July 27, 2018

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Critics of Pope Francis aren’t wrong—or right

Pope Francis has many critics. Some think he goes too far. Others say he doesn’t go far enough. In a way, they’re both right. And, of course, they’re both wrong.

There’s no question that Pope Francis has taken the teaching of his predecessors and applied it to contemporary challenges facing the Church and society.

Immigration, the environment and the needs of the poor and vulnerable are obvious examples. Nothing the current pope has said about these issues is new, but he has given Church teaching a new urgency and an increased visibility through his preaching and his presence among those who have been marginalized by contemporary political, economic and cultural forces.

On matters of sexuality, the pope has been especially controversial. Without making any substantive changes in Church teaching, he has adopted what might be called a more pastoral approach, opening his arms to those whose lifestyles are at odds with the more traditional practices sanctioned by the Church.

“Who am I to judge?” was the pope’s response to a reporter’s question about homosexuality quoted out of context. Not unlike our Lord’s response to the woman caught in adultery, the pope was not sanctioning behavior that is immoral. He was attempting to disarm his questioner and to illustrate God’s love and mercy for all of us—saints and sinners alike.

Of course, those who expected a strict repetition of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality were disappointed—even angry. And those who cheered the pope’s response as a sign that he would change Church teaching were eventually disappointed—even angry.

There are many other examples of this kind of dialectic, including the infamous footnote regarding divorced and remarried couples receiving the Eucharist in chapter eight of this pope’s apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“On Love in the Family”): “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. … I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Why is this footnote controversial? Because read in a certain way it can suggest that couples who are divorced and remarried without the Church’s blessing should be given access to the Eucharist.

Perhaps Pope Francis’ most significant, controversial teaching can be found in his most recent apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). Here the pope makes his position perfectly clear: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection” (#101).

What is controversial about this statement? The pope’s critics say that he has established a “moral equivalency” between the always evil crime of abortion and other moral issues. And of course, the critics are right. “Equally sacred” is not an ambiguous statement. Pope Francis refuses to grant even hypothetically the possibility that disciples of Jesus Christ can pick and choose which moral issues they will support or oppose. We cannot be “pro-life” and “anti-immigrant” any more than we can be for protecting the environment, but indifferent to the plight of the poor and marginalized.

The teaching of Pope Francis sounds remarkably like the teaching of Jesus Christ. As the pope writes in “Gaudete et Exsultate”: “Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for ‘whoever would save his life will lose it’ ” (Mt 16:25; #90).

Pope Francis’ teaching challenges both his critics and his supporters to take the Beatitudes and the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:31–46) seriously.

“For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease” (#99), the pope says.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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