On speaking the truth: Is confusion the chief “Francis effect”?
Speaking the truth is perfectly compatible with charity. To think otherwise is to mistake charity for mere “niceness”. It is also to miss the point of Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) (2009). In fact, the failure to tell the truth to those who are confused almost always arises from self-love, from a preference for personal comfort over the good of the other.
This is a basic premise of all discourse. It belongs as much to Nature 101 as to Supernature 101. It is certainly a critical component of Catholicism 101. So we must ask why Pope Francis so often calls into question this fundamental requirement for all Christian conversation, or at least so often creates confusion about it. A recent homily reported by Vatican Radio is a perfect case in point: Pope: Those who say “this or nothing” are heretics not Catholics.
The following paragraph purports to be an accurate translation of the Pope’s actual words, rather than just a summary:
This [is the] healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us “either this or that.” That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: “this and that.” “Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.” This [is] the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic [to say] “or this or nothing:” This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: “But do that up to the point that you are capable.” And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.
Of course it is obvious the translation is mediocre. The expression “or this or that” in Italian, for example, is supposed to be translated “either this or that” in English. But it is just as obvious that an infelicitous translation is not the problem with the passage, or the homily as a whole.
In fact, it is a pet theme of Pope Francis to condemn the “rigid”, often dismissing them as the “doctors of the law”. We can certainly grant (as I think charity demands) that he is referring primarily to our relationships with each other, our tendency to write others off when they do not agree with us, and our constant quarrels over strategy or even over matters of personal style. Nonetheless, even a fifth-grader can see how easily this constant emphasis can (and will) be confused with the very legitimate effort to distinguish truth from error, not only metaphysically but morally.
A colossal misconception
It is patently false to claim that Our Lord teaches us it is perfectly all right to fail to accept the truth or to fail to live in accordance with it. It is also necessary to stress with the greatest possible strength that He never referred to “the way, the truth and the life” as an ideal. Nor did Our Lord ever make a demand He was not willing to help us fulfill! It is necessary to grasp such distinctions.
Jesus Christ showers infinite mercy on all of us, but it is a mercy we cannot receive if we are not open to it. Divine mercy is always a call to repentance. It is God’s willingness to embrace us at the first sign of repentance—as soon, in reality, as we stop shunning that embrace. It is true that He is immensely sympathetic to those who fall but are willing to try again; He established the pattern for this in carrying His own cross. But He also speaks honestly to those who are impervious to mercy, those who do not admit their uncertainty or confusion—those who say, “We see”, and so their guilt remains (Jn 9:41).
It is, in fact, the merciful Son of God who says: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man” (Mt 15:18-20). Surely there is something here that seeks to clarify the difference between good and evil! And if this is not plain enough, Our Lord is not at all averse to sending a harsher message:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. [Lk 13:1-5]
St. Paul taught repeatedly that much depends on getting this right: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
Paul also explained what Christian freedom from the law really means. Hint: It has nothing to do with accommodating those who cannot quite stir themselves to truth and virtue. This is how Paul put it:
Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. [1 Tim 8-11]
Rigidity or adherence to the truth?
It is one thing to say, I condemn you if you call our priest “Fr. Jimmy” instead of “Fr. McNamara” (how I used to hate this informality!); or if you choose to discipline your children by putting them in “time out” instead of giving them forty lashes; or if you act on your conviction that it is better to subsidize the poor than put them in workhouses; or if you wish your generally pro-life parish would place a greater emphasis on food for the hungry; or if you prefer the Baroque to the Gothic in church architecture; or even if you love an approved form of the liturgy that I abhor. We can admit that our prudential judgments might be right or wrong, that different people are particularly attracted to different goods, and that a variety of strategies can work in different ways or under different circumstances. Whoever confuses these with the essence of Christianity may justly be termed “rigid”.
But truth itself is another matter. It is the mind’s conformity with reality; it is absolutely critical for human well-being; and it is non-negotiable. We must beware of clinging to interpretations which misconstrue what is true, or of insisting on only a part of what is true without recognizing legitimate modifiers. But particularly with what has been revealed by God, it is an immense failure in faith to refuse to learn the truth. And it is an immense failure in charity to refuse to communicate it clearly to others.
There must surely be a few of Pope Francis’ “doctors of the law” hiding under rocks somewhere in the Church, but the worst “doctors of the law” today are those who insist on the dictatorship of relativism. These substitute human fashion for a deep perception of reality. They enact laws to correspond to these fashions. And they create both social and political environments in which people are summarily excluded or punished for speaking the truth.
We have known for generations that a great many Catholic leaders are sympathetic to the modes of thought which produce such deformity. The male religious order which most obviously represents this sympathy is the Society of Jesus. But it is still sad to see what is essentially a form of worldly accommodation and comfort manifested so clearly in the personal tendencies of a man who has been made a Successor of Peter.
Even giving the benefit of every doubt, there is a recurring pattern here that forces us to admit that Pope Francis shares some of the unfortunate personal tendencies of the new Pharisees (see the brilliant poem by Alice Meynell). At the same time, of course, we take solace in the fact that this is exactly why Our Lord promised to be with the Church and why the Holy Spirit ensures that the Successor of Peter cannot officially teach error. Some of us watch this pontificate closely, at least in part, because it is such an exemplary instance of this guarantee. Thus we may find things very annoying, and we may find that we have rather more work to do than otherwise, but we remain unperturbed in our own faith, experiencing not even a shadow or a glimmer of doubt.
Peter himself speaks
In this context, we cannot fail to note that it was St. Peter himself who devoted his own inspired texts to the very problem we are discussing here—the gigantic problem of faithful Christians living in a corrupt society. “Beloved,” he wrote, “I beg you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” He went on: “Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:11,16).
And then he wrote this:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscious clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. [1 Pet 3:13-17]
This is amazing, is it not? The first pope wrote almost exclusively about the difficulties of Christian life in a pagan world. He said much about living and speaking the truth in love. But he also warned, again and again, against obscuring the extraordinarily bright lines that the follower of Christ must draw between truth and error, between good and evil: “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker” (1 Pet 4:14-15).
Does not God desire all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4)? If so, then how can we fail to give a clear witness? How can we fail to call others to recognize the difference between truth and error, between good and evil—between sin and repentance? It is not our office to assume that another’s heart is in the right place. We trust in Our Blessed Lord to determine all that in the end. But in the meantime, there is no possibility of mistake about this. With increasing frequency, each of us is called to say: “This and only this. Nothing else will do. Because only Christ saves.”
The Newer Vainglory by Alice Meynell
Two men went up to pray; and one gave thanks,
Not with himself—aloud,
With proclamation, calling on the ranks
Of an attentive crowd.
‘Thank God, I clap not my own humble breast,
But other ruffians’ backs,
Imputing crime—such is my tolerant haste—
To any man that lacks.
‘For I am tolerant, generous, keep no rules,
And the age honours me.
Thank God, I am not as these rigid fools,
Even as this Pharisee.’
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Posted by: Bveritas2322 -
Jun. 16, 2016 7:11 PM ET USA
The sin of pride exists in everyone. It is the original sin of Adam and Eve. What we are witnessing seems to be a theopathic refusal for this pope to even consider that it could possibly exist in his own soul. It's not as though he hasn't witnessed theological vanity among some progressives he has criticized in the past. I pray he retreats to a greater appreciation for humility before he does more life and death damage to God and His Church.
Posted by: JonathanC -
Jun. 15, 2016 12:15 AM ET USA
Well said Jeff! Thank you for saying it! You put into words what many have been thinking. The Lord was forthright with the women at the well when he called her out on her adultery (Jn 4.18). and quite pointedly told the women caught in adultery to that she was to go and "sin no more." (Jn 8.11). Would that our pope were more forthright in speaking the truth in love. The truth, God's will, IS the love they need, for only that will set them free. Anything less is condemnation to perdition.
Posted by: billG -
Jun. 14, 2016 8:24 PM ET USA
To speak the truth with charity. We are all called to that. We must not bend the truth for charity. Further, to speak the truth with clarity is a requirement of all would-be teachers, most especially the Vicar of Christ.
Posted by: John3822 -
Jun. 14, 2016 5:16 PM ET USA
I think you're way off base - you are interpreting the Popes remarks in a manner that seems to suit a particular mentality... he never once excused sin - but we do not live in a religion where every offense is excommunicatable... which is what "this or that" is referring to.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jun. 13, 2016 7:32 AM ET USA
When Pope Francis was elected he spoke clearly of his intention to change nothing about himself. He indicated he was too old to change and he would continue being himself. This is a new spirit. Our Lady replied to the angel: Be it done unto me according to your word. Perhaps we might increase our prayers and our confidence in the Good Lord to help the Holy Father reflect more deeply on this intransigent mindset so that the exercise of his petrine ministry might
Posted by: Bveritas2322 -
Jun. 11, 2016 4:45 PM ET USA
For Francis to suggest that there has not been enough no-fault pastoralism, where no one mentions sin anymore, is like insisting there is not enough sand in the desert. No-fault pastoralism is not the balm of souls, with all of its horrible destruction to the Church, to families, and to the spiritual welfare of souls, despite its being the common practice of the “spirit of Vatican II” era. Not one of us just finds ourselves in impossible situations for which there was never any human malice.
Posted by: dapsr -
Jun. 11, 2016 1:33 PM ET USA
I think you suffer from the rigidity that Pope Francis is warning against. He is not speaking about truth per se but about our limited ability to conform to it and the hypocritical tendency to condemn others who do not fully live up to truth. Like the woman caught in adultery we all fall short and need mercy and forgiveness to receive the grace to get up and begin again, striving to live according to absolute truth in a personal relationship with Jesus, out Lord and Savior in the Holy Spirit.
Posted by: howland5905 -
Jun. 11, 2016 8:10 AM ET USA
"Is confusion the chief 'Francis effect'?" No, Jeff, in speaking to my friends and family who are unchurched I find the chief effect is admiration for the Pope and a new openness to the Gospel. Those I know who find the Pope confusing tend indeed to be those within the Church who approach the faith and life in a rigid, Pharisaical fashion.
Posted by: s.van.weede8661 -
Jun. 11, 2016 5:50 AM ET USA
Brilliant poem? Yes. But first of all a brilliant article. Thank you.
Posted by: Faith@Rome -
Jun. 10, 2016 8:36 PM ET USA
Thank you for calling "a spade" to be "a spade" Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to interpret Pope Francis' comments in any other way than that he believes Catholic doctrine is merely an ideal toward which we should strive rather than an absolute commandment. Apparently he views the Ten Commandments also as only goals rather than requirements for our salvation. The liberals will be overjoyed at his remarks. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will overcome this confusion.
Posted by: rjbennett1294 -
Jun. 10, 2016 5:37 PM ET USA
Brilliant essay - sane, clear, articulate. Thank you from just one of the countless individuals who are dismayed at the confusion, the wrongheadedness, and, yes, the errors of the current papacy.