Saturday, February 18, 2017

Controversy and confusion over Pope Francis & "Amoris Laetitia" Part 1

There is no denying that currently in the Roman Catholic Church there has come to light some disagreement - even at the highest levels among bishops and cardinals - over some of Pope Francis' writing, speaking, and teaching. Since Pope Francis' election I've been observing how people tend to divide in how they understand or feel about Pope Francis, his words, actions, attitudes, teaching, speaking, writing, and demeanor. This was already happening before "Amoris Laetitia" and only increasing with time. Given popular support for Pope Francis, however, it was difficult for those who, for various reasons, opposed him to do so openly, or at least, without substantial grounds. This has changed.

Previously, a year or two before "Amoris Laetitia" came out, a thought occurred to me that what was happening around Pope Francis resembled what first happened around Jesus. Not only that, but I remembered Jesus' warning that the very same that was happening to Him would also happen to all who follow Him and try to carry out the mission with which He was entrusting them, and now, us.

Jesus stated He did not come to change or abolish the law but to fulfill it, that is, assure that it was effective in accomplishing its purpose, which is, namely, to bring his people back to God. Jesus accused the Pharisees and Sadducees, lawyers and scribes, and Temple priests of not only not doing that, but He actually accused them of making it even more difficult for his people to return to the Lord. They set insurmountable obstacles that only the wealthy and powerful could hope to accomplish, with all their servants bearing the brunt for them, of all the legally and meticulously defined burdens.

He accused them of being only superficially concerned with God's law, while simultaneously being far away from the heart of the law, which, Jesus reminded them, was about the love of God and of neighbor. He even gave them a little "shock therapy" with his parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee who both went in to pray. Jesus did not show the tax collector as finally repentant and definitively turning away from all sin, but only as humble in his confession and plea for mercy. Nevertheless, He said, the tax collector went away justified while the "ritually pure" Pharisee did not. Luke 18:9-14

In the current confusion and controversy over the issue of whether people in irregular marriage situations or situations of adultery, it seems to me that among all those who participate in or contribute to the discussion and writing, very few if any are focusing on Jesus' own diagnosis of what was going on in all of the opposition He was facing in his time. It seems to me that what is actually happening now is directly related to the trouble Jesus stirred up. I believe Jesus would say to us that we are more concerned with the keeping of the law than we are with the return of sinners to God's mercy.

Just after the call of Matthew, tax collectors and sinners sat at dinner with Jesus and his disciples and the Pharisees challenged "his disciples: 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' But when he heard this, he said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.'" Matthew 9:10-13 In addition the evangelists give abundant testimony to Jesus' inclination to forgive sins and pardon sinners, even when that is not what they asked for, but only a healing or deliverance.

In each instance, Jesus read the minds and hearts of people, because, although "many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing... Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them because he know all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone." John 2:23-25 Jesus, like the Father, distinguishes between those who are superficially coming to God and those who are coming with their whole heart, those who have an appetite for signs from those who hunger and thirst for truth, justice, and mercy, those who want to be considered pure from those who truly long to be pure.

There was no contradiction in Jesus publicly teaching the truth while receiving people in such a way that He risked giving impression that in practice He eased the repentance of sinners and kept the company even of those sinners not yet ready to repent. He wanted everyone to come to know the love of the Father; so that the time for them to return to the Father might be hastened. Jesus' inclination was to teach the truth publicly, while at the same time, He extended the divine mercy to individuals as He came across them, one at a time. Later He instructed the twelve and then the seventy-two to go out and do the same. "'Freely you have received; freely give.'" Matthew 10:8

In the face of the religious and secular culture of his time, and in light also of his opposition, Jesus warned all who heard him against casting judgements. "'Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.'" Then He gives the well known image of criticizing a neighbor for having a speck in his eye all the while having a plank in our own, hindering our sight. Jesus tells us to see to and look after our own soul first, always first, and to approach others as He does, with humility, respect, kindness, and understanding; which is love.

Pope Francis has spoken and written frequently about the inclination of some to take refuge behind the letter of the law, to assure at all times that the Church never tires of dogmatically repeating moral teaching and continually dictates the application of that teaching in all instances, lest there be allowed to linger any doubts in the minds and hearts of people. Whenever Pope Francis addresses clerics, both bishops and priests, he keeps calling on us to get close enough to the faithful to "acquire the smell of the sheep", that is, not to fear to "get dirty" as a result of getting close enough to them to be troubled by their troubles, to be moved to weep with those who weep, and to be lifted up to laugh with those who laugh.

In his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 9ff, St Paul describes the "marks of the true Christian", including that we should "rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." v. 12 We accept generally that St Paul was correctly interpreting Jesus' complaint regarding "this generation. It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another. 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'" Matthew 11:16-17 People criticized both John the Baptist and Jesus, because of the hardness of their hearts. They were not moved by John to repent and they would not let Jesus lift them up to the loving and merciful view of the Father. In rejecting Jesus they were rejecting the one who sent Him. Luke 10:16

We can't have it both ways. We can't take shelter behind the fortress of "the law" and at the same time mingle with the sheep in the hope of leading them to proper pasture. Jesus used the image of sheep intentionally, we are sure. They are strong willed and follow their nose, which leads them constantly into trouble whenever the shepherd gets distracted to takes a snooze. Jesus urged shepherds not to beat the sheep but to carry them tenderly. I believe that Pope Francis is telling all of us, in no uncertain terms, that we must put aside the era of dogmatic formulations and wholesale condemnations and "get dirty", get closer to the sheep and identify with them and, by winning their trust through mercy, succeed in leading them - some more quickly but others by degrees - to pasture.

If Pope Francis continues to ignore the challenge wrapped in respectability by by such words, attitudes, and actions as the "Dubia", with all due respect to the esteemed authors of those texts; it seems clear that he is ignoring it for the same reasons Jesus chose to have as little to do as possible with the Pharisees and other religious leaders and influential people. Jesus knew that as long as they persisted in their legalistic mindset they would never understand nor accept Him nor what He was saying and doing. He knew that, in the end, they would commit deicide. God simply exceeds our human categories and parameters, but we keep trying to "tame" Him and "squeeze" Him into our nice, neat, little categories. We keep doing that because we are afraid and we need to find reassurance of our own likelihood to be saved by clearly defining all those who will be damned.

More recently Pope Francis has said that he believes those who insist on demanding clearer formulations in the interest of the well being of the faithful are in fact more likely to be hiding behind that respectable facade to conceal their own need for clarity, and they are doing that because, fundamentally, we human beings stopped trusting in God. Isn't that what happened with the original sin? Since then we prefer our own opinions and judgements and are loath to accept those of the Lord. We don't want to wait to let God sort it all out, we want to sort it out ourselves, and we want to do it now.

So what is really going on here, in this controversy and confusion over chapter 8 of "Amoris Laetitia"? I believe that it is a contest between the divine view and the human view. The divine view got Jesus killed, and it seems now likely that it may obtain the destruction - in one form or another - of Pope Francis; in which case he will have the joy of sharing in Jesus' passion to the very bitter end. There can never be compromise or accommodation between these two views, the divine and the human. Either we persist in our limited human view and continue to kill God in the souls of people or else we humble ourselves and get with God's program and follow the lead of the Good Shepherd. It has to be one or the other, we cannot have both, and having it our way only leads to death for ourselves and as many as we lead away from the Good Shepherd's voice.

While all of us in the comfort of our homes, studies, offices, churches, rectories, computer screens and keyboards, and all other "fortresses" continue to add fuel to this confusion and controversy; in the meantime people are suffering the ravages of our secular age, often with no one willing to stop and care like the "good Samaritan". People carry the wounds of neglected parenting while both their parents worked and abandoned the full time burden of forming, humanizing, and loving their children. In other instances, separated and divorced parents oversee damage done to their children while they struggled to "find happiness". The true litany of woes is only becoming longer and more complex as civilization as we know it disintegrates all around us.

In "Laudato Si" Pope Francis dared to formulate a judgement on our society, which many believe to be God's own judgement, that our social apparatus, ways of doing, institutions, attitudes, and way of life is almost entirely articulated around the absolute value given to "the dollar" or whatever currency is local; while the human person in all its dignity and rights is made subservient. From the beginning the Creator intended it to be the other way around, but we resist even the remote possibility of this truth, let alone doing anything to change it. This is one of the facets of what original sin looks like in our own day. Until the end of the world we will never be able to escape struggling with it, against it, but God wants us to do it with his help and following his guidance.

However we are all, myself included, collectively and personally squirming, I believe, when we hear what Pope Francis says, read what he writes, and see what he does. I believe we would not be much more troubled if Jesus came and walked among us again in Person. We are not much better than his contemporaries were, even if we would prefer to think better of ourselves than the religious leaders of Judea. The longer we continue to resist trusting Pope Francis, the longer we refuse to pay attention to the "whole perspective" of what he is saying, writing, and doing, the longer we will continue to crucify Christ all over again, and we do it for the very same reasons they did it the first time. To be fair though, now we can sincerely believe that we have the best interests of the faithful at heart by insisting that no one in the circumstances of adultery should approach the sacraments, ever. We can be sincere but quite wrong.

It is not a coincidence that Pope Francis gave us the "Jubilee Year of Mercy". How is it that we fail to take this into consideration, as in 'been there, done that'? Why do we so resist taking on ourselves the characteristics of God's own divine mercy? I believe we are fundamentally afraid to entrust ourselves, our lives, our Church, our society, and our world to God. We believe He will mess it up. So we take refuge behind Jesus' reiteration of the Genesis revelation about marriage in the face of challenges regarding divorce. We ensconce ourselves firmly in Jesus' own teaching about adultery and who commits it. Then we go on to ignore his shepherd's attitude and behavior in caring for the sheep and the lambs. We do it because we are uncomfortable to hold both at the same time. We don't want to wait for God to judge when it is time. We want to cast judgement now.

I believe that many in the Church have still not accepted as genuine and as pastoral inspirations from the Holy Spirit such declarations by Pope Francis as:

"our church doors should be open" - the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak" - "God save us from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings" - "This I ask you: be shepherds, with the 'odour of the sheep', make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets." (Chrism Mass homily March 28, 2013) - "the Church is called to be a 'field hospital' with doors wide open" Cf full quote following...

Homily of Pope Francis in the Vatican Basilica on October 4th, 2015 at the Holy Mass for the opening of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

"And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a "field hospital" with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

A Church which teaches and defends fundamental values, while not forgetting that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27); and that Jesus also said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mk 2:17). A Church which teaches authentic love, which is capable of taking loneliness away, without neglecting her mission to be a good Samaritan to wounded humanity." 

I understand Pope Francis to be calling us away from shoving a burdensome moral code incessantly at people so as to instead go back to proclaiming the essentials of God's mercy as Jesus did. Then, as people encounter God's mercy, He will manifest his sovereignty in their lives and set his light in them and, in his time but not our time, they will see that light and feel moved to amend their ways. That will be for them the day of salvation, which is always God's day and not our own.

This is a good shepherd's approach, not beating the sheep into submission - as all too often we have as Church done in the past (think only of the Spanish Inquisition which some people apparently would want restored in our day). A bad shepherd uses elements of the Gospel as a club to coerce submission (as we accuse of radical Muslims trying to do); but a good shepherd proposes the good news for what it fundamentally is: God loves us so much He sent his Son among us, to live our life and suffer our death, to get our attention and win our hearts, minds, and souls; so that we may freely, humbly, and gratefully respond to his outpouring of divine life for us.

In conclusion, are we going to see an "easy fix" anytime soon? I don't think so. However we must all of us face the real issue at hand, namely, will we humble ourselves to pay attention to what God is doing in our time through the person and ministry of Pope Francis, or will we continue to fortify our fortresses and press to clear definitions of the law; as did the religious leaders of Jesus' day who in the end put Him to death? Do we secretly covet the removal of Pope Francis? This is a question that each of us must answer.

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