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Is there a “morality gap” in the way Pope Francis presents his favorite themes?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 07, 2017

I find myself wondering whether Pope Francis does not sometimes undermine his own favorite themes, such as Divine mercy and Christian unity, by his obvious reluctance to articulate their significant moral character. I consider this an important question because the Pope’s key themes are strikingly beautiful, yet without adverting clearly to the moral demands of new life in Christ, Catholic solidarity can be reduced to lip service.

Let me refer to two of yesterday’s news stories to explain what I mean. In the first, we find Francis preaching once again against a “rigid” focus on the Commandments. It is possible, we know, to engage in an external observance of the Commandments without being motivated by love. Such “rigidity” can seriously interfere with both receiving and offering mercy. Unfortunately, the terms “rigid” and “rigidity” carry a great deal of cultural baggage. Over the past generation or two, these terms have been used as slurs by Modernists to dismiss both the value of orthodoxy and the seriousness of sin.

In the sort of barren spirituality that arises from true rigidity, a person falls into the trap of fulfilling the letter of the law as if mere punctiliousness is an adequate foundation for a vibrant relationship with God. It is not, but I would add that in our time this would seem to be the least of our worries. In the first half of the twentieth century, before Western culture was largely dissolved by the sexual revolution, there was a good deal more of what we call living the Faith “prescriptively”, which is closely connected to the problem of rigidity. This was at least partially triggered by cultural pressure. American culture, for example, expected outward adherence to most of the moral requirements of Christianity, and it was easy for this veneer of Christian respectability to become a spiritual stopping point.

Perhaps the most common spiritual question raised during this period was this: What outward behavior do I have to follow to be an acceptable Catholic? Or, to put it in terms altogether too common in the Church of the 1950s (and here I raise my own hand), “What do I have to do to make it to purgatory?” While not universal, neither is this a caricature of the spiritual weakness of the Church before 1960. It goes far to explain why changes in rubrics and rules triggered a nearly instantaneous and wholesale abandonment of Catholic piety, just as soon as the larger culture no longer cared.

This problem actually lies quite close to rigidity, which typically shows a greater awareness of religious law and then condemns those who do not maintain the same outward signs of superior devotion. But things have changed a great deal since then. Modern culture has divorced itself from Christian mores in nearly every respect. By those outside of the Church (and sometimes by people within the Church who should know better), Catholics are constantly urged to stop judging behaviors which were formerly understood to be seriously immoral. The question is no longer, “How do I conform to what is expected of me?” but instead, “How do I find the moral strength to live as a sign of contradiction?” Even in rare instances where rigidity exists today among Catholics, it will nearly always be in this counter-cultural context.

We must understand that it takes both perception and courage just to frame this new question. This means it is rarely asked unless a person has a legitimate and powerful motive for doing so. But where there is no socio-cultural incentive, by far the most common motive must necessarily be love of God. Clearly, the real problem of “rigidity” is now primarily found in the dominant culture’s insistence that those who question contemporary secular moral values must be psychologically ill. Indeed, this is a fairly clear case of a psychological defense mechanism called “projection”. Those who rigidly adhere to the cultural code of acceptability project onto others what they suffer from themselves: Thus they insist that all those who choose the harder path of resistance suffer from “rigidity”.


Elsewhere in the news yesterday, we found Pope Francis urging us to use the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation as an opportunity to take a further step toward Christian unity. Once again, we see a certain truth here for, indeed, everything that reminds us of Christian divisions ought to spur us to greater efforts toward Christian unity. At the same time, however, Pope Francis has apparently chosen not to address the ever-widening moral gap between Catholics and other Christian groups.

Christian unity is not possible except among those who take Our Lord’s invitation to new life seriously, and the first visible sign of this new life, as well as the strongest proof of spiritual growth, is the willingness to conform ourselves to God’s will. It is necessary always to recall Our Lord’s very specific teaching on this point, perhaps expressed most clearly in the seventh chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. I recommend the entire chapter, but please consider at least this excerpted sequence of instructions:

Enter by the narrow gate…for the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life…. Beware of false prophets…. You will know them by their fruits…. Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…. And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock…. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

Now, because of the tremendous power of secular culture over the minds of those who have not really opened themselves to the grace of Jesus Christ, one “Christian” group after another has been busy changing its moral teachings to accommodate contraception, divorce, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, gender ideology, gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and many other gross violations of the Divine Law. Our culture tells us these things are not nearly as important as, for example, a failure to assist the poor. But in fact these are seriously selfish behaviors through which we reject our Creator, strike at the very heart of what it means to be human, undermine the family, and destroy the social order.

In our day, these are very clearly the signs of Mammon or the Beast. They are certainly not the signs of Jesus Christ and His Church. Our refusal to acknowledge God’s will in such things renders Christian unity, or any form of solidarity with others, absurd. We find ourselves joining hands and saying “Lord, Lord” without attending at all to the strongly counter-cultural behavior which is demanded—yes, I use the term advisedly, demanded—of the children of God. God’s mercy consists not in abrogating the moral law but in inviting us into an ever larger share of His own life so that we become a new creation, victorious in Christ over sin and death.

An unacceptable moral gap

There is no question that some may find themselves trapped in sin at least partly because they do not recognize, or have never experienced, Divine love. In these situations, mercy is the key to unlocking the heart. Certainly, if in our ecumenical efforts and in our merciful attitude toward sinners, we encounter the sort of genuine commitment to God’s will that expresses itself through the tears and renewed efforts which accompany every moral lapse, then no objection ought to be made to our joyful collaboration with these brothers and sisters in Christ.

But if we run up against an unwillingness to go beyond saying “Lord, Lord” in order to begin to “do the will of my Father in heaven”—and if we do not find in this or that group of men and women any tendency, with respect to the sins praised by our particular culture, to submit themselves to anything beyond the rules of fashion, then our grandiose proclamations of mercy, welcome and unity will prove in the event to be a betrayal of Christ and the Church.

In such a case, we are in a sense living prescriptively again. We are paying mere lip service to a cultural expectation. We may confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, but we refuse to believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead (Rm 10:9). We remain closed to mercy because we refuse to admit the power of God. It is just this that creates the astonishing moral gap in too many facile statements about rigidity, and about mercy, and about Christian unity. But this gap cannot be ignored if we are truly struggling to please God.

Counter-cultural morality is the first measure of true commitment. Its normal cause is not rigidity but a desire to respond to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is true that spiritual progress is proved by love. But love is proved only by incurring serious moral costs—and paying them with joy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Feb. 08, 2017 11:12 AM ET USA

    Thank you. I've been thinking lately that clear moral parameters and solemn, formal Liturgy are necessary supports for all us wishy-washy sinners, whether or not we are financially well-off. Also, that those who reflexively disparage either as "rigid" display a rigidity of their own.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Feb. 07, 2017 7:22 PM ET USA

    You have doubled down on the Pope's misleading adjectives. Natural Law ("What We Can't Not Know") demands sincerity motivated by love of God. That is our rigid role in a world that has been devastated by materialism and sensuality. That is the trouble with much of what the Pope talks about - he doesn't seem to follow the Divine rule book in a clear enough manner and you seem to have over-analyzed. We need to be a "light to the Just".

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Feb. 07, 2017 7:13 PM ET USA

    By now we should know what our current Pope represents, how he thinks, and - overall - how he speaks. Expecting him to change the pattern of modus operandi is hoping for unfathomable. He is a populist and, as I was told while recently visiting Buenos Aires, a Peronist "which is even worse than Communist" or a simple populist. How far the Universal Church will follow him? - that's my question.