Some thoughts on Pope Francis’ homily about “ideals”, “rigidity”, and “heretics”

The Holy Father apparently thinks the startling and clear demands of Christ are "ideals" that become "ideologies" in the hands of those who insist that we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

On Thursday, the Vatican Radio reported on the Holy Father’s daily homily, opening with this summary:

Pope Francis warned on Thursday against an excessive rigidity, saying those within the Church who tell us “it’s this or nothing” are heretics and not Catholics. His remarks came during the morning Mass on Thursday celebrated at the Santa Marta residence.

In his homily the Pope reflected on the harm caused by Churchmen who do the opposite of what they preach and urged them to free themselves from a rigid idealism that prevents reconciliation between each other.

Taking his cue from Jesus’ warning to his disciples that unless their righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, Pope Francis stressed the importance of Christian realism. Jesus, he said, asks us to go beyond the laws and love God and neighbour, stressing that whoever is angry with their brother will be liable to judgement. 

This is a bit confusing, and it only becomes more confusing. What, for instance, is “excessive rigidity”, especially in the context of yesterday’s Gospel reading from Matthew 5? And what is the “Christian realism” referred to by Francis? The answer to the first question is apparently found in the Gospel’s reference to those who are angry with a “brother” and who refuse to reconcile with him; that seems clear enough. But Jesus, in saying that anger and insults may be due judgment formerly reserved for murder, makes a demand that, from the standpoint of the world or even Law-abiding first-century Judaism, is excessive and perhaps even rigid. It certainly goes beyond what might be considered “realistic”, especially considered how daunting and absolute is the statement: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”

Yet Francis apparently sees this as a matter of making a good effort and rejecting any sort of “idealism”:

Pope Francis urged his listeners to recall how Jesus’s request for generosity and holiness is all about going forward and always looking out beyond ourselves. This, he explained, frees us from the rigidity of the laws and from an idealism that harms us. Jesus knows only too well our nature, said the Pope, and asks us to seek reconciliation whenever we have quarrelled with somebody.  He also teaches us a healthy realism, saying there are so many times “we can’t be perfect”  but “do what you can do and settle your disagreements.”  

And yet this same section of the Sermon on the Mount—a discourse that establishes a new Torah by the new Moses—concludes with the daunting and clear exhortation: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This point is explained well by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in his exceptional commentary on the Gospel of Matthew titled Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World, Volume 1 (Ignatius Press, 1996):

On the one hand, we realize that, if we want to enjoy permanent youth of soul, we cannot cling to a mere external observance of the Law. On the other hand, however, we see that Christ does not reject the law but, rather, intensifies it. In some sense he makes the Law even more demanding because he imposes conditions, not only on the externals of our lives, but above all on the abiding attitude of our heart and on the concrete results this attitude has on our actions.

In other words, the realism of the Christian life is excessive or, if you will, radical precisely because, as the Beatitudes indicated, we are “sons of God” (Matt 5:9). As I note in Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Ignatius Press, 2016):

The Son, the Prince of Peace, restored peace between the Father and mankind by becoming man; this peace refers to the life-giving relationship between the Creator and those he has created, a relationship now expressed in the intimate language of filial love: the “Law in the New Kingdom is the law of love”.

The connection is made even more explicitly a bit later: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44–45). This love is exemplified not by mere absence of discord or hatred, but by communion, acts of goodness, and prayer. “We are to love without qualification because the Son of the Father has, through the power of his word, made us children of this same Father.” The goal of this agape love is perfection: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is also made evident in Matthew 19, the only other place the word teleioi appears (in Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler): “If you would be perfect [teleioi], go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21; cf. Lk 6:35). This perfection of divine sonship is found in following the perfect example of Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the radical nature of divine love on the Cross.

The rich young ruler had, in fact, done what he could; he had, in must be noted, fulfilled the Law to the best of his ability. But it wasn’t enough, precisely because being perfect means loving God before all else—before money, fame, power, human affection, relationships, sex, comfort, or whatever else tries to take the place of God in our lives.

It is here where matters become even more confusing, because it seems to me that Francis (as he did in sections of Amoris Laetitia) wants to have it both ways: to acknowledge the call to perfection but to also assure his listeners that such an “ideal” might not be realistic for many of us:

“This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or 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.”

But the “rigidity” of the Law is not that it demands too much, but that those who adhere to it can convince themselves they have done enough—that is, reached the “ideal”—when they in fact have not surpassed what the Pharisees taught. We mustn’t forget that it wasn’t Jesus who wanted a relaxing of the rigid laws about marriage and divorce, but an even deeper embrace of the radical commitment desired by God. And he says so right after the section remarked upon by Francis: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:31-32). Yet Francis, as he has on several occasions, says the apparent opposite: “In addition, these people had seen the rigidity of those scribes and Pharisees and when a prophet came to give them a bit of joy, they (the scribes and Pharisees) persecuted them and even murdered them; there was no place for prophets there.”

Again, the deeper problem for the Pharisees was the failure to fully embrace the all-consuming demands of the Law and to live them both externally and internally, being conformed to the word given by God. This makes even more sense when we recognize that the essential quality of the prophets is that they were consumed completely by God’s love and proclaimed God’s word—especially as revealed in the Torah and the covenants—without qualification or reservation. And how much more true was that of the Incarnate Word of God, who insisted, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18)?

What, then, is actually “heretical” here? What is the “this or nothing” approach condemned by Francis? In the context of the actual Gospel reading, it might be the angry man saying, “I refuse to reconcile with my brother because of this.” If so, what we have is a grave sin—but certainly not heresy, at least not in any usual sense of the term (“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same…” [CCC, 2089]). Perhaps it is something else, in which case the confusion becomes complete obscuration. As is often the case with Francis, clarity is not always readily available. Perhaps that is because, in the recent words of his close collaborator, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Francis is carrying out a “pontificate of discernment and ‘incomplete thought'”:
For Pope Francis the world is always in movement: the ordinary perspective, with its metrics of judgment to classify what is important and what is not, doesn’t work.

Being men and women of discernment means for the Pope being men and women of «incomplete thought», of «open thought». That means that he does not seem to have a «project», that is a theoretical and abstract plan to apply to history. He doesn’t have a road map written a priori, that refers to ideas or concepts.

This is in complete keeping with an essay recently posted by Sandro Magister (who is as critical of Francis as Spadaro is supportive), in which the philosopher Fr. Giovanni Scalese examines the four key “postulates” of Francis’ thought:
– time is greater than space;
– unity prevails over conflict
– realities are more important than ideas
– the whole is greater than the part.

 Of the third, Scalese says:

The postulate “realities are more important than ideas” has nothing to do with the “adaequatio intellectus ad rem.” It signifies instead that we must accept reality as it is, without presuming to change it on the basis of absolute principles, for example moral principles, which are only “abstract” ideas, which most of the time risk turning into ideologies. This postulate is at the basis of Francis’s continual arguments against doctrine. Significant, in this regard, is what Pope Bergoglio affirms in the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica”:

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies” (pp. 469-470).

The application to the homily analyzed above seems fairly clear: the startling and clear demands of Christ are “ideals” that become “ideologies” in the hands of those who insist that, yes, we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Which is apparently why Francis, in concluding the 2015 Synod of Bishops, claimed that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit” and scolded those who insist that doctrine is a good and necessary gift from the Savior, saying that the Synod

… was also about laying closed hearts, which bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families. …

It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.

I highlight this past Thursday’s homily because in so many ways it is a microcosm of a papacy that sends mixed signals and, yes, confusing messages. And it’s evident that more and more Catholics are concerned about the way that Pope Francis expresses himself and depicts those he deems to be ideologues or Pharisaical, just because they are upholding and affirming Church teaching. For example, Dr. Jeff Mirus of addresses this same homily at length, stating in part:

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).

And this is particularly direct and, I think, on the mark:

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.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.