Page 1 of 2 Pope applies universal salve to Middle East
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.