By far, one of the most discussed news events in recent days has been the lengthy interview granted by Pope Francis to the Italian Jesuit publication Civiltà Cattolica. Less likely to attract such spirited commentary is the toppling of the Ten Commandments in Washington, D.C., the vandalization of stone tablets placed by the Faith and Action Christian outreach ministry in full and deliberate view of the Supreme Court. Yet somehow, a connection lies in illuminating the relationship between law and morality.
Despite what some of the headlines may have suggested, the range of the Holy Father’s interview was wide and by no means focused on the hot-button socio-moral issues of the day, such as abortion, “gay marriage” and contraceptives. His intent was clearly to provide a Gospel-rooted context for understanding all Church doctrine on faith and morals. That context, as he repeatedly stated, is the Good News of a merciful God Who both exposes the sin and brokenness of humanity and remedies it with healing grace. At no point did he even suggest a change in the doctrine, only the context in which it is taught and preached.
At certain points, however, the interviewer turned to some controversial issues. So the Holy Father, asked if he “approves” of homosexuality, responded with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”
A Context of Mercy
In shifting the context of the narrative from making a judgement or a condemnation to mercy, he opens up a path to the grace which comes from encountering the saving Love that illumines the Law. It is a response that reminds us that morality is for persons, after all, as the late theologian Bernhard Häring often wrote. The Word of God, spoken personally to the human heart, transforms and purifies the whole person. Moral action follows a faithful heart, full of love.
In a similar vein, Rev. Robert Schenck, who heads Faith and Action, was asked if he was angry about the damage to the stone tablets. The vandals, he said, had actually helped the organization to convey important messages: “We all violate the Ten Commandments” and “We all violate God’s rules.”
So even sin can become an occasion of grace! Rev. Schenck well understands the Love which informs the Law, very much on the same page as Pope Francis.
Using a field hospital for those wounded in battle as a metaphor for the Church, Pope Francis goes on to note the absurdity of asking a bleeding patient about his cholesterol count before treating the wound. He clearly sees the Church less as a fortress to be defended than as a way station for the world weary, not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners.
The key to his insistence on the affirmative – mercy before condemnation – is rooted firmly in the Gospel messages directed at the healing and saving of persons.
A Church that seeks the salvation of the soul plagued by sin must first welcome, indeed go to the person wounded by it. Healed by God’s forgiving love, the sinner is freed to act on it. Morality then is understood and lived as a loving response – not to a law or a stone tablet but to a Real Person.