Pope Francis, Dr. Munroe and the gift of mercy
Published: Aug 08, 2013
It is one of the most ancient prayers in the Christian tradition by penitents seeking and celebrating divine mercy in private prayer and at public worship.
Throughout the christian gospels are those hungry and thirsty for mercy: the woman caught in adultery, the family of Lazarus, the publican, Peter after denying Jesus, the apostles panicked amidst stormy weather, the thief crucified alongside Jesus, and others pining to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Their common supplication: “Lord, have mercy!”
The mercy of Jesus, indeed the incarnation itself, scandalized the religious leaders of his time. And still, millennia later.
The Pharisees and others were scandalized that Jesus was not rigid in upholding the law as they demanded. Oh, the outrage when Jesus cured on the Sabbath. They preferred that Jesus adhere to exacting legal codes rather than respond to someone in need of mercy’s balm.
The Nassau Guardian recently reported the comments of a local religious leader: “A Bahamian pastor has branded as ‘reckless’ Pope Francis’s decision to reveal that he would not judge priests if they were gay.
“Dr. Myles Munroe, pastor of Bahamas Faith Ministries, said he was disappointed the Pope had voiced his personal opinion.”
The story noted: “Dr. Munroe said: ‘People who want to perpetrate [sic] a lifestyle are waiting for affirmation, confirmation and credibility. [But] what the Pope said is very dangerous in my view. He in his, what I would consider reckless statement to the press in Brazil, which of course is global, every time he speaks, will give people who are looking for credibility to embrace, promote or even accept a lifestyle. [It’s] exactly what they need.
“‘[I was] very disappointed in the Pope’s statement which seems to suggest that he is claiming that he cannot judge individuals who embrace, chose and encourage a lifestyle that is clearly [prohibited] and stated in scripture.
“‘I don’t think that it’s the Pope’s prerogative or right to personally pass judgment. In that particular sense I think the Pope did not perform his duty as the head of the Catholic Church.”
The story further noted: “He (Dr. Munroe) believes that the Pope’s comments came in a bid to ‘revive’ Catholicism.
“He said the statements seemed to contradict the position of the previous Pope, Benedict XVI, and the position of the Catholic Church.”
Archbishop Patrick Pinder’s comments on the Pope’s remarks were reported in the Religion section of this journal last Thursday, August 1. He noted: “This is not any kind of earth-shaking change in the church’s position. It’s basically a whole new approach... and I think it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s inviting...”
The archbishop’s full comments, though not in response to Dr. Munroe’s reaction, provide a thoughtful understanding of and considered context for the Pope’s remarks.
Pinder knows the tradition well. He has a B.A. degree in philosophy, completed a S.T.B./M.A. at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, as well as a licentiate in sacred theology (S.T.L.) from the university. He also earned a doctoral degree -- doctor of sacred theology (S.T.D.) – from the Catholic University of America.
Dr. Munroe’s remarks evinced a poor grasp of some basic elements of theology and ecclesiology in the Roman Catholic tradition. He is factually wrong in various assertions: The Pope did not express his own opinion, nor did he contradict his predecessor or the position of the Catholic Church.
Further, the Pope did not make his comments in Brazil per se. His unplanned comments were made on his aircraft on the return trip to Rome, in response to a question by a reporter.
There was also this disheartening claim: “He (Dr. Munroe) believes that the Pope’s comments came in a bid to ‘revive’ Catholicism.” Is Dr. Munroe suggesting that the Pope’s comments were driven mostly by public relations and marketing than the spirit of the Gospel?
Pinder noted the pastoral style displayed by Pope Francis in his comments. Pastoral style includes one’s tone and what one stresses in one’s tradition, without abandoning other elements of that tradition.
In this vein is commentary offered by Francis’ fellow Jesuit Fr. James Martin, S.J., in The Washington Post: “Throughout the exchange on the plane, Pope Francis, speaking in fluent Italian, used the English word ‘gay’. Previous popes and the majority of church leaders have been more likely to use words like ‘homosexual’, ‘homosexually oriented’ and even ‘persons suffering from same-sex attraction’.
“The pope moved rather quickly from a question about a ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican to a comment about gay people in general. That is, he did not say, ‘If a gay priest is searching for God,’ but ‘If a gay person is searching for God.’ Then his remarkably compassionate comment: ‘Who am I to judge them?’”
Martin continued: “So there is something new. ... But there is also something old. Pope Francis has not changed church teaching on homosexual activity. ...Instead, he turned to a portion of the old teaching that often goes overlooked: The Catechism says that gays and lesbians are to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity.’
“Even older is the unwillingness to judge. ...Jesus uses hyperbole to make sure his listeners understand, saying that you must take the ‘log’ out of your own eye before you can take the ‘speck’... from another person’s eye.
“In other words, if you want to judge someone, judge yourself. And just to be clear, Jesus adds: ‘You hypocrite!’ ”
Martin directly addressed the question of judging: “The pope also knows that Jesus’s comment does not mean any of us will escape judgment. The Gospels are greatly concerned with judging moral activity. ...God’s judgment of our actions means that God is concerned about what we do. A God who doesn’t judge is a God who doesn’t care.
“But in the Gospels, it is God (or Jesus) who does the judging, not us. Jesus counsels his disciples not to judge but rather to show mercy. Indeed, Jesus not only counsels this, he demonstrates it by consistently approaching public ‘sinners’ with an offer of forgiveness rather than condemnation.”
By example of the parable of the woman caught in adultery Martin appeals: “One message to the crowd [from Jesus] is: Do not sin yourselves. But there is another message as well: Leave the judging of others to me. As for you, have mercy.”
So just how many more weapons are there in the arsenal of some who reflexively hurl stones and boulders of condemnation at gays and lesbians from one hand, while pharisaically clutching and waving the Old Testament in the other?
Gays and lesbians are not so much seeking an affirmation of their “lifestyle”, as much as they are seeking and rightly deserving of an affirmation of a shared humanity.
Much less remarked on, apparently less upsetting to many, was the Pope’s response to a question concerning divorced and remarried Catholics, who also often feel marginalized. Francis’ response: “I believe this is a time of mercy.” Was this also a “reckless” statement?
Pope Francis is no more reckless than Jesus. Another Jesuit, Fr. James Keenan, S.J., preaches that mercy is, “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.”
The God of Love, in the Incarnation, in the Resurrection, in the person and in the new testament that is Jesus Christ, unreservedly entered into the chaos and mess of the human condition.
What a reckless act of love, so profound that we are compelled, in the image and likeness of the God in Whom we are wonderfully, brilliantly and awesomely made, no matter gay or straight, to offer and to receive that very same gift of mercy.