Friday, September 13, 2013

Pope Francis and Tertullian

In his letter to an Italian atheist that is generating controversey for.... well I really don't know, Pope Francis makes a reference which may seem kind of obscure:
Christian faith believes in this: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life to open the way to love for everyone. Therefore there is a reason, dear Dr. Scalfari, when you see the incarnation of the Son of God as the pivot of Christian faith. Tertullian wrote "caro cardo salutis", the flesh (of Christ) is the pivot of salvation. Because the incarnation, that is the fact that the Son of God has come into our flesh and has shared joy and pain, victories and defeat of our existence, up to the cry of the cross, living each event with love and in the faith of AbbĂ , shows the incredible love that God has for every man, the priceless value that he acknowledges. For this reason, each of us is called to accept the view and the choice of love made by Jesus, become a part of his way of being, thinking and acting.
Now if you are a lover of Church history, you thought the reference was kinda cool.  (It actually is.)  Yet what does it really mean? As the parenthesis hints, Pope Francis is paraphrasing the great second century Church Father Tertullian.  He is quoting from Tertullian's On the Resurrection of the Flesh, which states the following:
It would suffice to say, indeed, that there is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe while it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges

One has to remember that Tertullian was writing against the Gnostic and Docetic heretics of early Christianity, who denied that Christ was human.  To believe that Christ was a man seemed to cheapen the power of God, that it could be contained within something as lowly as flesh.  For Tertullian, God could become man because the flesh, far from worthless, was God's greatest creation.  That Christ became man gave the flesh even greater nobility.

Now anyone who has read this blog or my works at Catholic Exchange will see this as pretty standard fare.  If one wants to find a very early precursor to John Paul II's Theology of the Body, one can find it here.  Yet what is the nobility of the flesh that Tertullian speaks of?  Here is where the answer might surprise the reader:

Come, tell me what is your opinion of the flesh, when it has to contend for the name of Christ, dragged out to public view, and exposed to the hatred of all men; when it pines in prisons under the cruellest privation of light, in banishment from the world, amidst squalor, filth, and noisome food, without freedom even in sleep, for it is bound on its very pallet and mangled in its bed of straw; when at length before the public view it is racked by every kind of torture that can be devised, and when finally it is spent beneath its agonies, struggling to render its last turn for Christ by dying for Him— upon His own cross many times, not to say by still more atrocious devices of torment. Most blessed, truly, and most glorious, must be the flesh which can repay its Master Christ so vast a debt, and so completely, that the only obligation remaining due to Him is, that it should cease by death to owe Him more— all the more bound even then in gratitude, because (for ever) set free.
For Tertullian, the nobility of the flesh is to follow in Christ's actions, and most importantly, Christ's sufferings.  Christ spared nothing to reveal God to man, and guess what, we can't either.  The most important part is that if we in our flesh don't take up this cause in Christ, we will never be set free from our sins.  This gives the remark from Francis that we must "accept the view and the choice of love made by Jesus, become a part of his way of being, thinking and acting" an entirely new meaning.  Probably also fits in nicely with the overall tone of his pontificate.  Evangelize with our entire being, with our word and our example, and to do so with humility.

Pope Francis is a man, and like all men, he does some things good, and others he probably could do better.  Yet it is clear there is a pretty keen and insightful mind writing these remarks.

1 comment:

  1. [Now if you are a lover of Church history, you thought the reference was kinda cool. (It actually is.) ]

    I actually marked out a bit reading about Pope Francis not only writing to an unbeliever in this way but referencing Tertullian to do it!


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