It is not the first time that controversy erupts over Pope Francis and what he says or does. Confusion often results from controversy, and it usually involves disputes over content, i.e., what Pope Francis says or does. There could be many reasons for such controversy and confusion, but I would like to explore only a few that may not often be even considered.
Saint Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant Medieval philosopher who wrote that when we receive or know something, we receive or know it according to the mode by which we receive or know it. To illustrate with a ridiculous example, if I wear pink colored glasses, then everything I see will look pink.
There are many factors which have an important influence on how we perceive and come to know the reality around us, other people, and what others say and do.
(1) UNDERSTANDING - See Kohlberg's six stages of moral development
It is not difficult to understand how differently people interpret what they perceive when we consider what stage of moral and personality development they have achieved. To return to our subject, Pope Francis will be understood differently by people at different stages of moral development.
1. At the lowest level, someone whose primary preoccupation in life is avoiding punishment will want to know how Pope Francis' words and actions will help them avoid punishment or not. They may not find his appeals to conscience reassuring and would prefer him to be much more categorical and dispell any doubt about outcomes they may expect in various situations.
3. As people enter into more conventional behavior, they want to be accepted by others; so they want to be sure that by following Pope Francis they will be accepted by others, but they could be unsettled by signs of resistance or opposition to Pope Francis' words or actions and the apparent disunity.
4. With further moral development people show concern for law and order. For this reason, they may be disturbed by any impression that Pope Francis misses opportunities to lay down the law or leaves any room for disagreement with the law or for other interpretations.
5. Beyond simple convention, people come to understand and embrace the notion of joint responsibility, and they adopt as their orientation "the social contract". At this point, they may more easily understand that Pope Francis is trying to inspire people to take responsibility for themselves and for others, and act for the common good. On the other hand, they can also go the other way and be confused when Pope Francis appears to give people too much latitude.
6. Finally, people who continue to develop their conscience enter into the realm of universal ethical principles, and at this point they discover and defend the sovereignty of the individual moral conscience. They recognize that the individual conscience becomes more enlightened as it adopts universal principles that bring it into solidarity with all of humanity.
By this time more attention to detail is required, and they recognize that in each individual case and situation people must have the freedom as well as the responsibility to gather information so as to more fully understand the situation and apply to it the full understanding of their conscience, which by now takes into consideration the good of the individual as well as the common good, and particular circumstances as well as universal principles.
We can understand how people could be unhappy with Pope Francis' open attitudes and declarations. Some want everything to be fully spelled out and are very uncomfortable when they are not. Pope Francis knows that people who want clear and simple answers can find them in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; so he doesn't need to repeat those texts and takes them for granted. He prefers to address the requirements of love and mercy beyond the simple demands of justice, much as Jesus set himself to do during his short time of ministry.
When Pope Francis is talking with real people in real situations, he trusts everyone to observe and be informed, to pray for God's guidance, and to come to the best decision they can. When they make mistakes, he is confident that as they remain open to God, then God will guide them to more and more understanding of the whole truth. In reality, none of us - or at least very few of us - are fully capable of embracing the whole truth about everything, especially about ourselves, and rarely all at once. It is rather over time that we can come into the full knowledge of the truth.
God's "economy of salvation" takes our human condition into consideration and by his divine mercy provides us with sufficient time to embrace more and more of the truth moment by moment and day by day until we come into the full knowledge of the truth in Jesus his only begotten Son.
(2) DISCERNMENT - Is ours a healthy or an unhealthy human condition?
Even such simple notions as "dying to self" or "mortification" can be understood or misunderstood according to a person's condition of health. A scrupulous person can be almost incapable of really understanding spiritual realities because their scrupulous turn of mind acts like a shield blocking any light from penetrating their spirit. For some people their obsession with detail can lead to unhealthy feelings of guilt that have no foundation in reality but are rather conjured up in their misguided conscience. The attendant anxiety has nothing to do with God and actually hinders people from being open and receptive to what God is doing and the loving relationship He offers.
When such a person tries to put into practice what they hear in the church about doing penance, they set out to put various actions into practice. However, their practices don't set them free to become more loving to neighbor and enemy alike; instead, their scrupulosity causes their new practices to make them even more self-obsessed.
Before an unhealthy person can truly navigate successfully deeper spiritual paths, they must first apply everything they hear to their unhealthy condition. If they are to renounce anything in order to "die to themselves", the very first thing they need to renounce is their scrupulosity. Once they become healthy again, they will enjoy clearer vision and be more likely to correctly understand what they hear about spiritual things.
This factor could also explain why some people react so differently to Pope Francis.
(3) The Law of LOVE versus the Law of punishable offenses
Saint Paul spent most of his apostolic ministry trying to help people differentiate between the Torah and the Jewish observance of God's laws, on the one hand, and on the other hand, Jesus' teaching about the Law of Love, i.e., the "Great Commandment".
The issue revolves around the question: "How are we justified?" or "How do we become pleasing to God?" or "How are we to be saved?" and an almost infinite variation of perspective on this question.
The Law - the Decalogue (10 words) which God gave to his people through Moses - and the infinity of developing interpretations and applications of this Law in the lives of real people were intended by God to develop his people's consciences, because they had turned away from Him, just as Adam and Eve had turned away from Him in the garden of Eden.
There can be no reconciliation between God and human beings until people begin to recognize the ways in which they are offending God's love or turning away from him by turning inwards on themselves and ignoring their neighbor.
God is a selfless, loving, merciful, and life-giving, self-bestowing Being, and as long as we remain self-centered; then we can have little to do with God, let alone any kind of relationship.
However, the fault and failure happens when human beings get the notion that by following the Law they can be saved or acquire advantage from God or even exercise some measure of control over God and his behaviour towards them. In such a case, we observe the Law in order to "extract" from God the benefits we want. God becomes a vending machine and all I have to do is put in the coins of following the Law and He has to give me....
God knows that if He allows us to manipulate Him, we will self-destruct and will never enter into any kind of relationship with Him, which is the purpose for which He created us in the first place.
Enter Jesus on the human stage. Jesus insists on initiating a personal relationship and on personal responsibility. Jesus shows unheard of respect for the individual's conscience. He shows Love in person and patiently waits for people to respond to Love feely and willingly. In the end, Jesus lays down his life in order to demonstrate the true quality of God's love for human beings. God loves the person and is willing to overlook and forgive the faults.
This means that God the Father's offer of salvation - the restoration of our relationship of communion with God that was lost by Adam and Eve - is a priceless gift freely offered. To accept his gift implies and entails a change of mind, heart, soul, and life. To accept to be saved by Jesus means to enter into a new way of living, to live as He lived and showed us how to live, in communion with God and in solidarity with human beings and all of humanity.
The Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and Priests were the different classes among the religious elite and authorities in Jesus' day. They insisted on literal observance of the Law and for the most part showed little or no patience, understanding, or compassion to individual people in the face of the difficulties they had in observing the whole Law all of the time under every circumstance.
Their hard and fast attitude permanently estranged from the Temple large segments of the population who did not have sufficient revenue or domestic help in order to fulfill the complex requirements of the Law in all of the religious establishment's interpretations and applications for everyday life. Jesus was most interested to reach out to all those who were in such ways excluded to bring them the good news that God was not excluding them but inviting them to enter in.
Today we have such "extremely religious" people in the Church who show the same hardness of heart and unrelenting insistence on external observance of the law and have little patience for real people.
The religious leaders of Jesus' day were not capable of understanding the divine mercy offered by God and embodied in Jesus to bring forgiveness, healing, and life to all his children. Similarly, in our day there are so many people who show themselves incapable of understanding the divine mercy for which Pope Francis has been given to us by God as a new witness. Pope Francis strives to be faithful to Jesus and to proclaim in fresh ways for our times the new life Jesus brought to Earth.