Letters to Pope Francis by Matthew Fox
Matthew Fox in his own unique style has written a series of letters to the new Pope for his own eyes. Siding with the newly elected Pope Francis on many issues, Matthew is quick to push hard on issues of related to marriage and celibacy, liberation theology, and creation spirituality, which is much of his own making. I’m not at all familiar with Fox’s prior work, but I think there are some good questions in this book alongside some rather unorthodox and unusual meanderings. The tenor of the book is somewhat directed against the Church as continuing along the same line as before and more focused on bringing together concretely the ideals and practices of justice and compassion, the hallmark found in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In other words, for Fox, he seems to be asking, “Pope Francis, are you going to live up to the radical affection for issues of poverty and compassion that you are named for, or are you going to get wrangled in the present bureaucracy over issues of sexual ethics, the priesthood, and stamping out outlying theologies (liberation)?” Fox is at his best when addressing issues surrounding married clergy coming back to the ministry and celibacy.
Fox writes, “This is not about putting up a lot of money to support their wives or children or grandchildren. It is about a part-time ministry; they have all proven they can survive without priestly stipends so they need not make pecuniary demands. But many of them are ready and able to minister anew and to bring the wisdom they have learned from working and living in the world with them” (132-132). Fox goes onto point out that none of Jesus’ followers were sworn to celibacy and that the spreading of the gospel by married priests could really bring about a more holistic health for the church overall. There is little to no biblical warrant for a direct explicit command that priests should become celibate. We find many examples of men who were single ministering the masses, yet this does not mean that celibacy is a more godly endeavor. Fox is right to challenge the ruling to eliminate former priests who marry from coming back to the priesthood. It’s fundamentally not about what is good for this or that particular priest but about how a man of God can faithfully serve the people, and marriage gives a man even more wisdom in teaching others.
While Matthew is right to point out the deficiencies surrounding the priesthood and marriage, he is dead wrong about sexual ethics and pelvic morality. Not even the fact that I strongly disagree with his positive stance toward ordaining homosexual priests, but in his comments about the rosy colored lens he has toward humanity. Fox writes, “Just shut up about sex. People are mature and adult enough to figure out values about responsible sexuality – and that is what is at stake here – without the constant interventions and often zealous ranting about sexual issues from a so-called celibate hierarchy” (132). Now, I agree that an overpreoccupation on these issues from a celibate clergy has muddied the waters for good discussion, but Fox’s idea that people can figure out sexuality for themselves runs against the grain of the church entirely. If sexuality is a matter of preference or how we feel then it would be stepping over the line to make a statement against beastiality or any other perversion. The reason why there are still no homosexual practicing priests is that the church is still trying to read the Bible faithfully and taking into account the way God intended human beings to live. The church would rather speak authoritatively about sexual ethics than allow fallen and broken individuals to decide for themselves.
I think Matthew’s insistence that Pope Francis be fully engaged on issues of poverty and economic justice are worth his strong words. Fox points to Francis’ encouraging words about Argentinian priests by saying, “I like how you endorse the “shantytown priests” working in Argentina and recognize how they are actually causing transformation within the ecclesial community” (71). Not every priest on the fringes of poor communities is a raving Marxist or left-leaning politician, but it seems like the prior papacies have indicated such. Matthew sees Francis’s endorsement of these priests as favorable because they are the ones getting their fingers dirty with the real hardships of the people, rather than just preaching on Sunday and not having a care for the dregs of society. It’s not enough to say you know your neighbor truly by saying ‘Hi’ on your way to work, but rather loving your neighbor means knowing his needs and applying your faith in very practical ways to these concerns. The problem with liberation theology and its thinkers is not the application of justice to economic hardship but its over emphasis on making orthopraxy the key to the church rather than combining it with a robust orthodoxy. Matthew is right to point out the Pope’s huge heart for the poor as key to the faith that was handed down.
Overall, you don’t want to get your orthodoxy at the foot of Matthew’s teaching, but you will find some very good questions and avenues of thought here. He is right to challenge the Pope to maintain the plight of St. Francis is his love for the poor, his plight for justice both economically and physically, and his pointing out the wrong headedness of some points about the priesthood. Be careful as you read this book but also be aware that you will learn some things as well.
Thanks to Speak Easy and Level Five Media for the free copy of this book in exchange for review.