«Though I command languages both human and angelic — if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.»
— 1 Cor 13:1 (NJB)
A common complaint being leveled against Pope Francis all the time is that his idea of accompaniment for sinners, especially sinners of the flesh, lacks truth (i.e. making the doctrine clear at all times possible, so as to direct the sinner into correcting his behavior). A variant of this complaint is used also to criticize Fr. Martin’s approach to people with homosexual orientation, whereby he focuses on making these people feel welcome and loved, instead of constantly reminding them the teachings of the Church regarding homosexuality.
In fact, this complaint is flung against most of the post-conciliar clergy, under the derogatory epithet “Church of Nice”. In other words, a church where “nice” waters down doctrine in order to foster a more welcoming environment where sinners are, by omission, validated on their sins instead of contradicted, taught and corrected…
There is indeed a kernel of truth to this complaint. It is indeed true that some progressive sectors of the Church, or even the secular world, have used “Love” as a weapon against “Truth”, as if these concepts were in contradiction. The doctrine of the Church would not be “loving”, since it would impose a demanding burden on the sinner, a heavy cross on his shoulders. This was, in part, the reason why Pope Benedict XVI found it necessary to issue an encyclical named Caritas in Veritate, or “Love in Truth”, where it was explained that love can’t be found without truth.
But we are now at a point where these critics of the “Church of Nice” have been so conditioned to hear “love” being misused in an heterodox way, that they almost instinctively shudder at every mention of this word when uttered in the context of religious debate. In an almost reflexive way, they immediately stand on guard, for they expect the word “love” will carry a heresy in tow.
And herein lies a danger, a very common danger when dealing with an error… the possibility of falling into the completely opposite error. Indeed, if a Catholic becomes distrustful of love, he is doomed as a Catholic, since one of the basic tenets of Catholicism is that we worship one sole God, and that God is Love Himself.
Without a doubt, Love only exists in Truth. However, by the same token, Truth can only exist in Love. Truth presented without love is a set of truisms, of sayings, of counsels. No matter how wise they are, they cannot encompass the whole of truth, for truth cannot be reduced to a set of ideas. Truth transcends mere ideas, because it is not a moral code, or an intellectual endeavor, or a theology. Rather, it is incarnated in a Person, a Person Who was not a mere sage, but also had feelings and emotions and a history and a faith… and, most of all, a Person that had so much love that He died in a completely self-giving act.
To clarify what I mean, allow me to borrow from a scenario that is familiar for most of orthodox Catholics who have engaged in apologetics in the past few years: It is true that science is a very useful tool to ascertain what is truthful and what is not. However, it is easy to become infatuated with it and start to reduce truth only to what can be scientifically proven. This is the error of scientific positivism, which ignores that truth transcends science. Reality will never fit neatly or completely into a lab. Does that mean our scientific knowledge is false? That we should get rid of science? Of course not, it just means it is insufficient.
Hence, it is not because truth can’t be reduced to a set of doctrines that we should get rid of doctrine, or that we must think that doctrines are false.
The problem is, by reducing truth (and therefore, love) to a set of ideas, we transform our religion into an ideology. This is most convenient to fight political wars, but it is not ultimately what Catholicism is all about. This is why Pope Francis warns us against transforming Catholicism into an ideology.
It is at this point that the kneejerk reaction occurs. Reflexively conditioned to guard against misuses of the word “love” against the truth, the apologist will see these Francis’ warnings as a threat. The apologist will not see this as a condemnation of his own error, since he doesn’t believe to be in error. Rather, he will interpret this as a condemnation of the apologists’ condemnation of the error of others.
Of course, the anti-Francis critic will reply that this is not what he’s doing. He is (he claims) just trying to push back against the widespread abuse of the concept of love. Love is not an emasculated way of patting someone in the shoulders for every decision made, good or bad. Love is virile, radical, a sign of contradiction. The critic is right in this regard.
So (he argues) by putting in practice “Love in Truth”, the anti-Francis critic is in fact exercising love by correcting the sinner. It is an act of love to risk being insulted, scorned, abandoned or worse so as to allow the sinner a chance to convert and attain eternal life. Once again, he is correct.
However, this anti-Francis critic will frequently put forth his corrections in a manner that doesn’t resemble love at all. Often, we see his interventions as more akin to an urge to win debates, or a neverending quest for clever slogans to shoot down the “competition”, or as a partisan eco chamber that sees the sinners’ experiences and stories as something that should only be listened to insofar as it allows the apologist to spot the mistakes that were made and to accordingly refute them. In the meantime, the sinner is frowned upon, looked down upon, condescended upon, labeled, critiqued, bashed, sometimes even downright insulted… and when the sinner (surprisingly) doesn’t heed the apologist, he is finally cast out, usually with a patronizing “I’ll pray for you” at the end.
This is what Pope Francis is referring to in Amoris Laetitia #49, when he says:
«In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”»
By refusing the pope’s correction, the anti-Francis critic is, in fact, patting himself in the shoulders for his apologetics, be it good or bad. Is that really so different from the self-serving pseudo-love he battles so fiercely? A false love that doesn’t allow truth to correct it? Quite a paradox for a supposed love that seeks to be “love in truth”.
But ask the sinner if he felt loved at all by these Catholics, and what will he reply? Should we blame it completely on the sinner, because of an alleged hardness of heart on the sinner’s part? It depends on the situation of course: some sinners won’t listen to anyone, no matter how empathetic or reasonable or polite… but at the same time, it may be because the approach lacked empathy or reasonableness or politeness as well. If the sinner hasn’t felt loved, this is something to seriously ponder.
Yet, it is in love that lies the key. Love is not just an accessory for our theology. It is not just a basic tenet of our faith. Love is the indispensable tool to reach for the heart of the sinner and therefore, achieve his conversion.
As much as it may exasperate folks of a more intellectual leaning, the fact is that the vast majority of the population isn’t guided by what they perceive as true. If found mistaken, they will tend to persist in their errors, if they are somewhat invested in said errors.
However, the same vast majority of the population would be willing to change deeply engrained behaviors… if they loved someone. When you are in love, you don’t mind to wake up early or to fret on boring errands or even to make great sacrifices (according to each individual’s capacity to do so) if that results in advantage (or mere joy) for the loved one. This is explained because love is at the heart of every human being that hasn’t forfeited his/her humanity. Each single human being was made in the image and likeness of God… and God is Love.
This means that if people loved God, they wouldn’t feel His commandments as a duty or a burden. They wouldn’t need the doctrine to be laid out as a list of tasks or prohibitions. Especially, they wouldn’t need to be hammered all day long with corrections… they would seek those corrections themselves, because they would like to be pleasing to God, as a bride wants to be pleasing to her groom.
But who can give that which he does not possess? How can people love God, if they don’t feel loved by Him? And since we, Catholics, are the ones commissioned to tell them about God’s love, isn’t this to be seen as a fault of our own? It is too easy to just shrug and put the blame on others. “They are sinners”, after all. However, as ambassadors of the Most High, we are called to examine ourselves more thoroughly than how we examine others.
There was a time when the word gospel meant “good news”. Not just as an etymological curiosity to be parsed by learned scholars, but as something lived and eagerly relayed by ordinary Christians. They understood it to be good news that the Lord of the Universe Himself loved His mankind so much, that He humiliated Himself into a receptacle of flesh, was born in a stable, was subjected to every kind of hardship and eventually died a horrible death on a cruel instrument of torture.
These good news have grown cold, for they are not viewed as news at all, but as old hat… And yet, is it not possible to make these good news new anew? Those events happened thousands of years ago, and yet have a crucial importance to a person that was born only 20, 40 or 60 years ago. For each person that lives, there’s a story God wants to make in light of that love. The evangelium is reborn for each new person that is born. The eternal fate of that individual person rests in those “old” good news.
It is important to tell those that are sleeping in the apathy of a post-christian world, those who think they already know the history of the Christ… it is important to make them understand how radical and refreshing it is to know that Jesus Christ is a man, and is God, and died for our sins. Who could love more than Him, that loved unto death? If the sinner would feel touched by this love, he would want reciprocate this love and would convert.
Still, let us not fall into the danger of trivializing His sacrifice in the cross, by turning it into a kind of emotional blackmail. “He died for you, so you gotta do the same for Him” is a very common line of reasoning in apologetics. It is also wrong. The sinner doesn’t feel loved by this, he feels trapped. Trapped in a huge debt that is being collected at the doorstep of his soul. “God loves you” doesn’t sound as true love then, but as a kind of manipulation typical of abusive relationships.
So, how to solve this conundrum? Well, I’ve already said that we, as Catholics, serve as ambassadors of the Most High. It is very hard for the average person to experience God’s love, if he is not sensitive enough to feel it in the subtle signs of everyday life. This means that this average person must experience God’s love through the actions of concrete, flesh and bone people he meets along the way. We Catholics are, in a sense, commissioned to be the worldwide deliverers of this love we believe God has given us, a love that has not trapped us, but set us free.
If a sinner feels loved by you, he will start asking questions. When you tell him about the orthodox faith you profess, that will make the sinner curious: “You say you don’t agree with my life decisions? I thought you loved me! I’m confused!”… this is the perfect time to start preaching. It is at this time that “love the sinner, hate the sin” won’t feel like an empty slogan, but as something that corresponds to the sinner’s experience. He will open his ears and, most importantly, his heart to you.
This is different than shoveling doctrine down the throat of someone who is not willing to listen, who has then hardened his heart. Most importantly, it is very different from having someone willing to listen, but making that person shut down his heart, because that person felt judged.
This is what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he said:
«The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord».
What a pity that Pope Francis is criticized in such a kneejerk way for building on this sound teaching from his predecessor!
Anti-Francis critics often say that *they* are the real followers of Christ. Francis is, supposedly, overturning Church doctrine, namely on marriage and adultery. They will often claim that the secular world forgets that Jesus said to the adulterer woman: “Go and sin no more”. This is true.
However, these critics engage in the same cherry picking they accuse the secular world of engaging in. They just cherry pick differently. The secular world forgets “Go and sin no more”. But the anti-Francis critics forget that, before urging the adulterer woman to go and sin no more, Jesus said to her: “I don’t condemn you”. And even before that, Jesus saved the adulterer woman from the judgment of those who thought themselves righteous because they knew the Law from back to front.
So, we can’t say these anti-Francis critics are really more followers of Christ than the secular world is. The secular world shuns “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”, but the supposed defenders of orthodoxy shun “Judge not, lest ye be judged”.
All you need is love. Let the sinner get a realization of how much God loves him, and he will convert of all his heart. For this sinner to get this realization though, he will have to see God’s love in the cross. For this to come to pass, the Catholic can’t use the cross has a hammer with which to beat on the sinners’ head. Instead, the Catholic must take his place on this very cross, to better illustrate to the sinner what this love is all about.
In this we see that love isn’t really a sissified, emasculated, saccharine sort of thing. Dying on a cross isn’t really my idea of “nice”. On the other hand, love also can’t be the sort of tough, hardened, self-serving correction that supposedly loves the sinner in truth so much, that it doesn’t care if the sinner gets converted or not, as long as the message is out there to condemn him. Love is demanding, no doubt, but demands firstly from oneself, before putting burdens on others. This is what Pope Francis is all about… and maybe this is why those that have used Catholicism to achieve a kind of spiritual or religious status in the apologetics community hate him so much. Pope Francis has shown them to be, indeed, mere clashing cymbals: too much noise (in fact, so much noise that it drives off people and makes them close their ears)… but nothing more than noise.
[Photo Credit: Omnia Vincit Amor, Benjamin West, 1809 AD; Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.