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Essay
March 20, 2014
The modern world cannot comprehend mercy because it cannot comprehend sin.
Pope Francis prays during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 26. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” says Jesus Christ. “Who am I to judge?” says his Vicar on earth, Pope Francis. And the World, standing as it does under Satan’s domination, as the New Testament affirms, tends to twist any words of goodness, beauty, or truth offered it. And so when Pope Francis uttered “Who am I to judge?” in an informal interview on an airplane last summer when asked about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, the World denuded his words, stripping them of context and finding there (if not outright affirmation of homosexual relations) real daylight between Pope Francis and his predecessor.

It’s clear that Pope Francis was speaking of those with a homosexual orientation, and not approbating any behavior:

A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn't this (homosexual) orientation—we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.

Now, Pope Francis has done it again, deliberately, in his fervorino on Monday, St. Patrick’s Day, uttering “Who am I to judge?” And the World, once again, is tempted to take these words and twist them, as if Jesus’ words—and Pope Francis’ words—were license for license. For the World does not want to be challenged and converted; it wants to be affirmed. And so it would rather twist the words of Christ and pope than be saved.

If one reads the excerpts of the fervorino provided, Pope Francis’ words are clear enough both for those who are searching or for those of the faithful who would receive them: “Jesus’ invitation to mercy is intended to draw us into a deeper imitation of God our Father: be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” But receiving mercy involves the recognition of the reality of sin, not its dismissal or reinterpretation, and so Pope Francis then teaches that cultivating an attitude of mercy requires the self-knowledge to own and confess our own sin, unlike Adam, who blamed Eve, and Eve, who blamed the serpent: “to become merciful, we must first acknowledge that we have done many things wrong: we are sinners! We need to know how to say: Lord, I am ashamed of what I have done in life.”

Pope Francis, the vicar of Christ, is channeling Christ here perfectly, and so goes on to quote Christ’s words from Matthew 7: “The Lord says it in the Gospel: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.’”

Many in the modern world find an out in Jesus’—and thus Pope Francis’—words about judgment, a way to get off the hook about sin, wielding them wrongly as a shield to deflect moral claims, as if Jesus were speaking about moral judgments. And the reason for that is modernity’s peculiar preoccupation with ethics and epistemology in its attempts to fill the felt void left by the collapse of the medieval worldview, wherein a robust metaphysics bred confidence that one could know the nature of reality and the nature of humanity and thus what human beings were for and what they were to do. The failure of the modern project—the attempt to root knowledge and ethics in some sort of pure reason—means that most people nowadays don’t think much can be known about anything, especially morals. And thus Jesus’ and Pope Francis’ words are heard as affirmation that “I’m OK, and you’re OK, and everything is OK.”

But no one is “OK.” Neither the Jesus of the Gospels nor the Pope who proclaims Jesus and the gospel under the name of Francis suffers from the skepticism that drives our easygoing relativism. In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, the context in which Jesus gives his famous teaching forbidding judging, Jesus knows precisely what sin is, names it, and calls people from it to righteousness. He does this so that having received mercy instead of the condemnation their sins deserve, they may also turn round and have mercy upon other sinners—“forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”—while also guarding themselves against swine and dogs, who trample holy pearls while on the attack.

Here too we might mention hypocrisy, as many men and women nowadays find moral claims inherently hypocritical, since no one seems capable of living up to his or her own standards. As La Rochefoucauld once said, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice rends to virtue.”

As it happens, the Matthean Jesus had much to say about hypocrisy and hypocrites, railing frequently against them. Those people who harbor the modern disdain for the supposed externals of ritual understand Jesus to be saying that religion is not religion at all, but an internal affair of the heart. And certainly Jesus does stress the importance of internal purity and righteousness, but what moderns miss is that he doesn’t denigrate externals thereby and reduce faith and morals to a private internal matter. For the Jesus of Matthew, “Thou shalt not kill” concerns much more than refraining from literal murder; it concerns anger and harsh words as well. But it still very much concerns literal murder. In a similar way Jesus teaches that the prohibition of adultery also concerns lust, but literal adultery is still forbidden.

For the Jesus of Matthew, then, hypocrisy isn’t a concern for ritualistic externals when faith concerns internal matters of the heart. Rather, hypocrisy is the failure of the internal and external to align. If one’s heart is right, then external things—speech, action, ritual—will align. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Indeed, Jesus affirms the importance of externals in his severe woes against the scribes and Pharisees. He accuses them of tithing herbs while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness, and then affirms both: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” And similarly, “You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

In all of this, Jesus isn’t rejecting moral judgments but making them. And he expects his followers to make them as well. Motes and beams are real, and must be removed, not accommodated. If anything, Jesus is turning up the dial on sin so that God’s mercy might really rain down in torrents, as he teaches his hearers that sin isn’t merely a matter of avoiding the big things—killing, stealing, fornicating—but rather is a cancer constricting the heart. Receiving God’s mercy means healing, a cure then to be extended also to others. But the modern world cannot comprehend mercy because it cannot comprehend sin, and so it often chooses to trample the pearl of mercy. In its endless quest for affirmation, it misses out on mercy.

Many have rightly emphasized the need to see (not manufacture!) the real continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis, and it seems this is Pope Francis’ own genuine desire. More than reading Francis through Benedict, however, we need also to read Francis through Jesus, in continuity with the Lord, whose vicar he is, whose mercy to sinners he proclaims.
 
About the Author
Leroy Huizenga 

Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. A native of Minot, N.D., Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew and co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually, and has lectured on Scripture throughout the United States and abroad.
 

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