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Theologian of the Papal Household

His study has a view of a small courtyard where the papal guillotine once stood, and where a pillar likely used for the flogging of heretics and criminals can still be seen. The corridor leading from his office is lined with Roman tombstones, and the Swiss Guard are omnipresent with full regalia and halberds. Once known as the Master of the Sacred Palace, the Theologian of the Papal Household has four large paintings in his room each depicting miniature portraits of his nearly 100 predecessors (all Dominicans), starting with St. Dominic himself.

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, Theologian of the Papal Household

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP was appointed in December of 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI, and is just beginning his fifth of a five-year term of office. A Polish Dominican born and raised in London, he describes himself as a true “prisoner of the Vatican”, albeit in a gilded cage. Outspoken, jovial, and unafraid to tell it how it is, Fr. Giertych shared with the lay centre residents his thoughts on Thomas, on theology and philosophy, the vocation of the laity, the challenge of contemporary religious life, contemporary challenges arising from the “crisis of 1968” (not Vatican II, note) including relativism, and the practical life of a Vatican officer.

One might be inclined to ask, “Why does the pope need a theologian?” especially a pope like Benedict, the first theologian to be elected pope in a couple centuries. Traditionally, there were three duties ascribed to the office: Offering theological instruction to the papal court (back when most of the court were not monsignori with doctorates in theology, philosophy, or canon law), reviewing any theological books published in Rome, and vetting the papal addresses (especially important at a time when most popes were politicians, warriors, or, worse, nobility).

Now, this means reviewing the drafts of papal allocutions drafted by the staff of Vatican speech writers, though he is neither the first nor the last word on the matter. And, Fr. Wojtech points out, his role is to examine theological content and look for phrases that could be misunderstood, especially by mass media – not to judge the prudence of an address (questions around Regensburg were raised). The most interesting papal addresses are the ones he does not see – those that the pope prepares personally: in Benedict’s case, his encyclicals, major homilies, and annual advent address to the Roman Curia. Given how much is written for the pope, it is like having a graduate seminar with Professor Ratzinger almost every day – even if the personal meetings are less often.

Occasionally the various dicasteries in the curia ask him for theological input on a document, and he serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In one of the oldest continuously operating bureaucracies on the planet, he’s one man serving in an office consisting of only himself. It can be hard to tell what effect his work is having without the constant interaction of peers. This touches on one of the challenges for a friar used to life in community, used to working and living in constant contact and consultation with other people, now working in a more solitary position.

He did get invited to lunch with the pope, once. It is fairly common knowledge that Pope Benedict normally prefers to eat alone or with the sisters who prepare his meals – understandable for an introvert in an intensely public office! However, when a film crew came in to film a “day in the life of the pope”  for international TV consumption, it happened that the Holy Father would be seen having a ‘working lunch’ with three members of the papal family, including, as it happens, Fr. Giertych. (“A great, open conversation. We three had wine, while the pope had juice”) As it was viewed around the world, some cardinals expressed how lucky our Friar Preacher was – even they had never had lunch with the pope!

“Never mix theology and philosophy, because philosophy always wins.” Despite the irony of such a statement from a Thomist, or perhaps because of it, this comment alone sparked a conversation that continued with some of us well after Fr. Wojciech left for the evening. While philosophy – in the broad sense of all the ‘sciences’ and other disciplines – can serve the church and our study of theology, they should never be confused as if they are theology, or as if the revelation of the Word should be judged according to the criterion of philosophy, politics, or social sciences. When this happens you end up getting the problems that, for him, have stemmed especially from 1968, and include the identification of the faith with one political party (‘as a good Catholic you must vote for candidate X or party Y’), the revision of the life of faith to fit in with what people expect from other fields, and end up with relativism (‘there may be a Truth, but we can’t know the Truth, so you have your truth and I have my truth’).

The conversation got really interesting as we delved into the vocation, identity, and relationships of the laity, clergy, and religious. Religious should be visible in the world, and laity should be “discreet” (leaven in the world, to use another phrase) – and we have had trouble with religious being more like laity and laity being more like religious. Specifcally, he noted some religious orders without habits of any kind (“it doesn’t matter what kind: a modern habit or a medieval habit or a 19th century habit”) living in apartments where you can hardly find them, or some of the lay movements whose first order of business seems to be deciding what kind of habit to design – and the more medieval the better!

When I asked about lay people serving in ministry positions, his response was about people wanting to be the lector all the time, or spend all their time helping at the church because something is amiss in their real life or they do not understand that the primary lay ministry is in the world, not collecting money at mass or something, “don’t spend your life holding on to the sacristy door”. But what about lay people serving the church in a paid, full time manner? Even the Roman curia has lay ministers in its employ?

“Well, of course the church will always need administrative personnel, computer technicians, finance experts, people to manage the facilities – especially in places where the church is burdened with such institutions as schools and hospitals”. Pastors should not be “running the plant”, but should be engaged in sacramental and pastoral ministry. But even this was more about ‘secular’ jobs that one could do for the church or for another entity, not so much ecclesial vocations; we tried a different track: We are here in Rome, studying at pontifical universities, to get ecclesiastical degrees – what would he expect for us to do with them?

“We have a saying in Poland: man cannot live on theology alone!” As a lay person you should be thinking of making a living, to support a family, you cannot do this with a theology degree. You cannot come from a degree and demand a job from the bishop – he may not have the money. [Can you imagine anyone demanding a job from a bishop???] We need the people (mentioned above) to be theologically trained, but it should be a secondary to your primary education. He shared his experience fromPoland, where a degree is a civil, legal contract – maybe in that system there is a “demand” to be employed in the field. But he wondered most people studying in Poland for theology degrees should have instead been studying harder subjects like medicine or law, but admitted that each country is different: “We have 100 friars living at the monastery in Krakow, 14 masses a day, confessions with two-hour waiting lines” and no experience of a non-ordained person devoting their life to the church outside of a religious community.

 “I’d rather see thirty ‘normal’ people give one hour a week, than to pay one person for thirty hours a week, if that person does not have the best formation…” But, he admits he may be wrong as he quoted the Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar, who wrote after being dragged to Rome to be questioned in the 1950’s, wrote in his journals “I may be getting the answers wrong, but these are real questions – and that’s what enervates these people here in Rome!” He was asking questions about the laity and ministry and looking to scripture and the patristic sources for answers. We have to keep asking these real questions, even if it takes time to get the right answers; that is better than ignoring the problems!


Hebrew Bible, Human Rights, and Interreligious Dialogue

 The second Oasis in the City event hosted at the Lay Centre this year featured a presentation by Rabbi Jack Bemporad on the topic The Hebrew Bible, Human Rights, and Interreligious Dialogue. Among his 30 years of experience in international interreligious work, Rabbi Bemporad is the founder and director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Englewood, NJ, and has been a visiting professor of Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical Angelicum University for 13 years. He has been invited by the Holy See to speak on matters of Jewish-Catholic relations, and met on several occasions with Pope John Paul II personally.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad

During his comments to the Lay Centre residents and community guests, one of the points Rabbi Bemporad raised was the tremendous work of the Catholic Church through Vatican II and especially the efforts of Pope John Paul II with respect to the Jewish community and the relationship of the two religions. Despite the wealth of documents from the Church, he said, especially the USCCB document, God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation on Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching, the international Jewish community has yet to examine its own long-standing description of Christ and Christianity at the same level.

The Hebrew Bible is primarily an account of monotheism directed at those who are not yet monotheists. Further, the revelation of monotheism is integral and necessary for a truly peaceful vision of the world and for the development of the concept of human rights.

“One God implies the possibility of a world of peace and justice. As long as there exists the battle between the gods and the plurality of gods as embodying separate forces of nature, then there is no sense of a world at peace. One God implies one world and one universal goal of justice and peace embodying the greatest possible realization for each individual.”

Six key themes or aspects of the Biblical message highlight the origination of human rights in the Hebrew Bible:

Equality in the Bible does not refer primarily to those of the same rank or class, but indicates a positive action of bringing up those who are weaker than oneself (widow, orphan, stranger, the poor and the slave).

The holy and ethical are inseparable. The prophetic tradition, with Amos as the first clear example, claim that social injustice –not simply idolatry or non-orthodox worship – will bring about national ruination. The value and destiny of a nation is dependent on how it treats its most vulnerable members. This social concern for the vulnerable can be traced back to Israel’s enslavement in Egypt.

The Biblical condern for the stranger and sojourner is essential. Love your fellow human being – not “as yourself” as is often translated – but “because he is like you”. There is but one law for you and for the stranger – a concept still foreign to most nations today!

Sabbath as an institution, which allows even the slave and the stranger to rest and be master of their own time for at least one day a week. By extension, the sabbatical year and the Jubilee year remind us that we are not owners of the land or of property, but stewards only. Poverty and wealth alike are only temporary.

A king is subservient to the law, not the law unto himself. The messianic king will be unlike all other kings, rather than to make war, he will make peace.

Finally, two elements that separate Judaism from the black-and-white view of “our religion is the true one, and all others are totally false and therefore evil”: First, the establishment of the Noachide as a status that taught that one did not have to be an Israelite to be saved. Second, the Tosephta enunciated that “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” an idea now nearly universally accepted in Judaism.

The questions of interreligious dialogue, and our common work in support of human rights, remain: “How can I be true to my faith without being false to yours?” and “What is the place of the other religions I our own self-understanding?”

In the States, according to Rabbi Bemporad, it was the civil rights movement that joined Jews and various Christians to working together, and so we must continue to dialogue to discover the “common moral and ethical elements that are constitutive of our religions and try to unite on a common ethic independent of our theological perspectives.”

Philo of Alexandria

Today, I completed my first course at the Angelicum, exam and all. Granted, it’s only a credit and a half, but not bad for the first week of classes.

It has been 12 years since David Burrell’s survey of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, so I’m a bit rusty when it comes to middle-Platonist Jewish philosophers. Thankfully, there’s really only one.

Philo of Alexandria is a fascinating person. In attempting to synthesize his Jewish faith with the Greek philosophy in which he was proficient, he had a remarkable influence on the early Church Fathers – and virtually none on Judaism until the late medieval era. He was a Hellenized Jew in Alexandria, of nearly the last generation of Ancient Judaism, before the destruction of the Temple and the birth of both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism from the ashes.

Twenty-five years older than Jesus, and dying just a few years after Christ, his work probably even influenced some of the Gospels. John’s prologue owes at least a little to the concept of the Word (the Logos) present in Philo. He even has a type of Trinity – though not completely – of God, Logos, and Powers. With Philo, the transcendent, inscrutable God is knowable only through the Son (the Logos), and the dynamies/powers of mercy and justice. “You can only come to the Father through the Son” sound familiar?

He’s also known for his allegorical interpretation of scripture, especially Genesis and the creation story, wherein man=our mental capacity and spiritual self, and woman=our sensory capacity and physical self, so that when man and woman cleave together to become one flesh, it really does mean one person – combining our intellect and sense-perception, our spiritual and our material aspects, to be the human-kind we know.

Probably one of his biggest contributions is in the uniting of the religious side of Platonism with Biblical faith, bringing the idea of a totally transcendent “unmoved mover” into the same conversation as the very personal and immanent God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Totaliter aliter and Emmanuel, all in one divine bundle.

No wonder it feels like all the great ideas have already been thought!

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