Look, I’m not an expert. I haven’t read any of the works Pope Francis wrote when he was just Jorge Bergoglio, for instance. But it seems to me that the reason a lot of liberals and conservatives alike wrongly think that Francis is changing Church teaching is because they don’t pick up on the pope’s central theme: the Gospel, to be good news, needs to focus much more on God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and grace than on law, sin, judgment, and disobedience. Both ends of this spectrum are still valid and true, and the tension between the two that his change in tone has surfaced has really always been there. But Francis is pushing so forcefully toward the pole of mercy, and the perception of the Church (and religion in general) has been weighted so heavily toward the pole of law, that the whole effort feels disruptive.
Francis isn’t the only one to eloquently argue against an overemphasis on judgment, on religion as set of rules. Here’s a column this week by David Brooks on the topic. (He also profiles Catholic singer/songwriter Audrey Assad, of whom I am a big fan.) Here’s a daily reflection from the excellent Protestant website “The High Calling” on the same topic. These are both just from this week. So it’s a thing.
For the pope, I think, the need to shift focus from law to gospel is both deeply practical and deeply theological. It is practical, in that, if your goal is to help people come to know and accept God’s love for them and offer love in return, you’re going to be more successful talking emphasizing the joyous, wonderful positives of this message than you are by focusing on the negatives. You draw more flies with honey than vinegar. But it’s also for Francis more central to who God is and who we are. God is love. We are beloved. That we are disobedient is still true, and that we should strive to return God’s love is still true, but our disobedience isn’t the heart of the gospel; it’s just the setting for God to show how much deeper His love is than our disobedience.
If you want to understand why Francis says what he says, especially but not only in the Joy of the Gospel, this is a good lens to start with.
I’ll throw some examples into the next post.
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