On Pope Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has really shaken up the Catholic Church this time. He affirmed that people of good will, even if they are atheists, are close to Christ. He condemned the, er, widespread condemnation of homosexuals. He has called for the Church to more open and welcoming, which is seen by many as a hint he will relax the mandates of the Catholic Magisterium. His “stance,” a ridiculously vague term which implies his worldview, agenda, and perspective, has prompted much spilling of ink on these controversial subjects from news media and Catholic commentators. And yet he has affirmed Church teaching as well. What could be going on?

I think the commentators may be missing the point. Pope Francis wouldn’t be the first pope to install sweeping changes, but until that happens I’m going to assume that he is doing what his predecessors have done, which is teach the faith. And so far, his comments affirm what the Catholic Church has always taught, though perhaps not with so much emphasis: that humans have free will gifted to them by God, with which others should not interfere; that they are called to follow their conscience to be people of good will; and that they must treat others as they would treat themselves.

These teachings mirror, as far as I can tell from my own scriptural study, what Jesus himself taught. Remember the Good Samaritan, the woman charged with adultery, the tax collector at the temple, the centurion, and the Prodigal Son? In each of stories, Jesus chooses forgiveness over condemnation. He also identifies unlikely protagonists; namely Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and outright, confessed sinners. Most homilies/sermons I’ve heard on these scriptural passages emphasize that the humble, the lost, those seeking goodness are the ones close to God–and the spiritual authorities (the Pharisees) are outside God’s favor.

Notably, the Gospels have little good to say about the Pharisees. They constantly try to trick Jesus and get him to blaspheme against the law, they grumble about him associating with enemies of the Jews, and Jesus himself condemns them pretty stridently, calling them “hypocrites.” The reason for this, I think, is because they are overly scrupulous, a word which used to mean “overly concerned with rules.” Put simply, to be scrupulous, a person must be dedicated so much to following the letter of laws and dictates that he or she fails to accomplish the good for which those laws and dictates were instituted in the first place.

Pope Francis seems to have evoked this element of Gospel teaching in his recent statements, speeches, and interviews…and it is not surprising that he has caused a furor in doing so. The Gospel’s challenge in this regard is a very personal one, and it strikes at the core of each person’s unconscious, but deeply held, beliefs and convictions. Left to each of our own devices, I’m sure we would each live a good life according to our own perception and experience. But such is not our world: we are immersed in society, and so we contact nearly infinite other perspectives and experiences. What are we to do when another perception, or someone else’s experience, challenges our own?

This question is not a Catholic one; it is a universal one. Who among the people of the earth today has never been shamed out of an opinion by someone else’s story, or never had a rival in love, or cause for jealousy, or has violated his or her own values? These essential human conflicts we can resolve in one of three ways: first, we can ignore the conflict by becoming a hermit–either separate from the world, or existing within it yet unwilling to challenge our fellows; second, we can identify one rigid set of values to give our interactions structure, and never change them no matter what additional experience we receive; third, we can interact dynamically with our world, seeking understanding of others, though we are aware that we might hurt them. The third option requires love, humility, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, and it is the Catholic answer, for the Gospel teaches it.

With much distinguished scholarship on sin, objective evil, and the elements of a good life, the Catholic Church has (probably inadvertently) created the elements of a rigid set of values, for those who choose the ease of such a moral compass. Yet other members of the Church (and our society) seem to withdraw from the difficulty of true compassion and generosity, preferring a simpler course of benevolently accepting all experiences–and, along the way, granting themselves license to ignore the idea of “true values” in favor of no values.

I don’t mean to generalize here. I realize that few, if any, people live their lives entirely on one side of the spectrum or another. In truth, I suspect that each of us has beliefs about which we are scrupulous, and others which we choose not to engage. But Pope Francis seems to be guiding Catholics toward the third way, reminding them that they have a responsibility to dynamically engage the world, seeking to love and care for all people–even (or perhaps especially) for those who are most offensive and pharisaical to them. Whatever sins we abhor in our neighbor, remember Jesus calls us foremost to love them anyway.

And should we be tempted to pass judgment when dynamically engaged, I submit that we remember (whether we are progressive or traditional Catholics, for all that we imperfectly know of God’s perspective from the Bible and Church teaching, and no matter the reach of our perspective which is necessarily limited by the tiny fraction of humans we happen to know) that in the end we surely must admit that cannot know the heart of God (as the bible reminds us though Isaiah and Christ himself).

So let us not commit the sin of the Pharisees, and use our religion to condemn and degrade others, either by accusing them of a lack of love or by passing judgement on them for failing to sufficiently respect the rules. Let us not pridefully arrogate God’s province of salvation and condemnation to our imperfect human understanding. Let us remember Jesus’ warning about the child and the millstone, and remember that when we fail to love and be compassionate for someone who appears to us as sinful, and then treat them with disdain and unlove, then we may very well be the agent of their stumbling in their relationship with God.

I believe that is the message of Pope Francis. It can be boiled down to love your neighbor, whether he/she is scrupulous or progressive, tends toward latin mass or the vernacular, is gay, or has had an abortion, or is divorced. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean condoning what they do, but there’s a catch here. If one perceives a sin in someone else, couching a correction (or condemnation) in loving words is not the same thing as loving them. In fact, it is usually the opposite. And anyway, we are pretty specifically told to focus on our own sins, which–if we presume to pretend that we’re better than others morally–may trend toward the deadly.

As far as how to love our neighbor, I suppose our best teacher is Jesus, who wants us to feed, clothe, care for, and visit in prison our neighbors, in metaphorical ways as well as material. Pope Francis, bless him, provides us an excellent example of this, and the crowing or panicked pundits of his papacy only indicate that we certainly need both his reminder to love, and his leadership.

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