reform of the Liturgy and the document embodying it was heralded as a “magna carta of the laity.” Today that magna carta is buried, gone the way of the original Magna Carta (which the pope at the time condemned). There is no room whatsoever for creativity in liturgy today.

“Love by habit…” Love is always in the now. Love is always particular as well as generic. Because we loved yesterday does not suffice for loving today. Love is not by rote, it demands something new and fresh of us daily. And sometimes it demands taking stands and being strong in the face of diversity. Love includes justice, in the Jewish tradition there is no love without justice. Eckhart put this wonderfully when he said there is only love between equals, never between masters and slaves, so we must be making justice happen or we are not engaged in love. And love is an engagement, a commitment, a decision to act. It is not done by rote but by applying ourselves daily to finding the good and the beautiful that indeed bring love alive in us. I think you put this memorably when you say “to love is much more than feeling tenderness or a certain emotion once in a while. It’s a total challenge to creativity! No one knows how to love; we learn every day.” (10.53f)

“When the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past…” It is heartening to hear you speak out about today’s needs and not yesteryear’s splendors and to see you preferring simple living even as pope to stylish “Paris Match” papal pomp and circumstance. Surely that is more in keeping with Francis’ and Jesus’ spirit than are the silly and outdated splendors of a Vatican of past days. Can you keep up this symbolism? I wish you luck. More important, can you keep today’s crises always before you and as primary? Because that will be your biggest ally in resisting the splendors of the past, that and surrounding yourself with allies who share these values and are not in the Vatican to build their egos and massage their narcissistic souls. Today’s crises include of course the earth and climate crisis, the unemployment crisis, the crisis of cynicism and despair, the crisis of unjust economic and gender divisions, the crisis of war and expenditures for war, the crisis of youth ignored and without elders, the crisis of loneliness, poverty and neglect. I know you know these crises and I am confident they and not splendors of the past will be what matters in your vocation.

“When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain…” Faith as heirloom, not merely an inheritance we are supposed to lock up and keep unsullied (and unused), to pass on untouched and untouched up and undeveloped to others. At the Vatican most people experience church as a museum. Faith as a “deposit” (favorite Canon Law language) as if it were something we visit in a bank vault once in a while, something all locked up never to be stirred, invested, put to work, reinvented or adapted to the language and culture of a new generation. Much preferable is the language of Saint John Henry Newman, a contemporary of Charles Darwin of the “development of doctrine,” or we might say the evolution of doctrine. Doctrine has its place for humans who have to put experiences (the starting point of all faith) into words and then into categories for sharing with others, thus doctrines. But a doctrine is only a means and a doctrine is never to be frozen on ice or locked in a vault as if its value increases with age and pristineness.

Doctrines expand and evolve just like all beings and ideas do when we grow as individuals and communities over the course of time. As we ponder issues and challenges over the years and apply them in practice, we learn more about them, we see them from a variety of angles and under different illumination, watching new depths emerge as we too mature. What Rilke said about growing older—“I can see more deeply into paintings now”—we might apply to doctrines as well. They grow on us and we grow with them— provided we are not stuck in literalism or “lock them in a vault of deposit for safekeeping” mentality. So all doctrines evolve as we evolve and as the church, i.e. the people living them evolve. Can we see more deeply into doctrines now?

Heschel wrote that faith should be "a living fountain." Credit: Creative Commons/artorusrex.

Thus faith is truly, in Heschel’s words, a “living fountain,” something wet and green and juicy (to use Hildegard’s language) that refreshes, sustains, gives life, as does a fountain of fresh, flowing cold water. Thomas Aquinas says that the difference between living waters and stagnant waters is that the former connects to the Source. A living fountain does not contain stagnant water but moving waters, alive waters, fresh waters, not banked and deposited waters. It is from these that we drink heartily when we drink authentic faith. These waters assist our trusting.

“When religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion…” For thirty-five years the Roman Catholic Church has been speaking almost solely with the voice of authority: “Believe this because I tell you to; Believe this or you are not a Catholic; Do not even speak about women priests or you will be silenced and excommunicated.” Consider how Fr. Roy Bourgeois was recently dismissed from the Maryknoll order after forty years of brave witness including jail terms for standing up to the School of the Americas which was a training ground for sadistic soldiers sent by Latin American dictators to learn the arts of torture; or two bishops of Australia dismissed after daring to raise the subject.

Obey, obey, obey. That is the only “theology” I see in studying the sects that have been pushed so hard by the Vatican of late: Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and the Legion of Christ (which boasted a special vow of never speaking badly about the founder who turned out to be a pervert beyond measure). Obey, obey, obey—that is the very definition of fascism. Its patriarchal message of control and domination is all that matters, its image of God as a punitive father is perverse and it in turn gives legitimacy to punitive attitudes of “superiors”—all that plus sexism is found wherever fascism reigns. An ideology of obedience and authority is no substitute for theology. And it is miles from anything Jesus taught or lived.

Such ideology is the polar opposite of compassion, which is what Jesus taught. As theologian Dorothy Soelle puts it, the opposite of obedience is…solidarity. Yes, we are here to live lives of solidarity, especially with the poor and oppressed. Community and gatherings of solidarity are key to undoing authority-based religion. Compassion is the expression of true solidarity for it is not feeling alone but action we take to share the mutual joy and suffering that is our lot as humans. It is our struggle to relieve one another’s suffering from injustice that causes so much pain; but it is also our shared desire to celebrate life and its joys. That, too, is compassion. As Meister Eckhart taught, “what happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me.”

We are in this together at the deep levels of shared joy and shared sorrow. There lies our solidarity. But Eckhart, working out of the Jewish and Biblical tradition also taught that “compassion means justice” and “compassion is where peace and justice kiss.” Compassion has a hard side to it. It is not just about mercy, as you seemed to imply in a recent talk citing Walter Kasper. It is also about justice.

Some enemies of liberation theology cozied up to the CIA (who, as you may recall, were busy overthrowing the duly elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and installing the murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet, and overthrowing the government of Argentina to install an atrocious military junta that tortured and killed 30,000 innocent people) to label Liberation theology “Marxist.” This is just language the CIA wanted wielded all over Latin America. But it was not so. The Bible, even as Eckhart knew it in the fourteenth century, insists on love and justice being one. Marx may well have derived that from the Bible in fact. But that does not make Liberation theology Marxist. If anything it makes Marx Biblical!

Without compassion in all of its meanings Heschel warns us “religion’s message becomes meaningless.”

With all my heart I hope your papacy is one of compassion in its fullest and richest meanings and an example to other institutions of our world that compassion matters. And justice matters. You have said so yourself in the following words: “In the fact of grave forms of social and economic injustice, of political corruption, of ethnic cleansing, of demographic extermination, and destruction of the environment…surges the need for a radical personal and social renewal that is capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty, and transparency.” (10.48f)

Can you help us move beyond meaningless religion? We hope you can and we are here to assist that process, for this is what the people of God have always been striving for.


Please note: This article is an exclusive excerpt from Matthew Fox’s new book, Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion (South Orange, NJ: LevelFiveMedia, 2013). Reprinted with permission of LevelFiveMedia, all rights reserved. This selection comes from Chapter Two, “Why Religion is in Decline: Wisdom from Rabbi Heschel” (pp. 31-41).



4 thoughts on “A Religion of Compassion: A Letter to Pope Francis

  1. I am a progressive who respects conservative values. I graduated from a Franciscan High School. Pope Francis’ simple approach to everything and his service to others should be emulated. He could bring back people to the church.

  2. You have severe criticism for obedience, but Jesus was pure obedience to his Father. He repeatedly said that he came to do the will of his father. Not all obedience is bad.

  3. Another thought…It is true that the Catholic Church states its core foundational beliefs in a creed, but it takes a book to unpack the living out of those beliefs in The Cathechism of the Catholic Church, and it takes the explanations of the priests and deacons in the pulpits, the teachers in the classrooms, and and parents in the homes to make the faith lively and enlivening for Catholics young and old. This is the realm where the Holy Spirit can be most active, not in the beliefs that have been handed down from Jesus’ own disciples.

    Many protestant denominations have no creeds and they believe in the right of each person to follow the soirit in his or her own life. This puts the protestant in the untenable position of believing that the Holy Spirit tells them one thing and tells their neighbor the opposite thing and they are both true because the Spirit was “leading” each of them. Surely, you would not wish this on a Church that is Universal?