By Charlie Johnston
Even the most venial sin, when habitually engaged in over a long period of time, creates such a hole that we end up in a pit. The aim of Christian solidarity and ministry is to help each other out of the pits that we dig for ourselves in order that we may walk in the plain path of the joy that is in the Lord.
I have always been short of patience with those who use their knowledge (more often what they merely think is their knowledge) of Scripture, the Magisterium and the Catechism as a blunt object with which to assault those who have ended in a pit. We are to help each other out of such pits, not merely berate each other for being in one. But I am equally impatient with those who, with false mercy, suggest to the sufferer that he is just fine in the pit he is dug into and has no need to do the hard work of crawling out. If we merely enable what got us stuck in the pit in the first place, we remain mired in the mud, unable to walk freely in the light of Christ’s love. Our duty is ever to extend the hand of fellowship to each other, remembering always that nothing is so easy to condemn as a sin we are not tempted by – and nothing so easy to justify as one that we are tempted by. Both approaches end up in a pit.
Authentic mercy and justice are the parallel guard rails on either side of the narrow road of authentic righteousness. Veer too far to either the right or the left and we end in a pit.
I thought Pope Francis’ comments at the close of the first session of the Synod on the Family in October, 2014, perfectly captured the challenge before the Church. He warned against five temptations and outlined the way forward with concise elegance and orthodoxy:
“ – One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and
not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
– The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
– The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
– The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
– The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment.
Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parresia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the “supreme law,” the “good of souls” (cf. Can. 1752). And this always – we have said it here, in the Hall – without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).
And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.
Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.
And, as I have dared to tell you , [as] I told you from the beginning of the Synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquillity, and with interior peace, so that the Synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.
We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.
His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God’s People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, or, as the Council puts it, ‘to see to it… that each member of the faithful shall be led in the Holy Spirit to the full development of his own vocation in accordance with Gospel preaching, and to sincere and active charity’ and to exercise that liberty with which Christ has set us free (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6)… and it is through us,” Pope Benedict continues, “that the Lord reaches souls, instructs, guards and guides them. St Augustine, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St John, says: ‘let it therefore be a commitment of love to feed the flock of the Lord’ (cf. 123, 5); this is the supreme rule of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, like that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, given to all, attentive to those close to us and solicitous for those who are distant (cf. St Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15), gentle towards the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope (cf. ibid., Epistle, 95, 1).”
So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).”
Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.”
These marvelous comments laid out the way forward perfectly, succumbing neither to an excess of legalism or indulgence. The point, clearly, was to draw us out of the pits we had all dug for ourselves – and to do it as loving brothers always focused on the majesty of truth without imputing unworthy motives to any whose emphasis or style was different from the Pope’s.
I was dismayed a few weeks ago when Pope Francis, contemplating young people who love the Latin Mass, suggested it could only be because of a certain “rigidity” and “hostile inflexibility” on their part, because they have no memory of when the Latin Mass was the ordinary form. My preferred form of the Mass is in the vernacular, said ad orientum, using communion rails. My brother, Steve, who was alienated from all religion for several decades and was never Catholic, converted in 2009. He fell in love with the Latin Mass shortly thereafter for its transcendent beauty and reverence. I have many friends, including some in their 20s, who love and prefer the Latin Mass for the same reasons. I well know that some people use the old as a cudgel against the new – and I have never shrunk from chiding those people. But I would no more think of condemning people for preferring the beauty of it than I would of condemning them for preferring Toscanini while I prefer Beethoven. Which particular type of beauty speaks most intensely to a person is just a matter of style and preference, not substance – and anyone who appreciates beauty with reverence is my friend. It startled me that the Pope would open up this reflection merely to insult those who had a different preference than him rather than to understand and appreciate them.
The 17 Bishops the Pope recently elevated to Cardinal were notable for their monochromatic political and ideological views. They could have popped out of a Xerox machine. It disturbed me that the Pope who, two years ago, spoke of a magnificent symphony of voices working toward the same end, now wanted to make clear there was only one type of voice he wanted to hear. I am an old trumpet player – but I am not under the illusion that an orchestra would be improved by suppressing all instruments save the trumpets.
When four senior Cardinals, led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, released their formal request for clarification of parts of Amoris Laetitia, I was heartened that we were moving toward serious refinement of doctrine here. Contrary to what many think, doctrine has not been deeply refined over the millennia by easy unanimity, but by the dynamic tension of
disagreement and strife – even among saints who were contemporaries of each other. When such situations arise (as they often have) it is a signal that something particularly weighty is in development. I was surprised that they had had no response from the Pope during the two months that the request was entirely private. These were not just some guys, but senior Princes of the Church. I was dismayed when the Pope then responded to what he imputed their motives to be, rather than the subject of their questions. He suggested that their questions were cover for a certain “rigidity: on their parts, masking an ulterior motive. It strikes me that in routinely dismissing and insulting those responsible voices who have a different approach or emphasis than he does, the Pope has been progressively getting more…well, rigid.
In January of 2015 I voiced the sense I had that somewhere along the line, Pope Francis was going to make a significant blunder. I added that, as the blunder became clear, it would refine him, leading him into a true greatness as he ultimately redoubled his efforts to lead as a universal Father. Later in the year, I noted that I suspected the blunder was to see things for a time through a primarily political and ideological prism, rather than a spiritual and faithful one. Of late, the Pope has often sounded more like an American politician, reflexively insulting those who do not share his approach in a contest of wills, rather than the Pope of two years ago who so elegantly synthesized the virtues of many divergent points of view in approaching the pastoral challenges which confront the Church and the world. Pope Francis has a swashbuckling style, one that I expected from the Pope who would carry us through the final journey of the Storm. When properly ordered, this style has a holy boldness that cuts through the clutter of contention to forge unexpected paths to sanctity. When disordered, it degenerates into mere partisanship.
Pope Francis has a great heart. He truly and passionately wants to bring everyone back into the safety of the Barque of Peter. Right now, his passion has led him to act as if everyone who talks like he does shares his great heart. It is ever true that not everyone who agrees with you is your friend, nor everyone who disagrees with you, your enemy. This will pass. In fact, today’s caustic partisanship is merely Pope Francis’ prelude to greatness. His swashbuckling boldness will eventually carry us all through the heart of the Storm to safety. I don’t mind that the Pope is a saxophone, but am disturbed that, for now, he seems intent on banishing the trumpets, french horns, clarinets, violins – and all instruments that are not saxophones – from the divine symphony. But it will not prevail. He has too great a heart for such an approach to define him for very long. The divine symphony will be heard in all its richness and depth, calling people out of the pits, rather than merely comforting them where they are.
The time will come when Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke become affectionate allies. This will be a sign to you. When it happens, you will know we are fully underway to Rescue.