I, like many people, love Pope Francis. He’s talking a new talk and walking a new walk. But the truth is what he’s saying really isn’t new. It’s more a case of what is old being new again.
Today we read in Romans 14:
16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
What’s Paul saying here? Well this is a reference to the biggest issue of the time. The ongoing debate between the Jewish-Christians and he Gentile-Christians as to whether the Jewish dietary laws and Sabbath day had to be retained. Paul makes clear that Christians are free from these obligations. However, he says that if another Christian’s conscious holds him to it then we should not make a big deal about it. Conversely, he also says that to the extent that the Jewish-Christian still thinks that the old practices should be observed they have no right to try to make the Gentile-Christians feel guilty for not doing so.
Paul is saying that these matters are largely extraneous. Both groups are good Christians seeking after the Lord. What’s important is, “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. Isn’t this not exactly Pope Francis’ message to us in our modern times?
Remember when in discussing homosexuality it became such a big deal that Pope Francis said, “who am I to judge”? But what Francis said was,
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Now, what are the very words of St. Paul?
18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
The two statements express the same essential truth. We must love our Christian brothers and sisters and meet them with love and goodwill first.
The difference between the two situations being addressed is what gives everyone some much consternation. Paul is addressing two groups of Christians – the Jewish and the Gentile converts. One group wants to stay closer to their mosaic traditions; the other isn’t interested in that idea. This is not so much a matter of sin as a practice. Nothing in Catholic teaching would prohibit you know from maintaining a strict kosher diet or fulfilling you Sunday Mass obligation at the Saturday Vigil Mass. (Although strictly speaking you shouldn’t be doing either with the mindset that it is required but to do either as a personal discipline is acceptable). In contrast, Pope Francis is applying this message to what are inarguablely more serious situations like homosexuality, divorce and remarriage and atheism.
Two things should be said about how Pope Francis has been applying this message. First, it is wrong to construe it to broadly as to imply that Pope Francis is okay with sin. Nothing Pope Francis has said would suggest that. In fact, Pope Francis speaks more about the Devil and his attempts to lead us into sin more than any other pope in recent memory. Pope Francis’ message is not so much directed at those outside the Church that sin is acceptable but rather it is directed at us inside the Church, who have the benefit of the Church’s teaching and sacraments as to how we should treat others. Second, we always must remember, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” If Pope Francis had said, “If a couple is dating and is monogamous they search for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”, would the surprise have been as loud? Or would we have more quickly and easily found a spot for forgiveness and understanding in our hearts?
As Catholics we are lucky that the Holy Spirit has sent us a Pope that is emphasizing this aspect of the Gospel. It has always been there. Whether it was in the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin” or in the teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
“I ought to seek the company of those Sisters who according to nature please me least. I ought to fulfill in their regard the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, a kindly smile, will often suffice to gladden a wounded and sorrowful heart. Story of A Soul, Chapter X
This is of course, exactly what St. Paul wrote for the Romans to do, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19). Let us then seek to do what St. Paul, St. Thérèse, and Pope Francis tell us to do. To be a Church of love and kindness first and correction second.