Those who think the Pope’s emphasis on mercy supports laxity—whether critics or people who wrongly hope for change of teaching—misunderstand what mercy is. I find that Bishop Robert Barron has a good response, rejecting that view:
Many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness.
Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 199-201). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.
His response is a good one. Jesus showed mercy to sinners. He did not tell the that their sins did not matter. The Pope doesn’t tell people that their sins do not matter either. What the Pope does say is it is not enough to tell people what is wrong. We also have to help them get back to what is right.
The Error of Contrast
While I reject the misrepresentation of Pope Francis, I do understand how they got to that point. His predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had to take on a world openly hostile to the Catholic moral teaching, especially on sexual morality and the sanctity of life. These two Popes spoke to the world, showing why its values were harmful. The world, in response, misrepresented these Popes as caring only “about rules” while ignoring human suffering. They downplayed what these Popes had to say about mercy and love.
The error people make about Pope Francis is they assume his emphasis on bringing sinners back to a true relationship with God is contradicting his predecessors instead of complementing them. His critics and those who wrongly hope he is changing teaching and practice fall into the either-or fallacy. They assume Popes either emphasize teaching or emphasize mercy. The problem with looking at things this way is you will equate mercy with laxity instead of with love, and as Bishop Barron points out, "Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner.” [*]
Our problem in looking at mercy as laxity is it is like wearing a defective pair of glasses. It distorts what we see until we take them off. People have to go past their perception of what they think is there and seek what really is. That means becoming self-aware of our flaws and learning more about the depth of our Catholic teaching, instead of assuming that what we know is that depth.
Confusing Interpretation With Assumption of Meaning
People who don’t do this have gone badly wrong about Pope Francis. They see quotes like “Who am I to judge?” and “I could say ‘yes,' and that’s it” [†] but do not see those words in context. They use “Who am I to judge?” to claim the Pope sees same sex activity as morally acceptable, and “I could say ‘yes,’ and that’s it” as encouraging the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist.
But theology doesn’t work that way. You can’t just take a single verse of Scripture or a line from the Pope’s words and contrast it with a single line from an earlier document. That ignores context. Nothing taught by the Church exists in a vacuum. Whether it is an anti-Catholic citing “Call no man father” (see Matthew 23:9) or a person citing footnote 351 in Amoris Lætitia, or a Papal Press Conference, one cannot build a claim around one quote. We have to investigate context and intention to see how it is intended.
Peter Kreeft described it this way in a Socratic dialogue:
Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.
Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.
Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.
Flatland: Why not?
Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?
Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.
Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?
Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.
Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?
Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.
Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another.
Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.
So, if Pope Francis does not intend for his teachings to justify things people accuse him of justifying, they are making an error by assuming their belief is what he meant.
Exploring context does not mean “explaining away what he said.” It is investigating whether an opinion about the Pope’s intention is accurate If it is not, we must stop repeating the allegation as if it were true. That’s why we can’t accept the rushed mainstream media and anti-Francis blogs as true. By quoting things without considering the context, they cannot provide a trustworthy analysis of what the Pope intends.
Amoris Lætitia, Evangelii Gaudium and Footnotes
Let’s look at one example where people are arguing about What It All Means when it all revolves from one point taken out of context. That item is Footnote #351 from Amoris Lætitia. People are arguing over one point in that footnote: "I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).” People who interpret that as justifying Eucharist for the divorced/remarried (whether they favor it or oppose it) argue that the Pope was talking about the divorced and remarried in ¶305. From that, they accuse him of changing teaching or practice. But ¶305 is not dealing with changing rules about Sacraments. It is about priests not just reciting rules and assuming that all people in the same situation share the same level of culpability. It is about considering the culpability of the individual.
Evangelii Gaudium ¶47 (referenced in Amoris) happens to be about the fact that even Catholics who are living in opposition to Church teaching are not cut off entirely from the Church, and should join in at the level which is allowed to them. This section of Evangelii has its own footnote which references two early Christian Fathers on one not staying away from the Eucharist just because he is a sinner. [§]. But we can know Pope Francis does not use these citations to justify reception of the Eucharist. In his press conference returning from Mexico, he spoke this way:
Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that.
In other words, when asked what he meant by integration, he explicitly said that it did not automatically mean “Eucharist.” When Pope Francis speaks of a path, he means exactly that. It’s a path back to reconciliation with God. That path calls priests and bishops to go beyond citing rules and helping sinners reconcile with God through a process. Some people may be in situations where they can receive the Eucharist.
Here’s an example. When the synod process began, I met many angry women on Facebook. They were angry because they were unjustly divorced by their husbands, and thought it not receiving the Eucharist was unjust. As the comments continued, we discovered something. Some of those women had never remarried. They stayed away from the sacraments because they thought divorce alone barred them. They were amazed to discover they were never denied the Eucharist to begin with.
Not everybody is in an easy fix situation. But not all situations are impossible to reconcile with people of good will seeking to make things right. Even in situations where the person will not change their relationship, the Pope says not to give up on them. They’re still part of the Church even if their situation prevents them from receiving the Eucharist. As he wrote in Amoris Lætitia ¶309,
The Bride of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who goes out to everyone with- out exception”.358 She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst”.
In that parable, the shepherd was not content with the 99 sheep that did not stray. He went after the 100th sheep that strayed. That is what this chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation is about. Not permitting sin. It’s about finding and helping those who did stray back to the flock.
Conclusion: Avoiding Eisegesis and Circular Reasoning
To accuse the Pope of promoting “Communion for the Divorced and Remarried,” a person must start with a preconceived notion that the Pope intends to do this.It’s begging the question, assuming something is true when accusers need to prove their claim. With this fallacy, every bit of “evidence” against the Pope entirely depends on the accusation being true—which is what we insist they prove first before we accept it. If one does not read personal assumptions into the Pope’s words and actions, what he says and does is entirely in keeping with his predecessors and what the Church has always taught.
People believe the Pope is heterodox because they interpret his words as changing the Church teaching in a break from what cannot change. The problem is, they interpret his words as being a break from unchangeable teaching because they believe the Pope is heterodox. That’s arguing in a circle. Each part depends on the other, but neither part stands on its own. Mistrust of the Holy Father builds into a monstrous falsehood that destroys people’s trust in God protecting His Church. We must reject this spurious reasoning that undermines the Holy Father and stop claiming his calls for mercy are calls for laxity.
[*] (Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 615-616). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition).
[†] Some Catholics have taken the translation of the Italian word Punto as finality ignoring everything he said after.
[§] Footnote 51 of Evangelii Gaudium reads:
Cf. Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28: PL 16, 464: “I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy”; ID., op. cit., IV, 5, 24: PL 16, 463: “Those who ate manna died; those who eat this body will obtain the forgiveness of their sins”; Saint Cyril of Alexandria, In Joh. Evang., IV, 2: PG 73, 584–585: “I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy? When at last you present yourself before Christ? And if your sins prevent you from drawing nigh, and you never cease to fall—for, as the Psalm says, ‘what man knows his faults?’—will you remain without partaking of the sanctification that gives life for eternity?”
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).