Vatican observers tended to feel that Pope Francis set out his “overall vision for the Catholic Church” during the homily he delivered at Mass for 20 new cardinals on Sunday, February 15 (note: not the less-commented-on, but for this reason perhaps equally important homily he delivered on February 14, when he created the cardinals; that February 14 homily is included in this issue). Some commentators went so far as to describe the February 15 homily as one of “the most decisive and important messages of his pontificate,” as British journalist Edward Pentin put it in a thoughtful article for Newsmax.
Strikingly, the homily left many traditional and faithful Catholics “perturbed” because of the obvious sympathies for “reform” the Pope expressed in it, as Pentin notes.
The Pope highlighted three “key concepts” from that Sunday’s Gospel in which Jesus heals the leper, linking them to “the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate” lives.
In essence, Pentin says, Francis equated the leper, an outcast in Jesus’ day, with those who, because of sin, stand outside the Church.
“Francis would like to attract them by, above all, placing an emphasis on God’s mercy rather than their sins and repentance of them,” Pentin wrote. “This theme of the homily, which highlighted inclusiveness, nondiscrimination, and going out to the peripheries, is central not only to this pontificate but was a key aspect coming out of last October’s Synod on the Family.”
Pentin continued: “That meeting in Rome of around 250 bishops worldwide was meant to examine today’s pastoral challenges to the family, but it drew controversy for proposing new pastoral practices towards civilly remarried Catholic divorcees, homosexuals, and cohabiting couples — approaches that many felt were at odds with Catholic teaching. With this homily, observers on all sides of the Church say it’s confirmed where the Pope stands on these issues.”
This was not Pentin’s idea alone. A February article for The Remnant, a newspaper published by traditional Catholics in America, by an author writing under the name of a Greek goddess, “Megaera Erinyes,” argues that Francis is “clearly signaling again” his intentions for the Synod.
The terms he uses, this writer argues, show that he is “wholly on the side” of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the flag-bearer of those pushing to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.
The writer calling herself “Erinyes” argues that the scriptural passages in which Jesus teaches that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery could not be clearer. Yet, by implicitly supporting the Kasper line in his homily (though Francis does not directly mention the issue), she believes the Pope sees obedience to Jesus’ teaching on this issue as a “lack of mercy” and “marginalization.”
But she argues that the Kasper position actually shows disobedience to the divine law and therefore a “hardness of heart” that Jesus’ teachings aimed to remedy. That the Pope sides with this position “is a frightening thought,” she writes.
Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer, possibly the most comprehensive biography of Pope Francis to date (and reviewed elsewhere in this issue of ITV) thinks things are not so clear after February 15’s important homily. He agreed it will be seen “as one of the most defining messages of his pontificate.” But he said it also captures the way Francis “sees his mission more broadly, as opening new paths for people to find their way back to the Church.”
Pentin spoke with Ivereigh, who told him that the Pope “is saying it’s not enough to preach the truth and wait for people to convert and come knocking — we have to go out and tend to the lost sheep, and let God do the rest. It would be wrong to read into it an endorsement of one or other strategy under discussion at the Synod, although it is a clear rebuke of those who are opposed to the whole process.”
The fact that the homily has as its central theme the outcast leper who is equated with a sinner — cast out from the Church — also has raised some eyebrows. “Erinyes” claims this is a “simple rhetorical fallacy,” a misleading “conflation” of an illness and the consequences of sin. “A leper is someone who suffers from a disease, who does indeed need a doctor,” she writes. “A man living with a woman to whom he is not married has entered into this situation with his will. And it is with his will that he can remedy the situation. He can decide, today, to sin no more, and to change his life.”
In his homily, the Pope also chastises “doctors of the law” and those who “fear to lose the saved” compared to those who want to “save the lost.” The Pope is contrasting two mentalities, Ivereigh believes: one reminiscent of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time (their starting point is a sense of threat to the integrity of the faith), the other that of “Jesus in the Gospel,” starting with the pain of those “outside the channels of salvation.”
For Francis, the way of the Gospel “is always to seek reinstatement through the exercise of mercy,” Ivereigh argues. “It’s wrong to see this as disregard for the law.”
But “Erinyes” believes that to offer the “marginalized” something meaningful while “abandoning the existing flock” is an “odd and contradictory statement.” The Pope appears to think that someone who “holds their faith in its entirety” is, by nature, “cruel and exclusionary,” she says. “But this is logically absurd, since it is that faith, that divine law, that requires (genuine) mercy and compassion for both the sick and the sinner.”
“By revealing his thoughts now on these issues, it makes it arguably harder for those opposed to them to speak out without setting themselves against the Pope,” Pentin sums up. “But given how much is at stake — Erinyes says the Kasper proposal represents a one-blow strike ‘against the very pillars of the faith: the Eucharist and the priesthood’ — signs suggest there will be more than a little resistance come October.”