Tag Archives: mercy

133. What Kind of “Reformation” Does Pope Francis Have in Mind?

February 1st, 2017

“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?

The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.

Not a New Word

In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.

Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.

Two Axises

Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.

The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.

Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?

Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.

 

    120. An Atonement-Free Mercy?

    March 1st, 2016

    Mercy is by far the most used word by Pope Francis. Actually, it is the interpretative key of his whole pontificate. A book on mercy by Cardinal Kasper was on Bergoglio’s bedside table when he was elected Pope, thus shaping his own personal reflections as he prepared to become pontiff. Mercy was the main rubric of the Synod of the Family when the Pope urged his church to apply less rigorously the “letter” of the teachings on sexuality and to listen more to the “spirit” of inclusion for those who live in various forms of irregular relationships. Mercy is the over-arching theme of the Jubilee Year which Francis indicted in order to offer a year-long display of mercy through the system of indulgences. It is not surprising, therefore, that mercy is also the main theme of his recent speeches where he expounds it and unfolds it. The last instance was the general audience given on February 3rd in Saint Peter’s square.[1]

    Mercy and Justice

    The vexed question of the relationship between mercy and justice is central to the Pope’s meditation. Here is how he sets the tone of it: “Sacred Scripture presents God to us as infinite mercy and as perfect justice. How do we reconcile the two?” There seems to be a contradiction between God’s mercy and God’s justice. One way of connecting mercy and justice is through “retributive justice” which “inflicts a penalty on the guilty party, according to the principle that each person must be given his or her due”. Justice is done when one receives what is owed to him. Francis makes reference to a couple of Bible verses that show retributive justice at work but he wants to challenge it. “This path does not lead to true justice because in reality it does not conquer evil, it merely checks it. Only by responding to it with good can evil be truly overcome”. The unnecessary implication here is that retributive justice never produces any good. Does it not?

    There is a far better way of doing justice according to Francis. “It is a process that avoids recourse to the tribunal and allows the victim to face the culprit directly and invite him or her to conversion, helping the person to understand that they are doing evil, thus appealing to their conscience. And this is beautiful: after being persuaded that what was done was wrong, the heart opens to the forgiveness being offered to it. This is the way to resolve conflicts in the family, in the relationship between spouses or between parents and children, where the offended party loves the guilty one and wishes to save the bond that unites them”. According to the Pope, mercy achieves justice by avoiding tribunals, sentences, and prices to be paid. A whole chunk of what the Bible teaches on justice is chopped out and replaced by a merciful and atonement-less justice. Is it God’s justice though?

    This is God’s paradigm of mercy, says Francis. “This is how God acts towards us sinners. The Lord continually offers us his pardon and helps us to accept it and to be aware of our wrong-doing so as to free us of it”. What is happening here? No reference is made to the cross, the penalty of sin that was paid there, the wonder of Jesus Christ being punished on our behalf, the need for repentance and conversion for those who believe. Mercy seems to relinquish the cross. The point is that biblical atonement is totally missing here and the resulting view of mercy and justice is severely flawed.

    What About Atonement?

    Unfortunately, this is a seriously faulty teaching. Atonement-free justice is one of the popular ways to re-imagine God’s dealings with sin which is practiced by significant trends in contemporary theology. All that sounds connected to punishment, in execution of a lawful sentence, objectively imparted, etc. is seen as belonging to an out-fashioned, patriarchal, legalistic understanding of justice that needs to be overcome by a merciful, restorative, loving extension of pardon. In other words, what contemporary theology seems to reject are the basics of covenant justice instituted by the covenant God of Scripture. This justice presents a righteous Father who is also love, who sent his Son, the God-man Jesus, to pay for sin in order to bring salvation. Fulfilling the Old Testament, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Through His sacrifice, He is God’s provision for the forgiveness of sin.

    Biblical justice has the cross of Christ at the center (1 Corinthians 1:23): Jesus Christ bore our sin on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Mercy is possible not because tribunals and sentences are left out and made redundant by an all-embracing love. Mercy is accomplished and displayed exactly because justice was satisfied: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Not by us, but by our Substitute, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us (Romans 5:8). When Pope Francis speaks of mercy, is he missing this fundamental biblical truth?

      109. Jubilee of Mercy (and Indulgences)

      June 1st, 2015

      Pope Francis surprised the Catholic community and the public in unexpectedly announcing the indiction of an extraordinary Jubilee year beginning at the end of 2015 and running throughout most of 2016. The tradition of celebrating jubilee years dates back 1300 AD when pope Boniface VIII issued the first holy year calling pilgrims to visit Rome in order to receive a plenary indulgence. The name “jubilee” reminds of the biblical institution of the jubilee whereby, according to the Mosaic law, every fifty years slaves were supposed to be freed and debts had to be cancelled (e.g. Leviticus 25). However, in spite of the name, the Roman ecclesiastical jubilee has little to do with this biblical precedent and mostly to do with the medieval practice of a powerful church granting remission of the penalty of sin by shortening the time in Purgatory. The Vatican jubilee is therefore part and parcel of a theological vision whereby Purgatory is a pillar of the afterlife, the church claims to administer God’s grace on His behalf, and pilgrims have to do some penitential acts like rosaries, pilgrimages, fasting, i.e. religious works, in order to receive the remission. It is not a coincidence that Martin Luther, after visiting Rome in 1511, became troubled with the practice of indulgences and eventually nailed the 95 theses in the (vain) hope that a biblical and public discussion could be initiated.

      It is interesting to note that an unconventional Pope like Francis, who is known for his down-to-earth language and easy-going manners, would instead indict a Jubilee year which is part of a long and well-established tradition deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Even the apparently “fresh” approach by Francis is always to be related to the “old” institution he is head of.

      Focus on Mercy

      Francis wants his Jubilee year to be focused on mercy. The overall theme of the year and of its wide-ranging activities will be mercy. This is not a new emphasis. His 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium already centered on mercy as an encompassing rubric of the mission of the church. After being elected, Francis went public in saying that he was reading a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, Mercy. The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014) and that he was profoundly impressed by it. So, the Jubilee of mercy will be a vantage point from which Francis’s understanding of mercy will be displayed in full force.

      So far, some indications about how he understands mercy are a mixed bag. In these first two years of his reign, mercy has often been swollen with regard to its biblical meaning as to refer to a sort of divine and universal benevolence towards all. Eye-catching sentences like “Who am I to judge?”, “God forgives who follows his conscience”, “God always forgives”, contribute to widen God’s mercy to the point of being exchanged for an all-embracing, all-inclusive love. Yet unclear is the way in which the Pope relates God’s mercy to His justice and how this relationship fits in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. According to Scripture, Christ is the “merciful and faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Any biblical understanding of mercy needs to be interwoven with God’s justice and Christ’s atonement which calls for repentance and faith. Otherwise, mercy can be (ab)used as a general manifestation of kindness which does not depict God’s mercy at all, but is rather a form of humanistic goodwill.

      What about Indulgences?

      The Bull of indiction of Jubilee of Mercy was issued on April 11th and is entitled Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy). There was some curiosity about how this outward-looking Pope come “from the ends of the world” would treat a very “Roman” and ecclesiastical topic like indulgences. He deals with it at paragraphs 21-22 where he uses a language much more personal and relational than juridical and traditional, yet the substance of the theology and practice of the indulgences is granted.

      In closing, one almost overlapping event will be the V centenary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. It is interesting to observe that while on the one hand the Roman Catholic Church is officially preparing an “ecumenical” commemoration of the Reformation, on the other she represents and promotes again the theology and the practice that caused the Reformation, i.e. the granting of indulgences. How is it possible to commemorate something that was opposed to the indulgences and, at the same time, focus on the same theological framework that was the cause of the dispute? Is it because the Roman Church is, despite all change, semper eadem, always the same?