Is Pope Francis about to toss overboard two thousand years of the Church’s moral teaching? In the last several months the Pope has made what some might call provocative statements. The latest flap came over his remarks about abortion and homosexuality. In its September 19, 2013 online report, the New York Times (NYT) headlined: “Pope says Church is ‘obsessed’ with Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.”
In fact, that is not really what the pope said, and the NYT reporter should have been more careful about lifting quotes out of context. But that’s for another discussion.
So what is Pope Francis really saying? Let me tell you what I think.
Those unfamiliar with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Catholic Church regarding what she calls ‘mortal sin’ might conclude Pope Francis has taken a left turn into some sort of liberal “God doesn’t care what you do” moral theology. But to read his entire interview (click this link) within the framework of an intimate familiarity with Scripture and historical Church teaching, one will quickly conclude Pope Francis has said nothing at all different than the Church – or Christ Himself – has ever said.
Here is an excerpt from his interview: “ . . . [T]he thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. . . . You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up. The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
In other words, “Bring them home into the Church. Let them experience God’s mercy and love. Then, once they’re in the arms of the Church, trust the Holy Spirit to guide their hearts as He teaches them of sin, righteousness and judgment (see John 16:8). As St. Paul wrote a long time ago, “It is the mercy of God that leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4)
I have personal experience with the point Pope Francis is trying to make. I am not in the Church today because someone stuck his finger in my face and warned me of hell and God’s judgment. I am in the Church because I first learned of God’s mercy. My entry into Christ began in the fall of 1972, on the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. God first established the day in Leviticus 16 for His people to reflect on their lifestyles, repent of their sins, make appropriate sacrifice and turn back to God with renewed conviction to live holy lives thereafter.
No one needed to tell me in 1972 I was a sinner. Evil held me prisoner, and though I tried many times to change my life, to be a better person, to please God, each time I tried, I failed. And then, at the end of my proverbial rope, I asked Him for mercy. “Oh, God,” I prayed, “forgive me for my past sins and look with tolerance on my future sins.”
I did not – I would not – promise God I’d stop sinning. I knew I could never keep that promise. I could only, as the publican in Luke’s gospel (see 18:9-14) beg Him for mercy. Less than three months later, on Christmas Eve, God opened my eyes to the cross, and to my crucified Lord.
Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be a “field hospital” is a call many in the Church need to hear – and to follow. Let me give you another personal example, this one is more recent. In the last few months my wife and I have experienced several major changes in our lives. And though we have been able to slog through those changes, we’ve been bruised. And torn. And even as I write this, we are tired.
But with all the change, one thing remained the same – our faith in our God who loves us. The first Sunday in our new environment, we found a church we thought we could call home. The priest (whom we later discovered was a visiting pastor) spoke with great power and encouragement from the Scripture during his homily. His words buoyed us. We looked forward to the next Sunday. And we were not disappointed. Once again the priest – probably in his fifties – brought the word of God to life for Nancy and me. Our wounds began to heal.
But then things changed. The visiting priest moved on, and for the next few Sundays we listened to one of the resident priests – a young man, probably in his early thirties. In our forty-one years of attending church services in a variety of fellowships – Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Anglican, and non-denominational, and (since 2005) Catholic – Nancy and I never felt as bullied as we felt sitting in our pews. If we hadn’t known our faith and our Lord as well as he do, we could have thought we were at the very precipice of hell, and if we breathed wrong, we’d fall in.
At first, I thought the senior priest would rein him in. But he didn’t. By the end of the second homily our wounds had reopened, were stinging, and raw.
My wife and I were in desperate need of a field hospital where a shepherd would pour across our hurting spirits the balm of Gilead. What we got instead was condemnation and a promise of eternal judgment. Although I’ve been a Christian for nearly forty one years, we felt so demoralized and discouraged I told myself we would not return to that church again – even if it meant not attending church anywhere.
When I calmed down several hours later, I realized the young priest knew nothing about the things he was making such reckless statements. I know my Bible well enough, and have spent a lifetime growing in my intimacy with God to know that priest has a lot to learn about the mercy of God. And he could learn a lot by reflecting on Pope Francis’ interview in which he calls on the Church to go out to the highways and byways to bring healing to those who, for whatever reason, will not darken the door of a church. The Pope is calling the Church to do, for example, what the Lord Jesus Himself did with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8). You might remember the story. A crowd of men dragged the woman to Jesus and they challenged Him: What do you say we should do?
Before answering, the Lord bent down and wrote in the dirt with His finger. Then he stood and said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Without waiting for an answer, He bent down again and wrote a second time in the dirt.
One by one, the crowd dispersed, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus asked, “Where are your accusers? Does no one accuse you?” She answered, “No, my lord, no one.”
Everyone, including Jesus, knew she’d sinned. But no one expected the Great Physician to say what He said next: “Neither do I accuse you.”
First the Lord offered her the balm of Gilead. He offered her wounded spirit healing. And then, if you remember the story, He followed up His offer of mercy with something just as important, something just as life-giving.
He told her: “Go, and sin no more.”
It is likely the adulteress would have never heard those words of life if Jesus had nothing but words of condemnation for her in the first place. So too, as Pope Francis knows, people today whose lives are just as darkened with sin may never hear the message of God’s grace and forgiveness – and of the power to change – if all they first hear from us are words of condemnation. Just as I contemplated – if only for a moment – leaving the Church after being bullied from the pulpit, how many today have been driven from the Church because some of God’s spokespeople have said things Christ never said?
The publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is another example of the Great Physician’s healing balm poured over a person trapped in sin. Publicans were outcasts from Jewish society, and for good reason. They collected taxes for the Roman government and usually amassed a small fortune charging exorbitant taxes from their fellow Jews, and siphoning off the excess. When the Lord met Zacchaeus He did not accuse the man of sin. He did not threaten him with hell. The first thing out of Christ’s mouth was, “Zacchaeus, we’re having dinner at your place tonight,” and Zacchaeus finished dinner a disciple of Christ. He’d been changed. Redeemed. Cleansed by the blood of the merciful Savior.
In Mark’s gospel (chapter 12) some religious lawyers challenge Jesus with a hypothetical case of a woman whose seven husbands died in succession without leaving her an heir. In the resurrection, they asked Him, whose wife will she be, since all seven had her as wife?
The Lord’s response is something of which I believe Pope Francis is trying to remind the Church: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Jesus could have just as easily said they did not understand the mercy of God. Or the compassion of God. Or the forgiveness of God.
Pope Francis seems to me to be reminding the Church of her heritage, a heritage rooted in the mercy of God who gave his only begotten son so that everyone – regardless of their sin and lifestyle – everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). The Pope is reminding us that, though we all were – and are – sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Oh, how we need to hear it again and again how God saw us as sheep who had gone astray, who’d turned to our own way, and so He laid our iniquity on Christ (Isaiah 53) that we – the abortionist, the homosexual, the adulterer, the thief, the drug addict, the murderer, the blasphemer – that we each might become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Pope’s call for the Church to be a field hospital invites us to invite the wounded into our midst – to love the sinner while not accepting or compromising with the sin. He is asking us to welcome them into our hospital so that through our love the Holy Spirit can work His work of mercy in their lives until they will be able to hear with an open heart, “Go, and sin no more.”