Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Pope Franics is Right and His Critics Are Wrong

Jesus' attitude is striking: we do not hear the words of scorn, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, which are an invitation to conversation. "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." Ah! Brothers and Sisters, God's face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God's patience, the patience He has with each one of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, patience with us, He understands us, He waits for us, He does not tire of forgiving us if we are able to return to Him with a contrite heart. "Great is God's mercy," says the Psalm.
— Pope Francis, Angelus on March 17, 2013
I believe that Pope Francis is one of the holiest men to ever sit in the Chair of Peter. His message and actions reflect the love and mercy of Christ and the Gospel more closely than we have seen from any pope in the last 150 years. This is not to disparage any of our recent popes in any way. We have been greatly blessed with true men of God in the Chair of Peter during the last couple of centuries as is evidenced by the fact that the majority of them are either canonized saints or up for sainthood.

But when it comes to Pope Francis, love him or hate him, everyone agrees that we have never seen a pope like him. He refuses to live in the Papal apartment apart from everyone else. He chooses instead to live in the Vatican guesthouse. He says Mass almost every morning in a small chapel in which anyone can attend. He almost gives heart attacks to his security people by regularly going right into the crowds among the people. He will personally call people on the phone in response to a question or message he has received from them. He (gasp!) refuses to wear the red shoes. He rides around Vatican City in a tiny Ford Focus, very unlike his predecessors.


Many "religious" people find these habits annoying and actually "disrespectful" to the office of the Papacy.  But it is the way in which the Pope presents the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world that sends the self-appointed religious elite into fits of real anger and rage, condemning the Holy Father as an agent of Satan himself.

So what is it that so enrages the religious elite of our day?  Like Jesus Christ Himself, Pope Francis refuses to condemn the sinners of the world. In fact, again like Jesus Christ, he spiritually and literally embraces sinners.  We see this constantly in his writings, and most specifically in his latest apostolic exhortation, AMORIS LÆTITIA, which means "The Joy of Love."

Not since Humanae Vitae have we seen such an outcry of condemnation against the words of the Pope and the Pope himself.  Unlike 50 years ago when HV was released, today anyone with an internet connection can add their own voice to the far too often vulgar and very unChristian reaction to Pope Francis, and as a result, the venom and hatred directed towards this pope by those who call themselves Catholic is unlike anything we have ever witnessed before.

The reaction to Amoris Laetitia and Chapter 8 in particular is a great indication many people do not understand the true meaning of the Gospel and God's saving mercy.

The chapter that seems to enrage the self-appointed religious elite the most is Chapter 8, entitled "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness." The three main words in this title, "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating" are the theme of Pope Francis' papacy. 

Pope Francis does not see Christianity as a hit-and-run proposition - point out sin and then get the hell out, leaving people to fend for themselves - but on the contrary, to be a Christian is to go out among the people with the love of Jesus Christ, and to stay with them and walk with them on their spiritual journey to repentance and reconciliation with God.

At the very beginning of the exhortation, Pope Francis warns us that:
[E]veryone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight. It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for “families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity”.  [Paragraph 7]
Pope Francis does know his audience.  An example of this is an article from Catholic World Report entitled, "Five Serious Problems with Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia." which contains the following criticism of AL:
But though the text says many true and beautiful things about “love in the family,” Chapter 8 (entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) allows—and seems intentionally so—for interpretations that pose serious problems for Catholic faith and practice.
I focus here on five such problems:
1) The way it presents the role that mitigated culpability should play in pastoral care
2) Its inconsistent notion of “not judging” others
3) Its account of the role of conscience in acquitting persons in objectively sinful situations
4) Its treatment of moral absolutes as “rules” articulating the demands of an “ideal” rather than binding moral duties on everyone in every situation.
5) Its inconsistency with the teaching of Trent
There is no doubt in my mind that the author of this article and all of the thousands of other Catholics who have condemned Pope Francis would also condemn Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry.  

Pope Francis wrote in this chapter, "Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital."  It is very important to understand this statement in order to understand the message of Pope Francis.

What is the purpose of  field hospital?  Wikipedia tells us that:
A field hospital is a small mobile medical unit, or mini hospital, that temporarily takes care of casualties on-site before they can be safely transported to more permanent hospital facilities
Bishop Robert Baron gave an excellent explanation as follows:
No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding. What we find today, the Pope is implying, are millions of people who are, in the spiritual sense, gravely wounded. They are alienated from God, stuck in the no-man’s land of moral relativism, adrift with no sense of direction, and tempted by every form of errant desire. They require, therefore, not the fine points of moral doctrine, but basic healing. Perhaps this explains why the Church’s altogether valid teachings on ethics are so often met with incomprehension or hostility: far more elemental instruction is required.
A field hospital in the American Civil War
So many critics of Pope Francis seem to think that the spiritually wounded among us are basically faking it, that they aren't wounded at all but merely refusing to obey God and freely choosing to go about their wicked ways.  The religious elite do not see spiritually wounded people in desperate need of mercy and forgiveness.  The religious elite see only hardened, evil sinners who refuse to abide by the rules and who must be condemned.

Pope Francis tries to constantly remind us that God does not wish to condemn anyone, but on the contrary, He wants all to come to His Saving Grace.  A recent reading from Daily Mass is just one example of God's great love for mankind.  From the book of Micah:
Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency
,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt
?
You will cast into the depths of the sea
all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.
As Jesus Christ Himself told us: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."  (John 3:17)  

This is the message which Pope Francis is taking to the world.  Unlike his critics, when Pope Francis looks at our poor, sick world he does not see sinners worthy of condemnation, but wounded people in desperate need of compassion and forgiveness.   

As the title of Chapter 8 states, our job as representatives of Jesus Christ is not to condemn, but to "accompany, discern and integrate."  We can't walk up to a seriously injured person and tell him that he needs to "shape up or ship out."  The spiritually wounded first of all need to understand that God is not their enemy but a loving Father who wants them to shower down His love, compassion and mercy upon them.  They will never listen if all they hear are words of condemnation and rejection.

Once the spiritually wounded understand that God is not their enemy, and that we as representatives of God are not their enemy, then we can begin to show them the spiritual danger they are in, and that their way of life is never going to give them the happiness they seek.  But this must be done with love and compassion and also acknowledging where they do have it right. And just as physical healing takes time, spiritual healing also takes time and is a process.  It doesn't happen all at once.  

Here is an example from Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia:  
The Fathers also considered the specific situation of a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation, noting that “when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials, they can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage”.  [Paragraph 293]
Pope Francis makes it very clear here that the goal is to bring people in "irregular situations" into a full sacramental marriage. But we have to walk with people at their own pace. Certainly that is how God treats each one of us in our spiritual journey. Don't we owe that to each other?  Not according to many who consider themselves religious authorities.  

Pope Francis shows the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in the next Paragraph 294:
“The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations”.  In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love.
We know that there is “a continual increase in the number of those who, after having lived together for a long period, request the celebration of marriage in Church. Simply to live together is often a choice based on a general attitude opposed to anything institutional or definitive; it can also be done while awaiting more security in life (a steady job and steady income). In some countries, de facto unions are very numerous, not only because of a rejection of values concerning the family and matrimony, but primarily because celebrating a marriage is considered too expensive in the social circumstances. As a result, material poverty drives people into de facto unions”.  
Whatever the case, “all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly”. That is how Jesus treated the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:1-26): he addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel.  
Pope Francis makes it abundantly clear that his goal is to bring people into full obedience to God's law. Yet, both laity and clerics alike condemn the Holy Father, accusing him of trying to do away with God's law and ignoring the teaching of the Church. These are the same accusations made against Jesus Christ when He walked the earth.

In Paragraph 296 of the AL, Pope Francis continues with the theme of “avoid[ing] judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations”. Instead, we should mirror the love and mercy of Jesus Christ by being “attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”:
The Synod addressed various situations of weakness or imperfection. Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement… The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous”.  Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”.
Pope Francis makes it clear that he believes everyone needs to obey the law of God.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, and as one who wishes to emulate Jesus Christ, Pope Francis knows that condemnation will never bring anyone to Christ.  We must show the same love and compassion to others which Christ showed in His earthly ministry and which we ourselves have received from Him.  

Paragraph 297 elaborates further on this theme:
It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.
Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest. As for the way of dealing with different “irregular” situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The religious elite of Jesus' time, and every other time in human history, tend to see following God as a set of rules. The religious elite believe that if you do the right thing, you will receive your reward. Do the wrong thing and you will be condemned. Those who refuse to follow the rules are sinners and they must be treated as outcasts until they repent. For extreme fundamentalists, such as we see in Islamic fundamentalists, they demand on-the-spot repentance, or you will quite literally be killed. And often they don't allow for any kind of repentance. Your don't conform to the rules, you don't deserve to live.

Jesus Christ refused to condemn anyone, with the exception of the religious elite of His time, just because they didn't measure up to a certain standard. We see this over and over again, as with the Samaritan woman at the well as Pope Francis pointed out. We see it in the woman taken in adultery, where Christ plainly stated, "I do not condemn you." Fundamentalists love to point out that Christ also told her, "sin no more." They forget that if Christ had followed the law of the religious elite of his day, he would not have given her a chance to repent but would have immediately stoned her.

I believe that the reason so many find Francis confusing at best and evil at worst is because all they know is rules. Everything is black and white to them.  They believe that to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to live in conformity with a laundry list of rules.  They don't understand that the rules are not the end goal, but that the rules are the means to the end goal, which is twofold: Love of God and love of neighbor. If following the rules is your goal, then you have completely missed the message of Jesus Christ.

To me, the single greatest example of Christ's message of love and forgiveness was when He hung dying on the cross with His Precious Blood literally draining out of his body. He looked down on those who were unjustly crucifying Him, and He cried out to the Father, "Forgive them for they know not what they do."

That is the message of Pope Francis. "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Pope Francis sees the lost of the world today as the sheep separated from the 99 other or as the prodigal son lost and alone in his sin.

Just as Jesus said He did not come to condemn the world but to save it, so the goal of Pope Francis is not to condemn the world, but to walk with them and bring them to the saving love and mercy of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis knows that people are not going to come to Christ if all they perceive is condemnation.

One of the most amazing statements ever uttered by Pope Francis is when he was asked in an interview, "Who is Jorge Bergoglio?" His response: "I am a sinner."


When Pope Francis said this, he made himself real to the rest of the world.  He does not live in an ivory tower, either figuratively or literally, somehow better than everyone else.  He is a fallen human being, just like we are.  He knows our struggles, and he does not condemn us for it.  Instead, he points us to Jesus Christ, who can make all things new.  


Do you see people in need mercy and forgiveness, or do you see only rebellious sinners who refuse to obey the rules and regulations and who, therefore, must be condemned and cast out?

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from the book of Isaiah:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
One of the reasons so many have rejected religion is because all they have ever received from religious people is condemnation.  They have never heard anyone offer to actually listen to them and talk about their lives.  They have never heard the words of the Eternal, "Let us reason together."

Well, there is one person who is saying that now, and that person is Pope Francis.  And this is not a new message, but one that originated 2000 years ago.


5 comments:

  1. Actually, it's "Barron" instead of "Baron."

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    1. Thank you. There are a few typos in this post, and I will correct them.

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  2. Another outstanding post. I would only add that so many of the detractors of the Holy Father are people who think they are missing out on all of the "fun" of sin. The attitude is one of "if I have to follow the rules, why does this sinner here get mercy". As if God is some kind of wicked taskmaster setting hoops for us to jump through in order to avoid Hell. When you get that the teachings of God through His Church are for our own benefit and that we're not missing out by not say sleeping around, are you really ready to be happy for those in irregular situations who, while not yet ready to give up a particular sin, are beginning to feel the stirrings of grace.

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    1. That is a great observation. It really does remind me of the elder "good" son who was so resentful of his prodigal brother. Instead of rejoicing that his brother had left a life of sin and come home, he went into a deep sulk. He wanted his brother to be punished. Why? As you write, he felt he had been doing all of the hard work, missing out on all the "fun"' and yet his brother was being rewarded.

      Those who rant and rave against mercy shown to sinners reveal their complete lack of understanding and compassion as to the great suffering experienced by sinners and, even more, the unbelievable depth of God's love for mankind.

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  3. I am so sorry. I have been so carried away by fear I have contributed to the persecution of this holy man. The more that I've been reflecting on what I've been through the past few years the more I fear what political and theological reactionaries will do to this man.

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