April 26, 2013

Pope Francis Has a Few Words in Support of Leisure

By MARK OPPENHEIMER

On Tuesday, “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words,” a book of conversations with the man who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, will be published in English (Putnam; $24.95). These interviews from 2010 with two journalists in Argentina yield cute facts about the new boss of the church — a favorite movie? “Babette’s Feast” — but not much interesting theology.

But one passage in the book, at first glance rather slight, ends up insinuating a radical note into the proceedings. On a close read, it seems that Pope Francis believes that we must — indeed, that God is calling us to — relax.

Responding to the question, “Do we need to rediscover the meaning of leisure?” Pope Francis replies: “Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.” In such cases, he concludes, “work ends up dehumanizing people.”

Some pages later, he derides people who think of themselves as Catholic but don’t make time for their children. This is an example, according to Pope Francis, of living “with fraud.”

Catholic social teaching is known for promoting the idea that workers deserve dignity, which includes rest. But Pope Francis seems to be saying something more: that an authentically Christian life includes a proper dose of leisure and family time. That may sound unusual coming from a man whose tradition valorizes solitude and monasticism, and whose clergy members are not permitted to take spouses or beget children.

The idea of a Catholic exalting the Sabbath sounds particularly peculiar in the American context. In the United States, Catholics were never the great proponents of Sabbatarianism, observing Sunday as a special day, for worship or rest. That was a Protestant thing.

From the moment the Puritans arrived, they began enforcing laws to reserve Sunday for churchgoing. Over time, what came to be called “blue laws” covered different activities, and varied by state. Some laws forbade hunting on Sunday, others the sale of liquor, others any commercial activity. In religious towns, cultural norms made some recreation, like sports, taboo as well. As a child being raised in a Pentecostal family, John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, wasn’t allowed to ride a bicycle on Sundays.

Over time, the official justification for the laws had changed, but it was still Protestants who pushed for them. “In the 1820s, they would say this is a time to pause to reflect on our religious obligations to God,” said David Sehat, a historian at Georgia State University. But by the 1870s, “they started using Pope Francis’ justification: a time to spend time with family, for ‘the preservation of health and the promotion of good morals,’ ” to use one jurist’s language.

And the temperance movement, which of course supported laws against Sunday liquor sales, was Protestant in character. Activists often depicted Catholic immigrants as drunkards.

Today, the laws are disappearing, relics of a time when Protestant culture was more dominant. Connecticut, for example, finally decided to permit Sunday liquor sales last year. And in the United States, Sunday has lost its sacred character. Most Christians see little conflict in going to church in the morning, then watching a football game — maybe with the family, or maybe at a sports bar — in the afternoon.

The Sabbatarian tradition is upheld, in a serious way, by some small groups of religious Protestants and, of course, by observant Jews. And, it so happens, by those who think of themselves as both Christian and Jewish. “Messianic Jews,” who believe in the divinity of Jesus but pay special attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity, are often very attached to Sabbath observance.

Sarah Posner, a staff writer for the ReligionDispatches.org Web site, recalled a conference of messianic Jews she attended last year in Ellicott City, Md. “They weren’t selling their books, CDs and DVDs on Saturday, because they didn’t want to exchange money,” Ms. Posner said. “But they were using electricity” — which traditionally observant Jews would not.

Our religiously diverse country includes those who call their weekly day off from smartphones a “secular Sabbath.” Some groups may not even have a concept of Sabbatarianism. In Islam, for example, “there’s a deep theological objection to the idea that God rested on the seventh day,” according to Marion Holmes Katz, a scholar of Islam at New York University. “The idea of God resting seems to imply God being tired. So the whole idea that you refrain from work as some sort of ritualized recapitulation or symbolic nod to the process of creation — it’s not one that has any traction in Islam.”

But in Catholicism, as Pope Francis suggests, the Sabbath actually is supposed to matter — the whole day, not just Mass. For as the catechism teaches, in Paragraph 2185, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.”

The Catholic Church has been recovering this teaching at least since 1998, when Pope John Paul II published his apostolic letter “Dies Domini.” There, he writes that “even in those countries which give legal sanction to the festive character of Sunday, changes in socioeconomic conditions have often led to profound modifications of social behavior and hence of the character of Sunday.”

Last October, about 250 bishops met in Rome for a conference on the movement called the New Evangelization, which focuses on reawakening faith in those already baptized. One of their conclusions was, “Even though there is a tension between the Christian Sunday and the secular Sunday, Sunday needs to be recovered” — in keeping, they wrote, with John Paul’s “Dies Domini.”

Of course, those who preach a relaxing Sabbath, with friends and family, are often working hardest on the day they exalt. For clergy members, the Sabbath is the busiest workday of the week. One charm of the book “Pope Francis” is how much we learn about the new pope’s pastimes, like reading the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin and listening to Verdi’s operas. One imagines that now, more than ever, Sunday is not his day for leisure reading, nor a good time to catch a showing of “Babette’s Feast.”