Francis takes aim at Jonah for rigidity—and misses again.
At Mass on Tuesday, Pope Francis took off on yet another flight of rigidity fancy. Preaching on Jonah’s grumbling efforts to prophesy to the Ninevites, the Pope identified Jonah as the epitome of rigidity—the antihero of all those who fail to appreciate God’s mercy. But the Holy Father has once again misapplied his consistently dubious point.
It is true that Jonah was not as spiritually mature as he should have been. He did not want to be made a laughingstock by God, obeying the command to announce that Nineveh would be destroyed only to have God let the Ninevites off the hook—just as the prophet had suspected all along! Indeed, Jonah made it perfectly clear that he had no objection to God’s mercy; he just did not wish to look like a fool:
I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy, and that you repent of evil. [Jon 4:2-3]
Of course, the truth underlying the Book of Jonah is not that God enjoys making His servants look like fools, but that He is perfectly content that both He and His servants should look like fools if this will bring sinners to repentance. The error of Jonah is not that he fails to recognize the mercy of God, but that, in view of God’s mercy, he does not want to run the risk to his reputation entailed in making a big point of the perils of sin.
Although Pope Francis mentioned repentance in the homily, he missed the point, which is the story’s focus on what precipitated that repentance. The lesson of Jonah is not that we should avoid identifying, condemning, and warning about punishment for sin—the very things which this pope continually associates with “rigidity”. The lesson is that the reason for identifying, condemning and warning about the consequences of sin is to enable others to avoid those consequences through repentance and conversion.
I have never met one of these “strawman” Catholics who, deeply committed to the truth themselves, hope never to see the conversion of those who are not. But I have met a great many Catholics (and countless others) who are reluctant to identify, condemn, and warn of punishment for sin. Yet the Book of Jonah teaches us that repentance is typically impossible unless people are willing to risk their comfort to do just that.
In our day especially, this problem is so serious that it seems to afflict Pope Francis himself. It is quite true that this was Jonah’s problem as well. But the issue is not rigidity. It is what Catholics call the problem of human respect.
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