August 24, 2018

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Sinners can become saints, but the corrupt cannot

“David was a saint. He was a sinner. A sinner, and he became a saint. Solomon was rejected because he was corrupt. Someone who is corrupt cannot become a saint. And one becomes corrupt by following the path of weakness of the heart.”
(Pope Francis, homily on Feb. 8, 2018)

Pope Francis is famous for making statements, often “off the cuff,” that can seem to conflict with the way we ordinarily think of things. One such statement was made during his homily at morning Mass at his residence, the Casa Santa Marta, last February.

Speaking about corruption, a theme he frequently addresses, the Holy Father said, “Someone who is corrupt cannot become a saint.”

To illustrate this point, he compared the Old Testament’s King David to his son Solomon. David was a sinner who repented, and is now considered a saint. Paradoxically, Solomon, who appeared to live a “balanced” life as a wise and righteous man “turned away from the Lord” to follow other gods.

How is it that a great sinner like David can be considered a saint whereas a renowned, even revered, leader like his son Solomon, who the pope says was “praised throughout the world,” can distance himself from the Lord?

According to Pope Francis, the answer is weakness of the heart. “When the heart begins to weaken,” the pope says, “it is not like a situation of sin. You commit a sin and you realize it immediately. ‘I have committed this sin’ [you tell yourself]; it’s clear. Weakness of the heart is a slow journey that slides along step by step, step by step. Solomon, adorned in his glory, in his fame, began to take this road.”

Paradoxically, the pope continues, “the clarity of a sin is better than weakness of the heart. The great king Solomon wound up corrupted, tranquilly corrupt, because his heart was weakened.”

Corruption is everywhere and in every walk of life. Politicians like Solomon, who start out wanting to do what is best for their people, can gradually slide along step by step into weakness of heart. The same can be true for teachers and lawyers, for priests and bishops. They can start out wanting to make a difference, but over time they can become weary, disillusioned and faint of heart. They can become corrupt.

A corrupt religious leader lacks zeal for the things of God. A corrupt politician no longer cares for the common good of the people he or she serves. A corrupt business leader cheats his or her customers or suppliers. A corrupt soldier or police officer fails to “protect and serve” and, instead, places her or his own interest above the needs of the community or nation.

Corruption erodes the fabric of society and contributes to the overall decline of the civilized world. As Pope Francis has repeatedly observed, families can become corrupt too—as in the case of families ensconced in a life of organized crime.

Better to be a sinner who repents than a weak-hearted person who is in denial about his or her complicity with evil, the pope says. “If we do not oppose evil, we feed it tacitly. It is necessary to intervene where evil spreads because evil spreads where there are no daring Christians who oppose evil with good.” Corruption gradually prevents us from recognizing the presence of evil and reaching out to oppose it with good.

“It is not enough not to hate,” the pope teaches. “It is necessary to forgive. It is not enough not to have a grudge; we must pray for our enemies. It is not enough to not speak badly about others; we must intervene and stop it when we hear someone speaking badly about another.”

Corruption gradually robs us of the courage and strength we need to love God and our neighbor wholeheartedly. It weakens our resolve and blinds us to the truth about ourselves and our world.

What is the solution, the way to safeguard our souls from corruption? “Vigilance!” Pope Francis says. “Guard your heart at all times. How is my heart doing? How is my relationship with the Lord? Enjoy the beauty and the joy of fidelity, and, every day, be careful about what is happening in your heart.”

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

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