Benedict XVI wrote these words in response to the backlash over his lifting of the excommunications of the four illicitly ordained bishops of the SSPX and his call to reconcile them back into the Church. I followed the controversy at the time. In the now defunct Xanga version of my blog, I wrote that while I personally had misgivings over the decision, I recognized Benedict’s right to make this decision under his authority to govern the Church.
Recently re-encountering this letter, I was struck by the similarities between the message of mercy Benedict XVI had for the members of the SSPX who were (and, sadly, still are) at odds with the Church, and the message of mercy Pope Francis has for those at odds with the Church (including the divorced and remarried). But people seem to favor outreach to one group, but not to the other. In both cases, people are more than willing to point out the wrongdoing of the unrepentant members of the group and claim that the Pope supports their wrongdoing. To them, this is the obvious explanation for his opening the door to mercy. Of course, it is easy to see the fault in the other side’s mercy while downplaying the problems that inevitably crop up as a result of the mercy shown to a faction with whom we empathize.
Perhaps we should consider this when we look at anyone who is at odds with the Church. Whatever they have done, God desires their salvation. He calls on the Church to be his ordinary means to bring salvation to the world. While we cannot force others to accept that salvation, we must never tire of trying to be God’s coworkers for the truth (cf. 3 John 1:8), no matter what we think of the actions that have put them at odds with God and His Church. This even applies to those who think that their wrong is “right.”
Yes, I hate how certain Catholics misrepresent the Pope through ignorance or malice. I also deplore how certain people misrepresent his words in order to lobby for changes in Church teaching that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine. But I can’t treat them hatefully, even if I must speak against them forcefully†. Whenever I have failed in this, I must reconsider my attitude.
This isn’t a matter of factions. This is about making certain that we do not fall into rash judgment or condemnation when responding to those at odds with the Church. We are called to be merciful to each other, forgiving seventy times seven because God is merciful to us, and if are not merciful, we cannot expect mercy from God (cf. Matthew 18:21-35).
Pope Francis warns against a Pelagian mindset in dealing with others. In Gaudete et Exsultate, he says:
“49. Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.'”
In the footnotes, he points to Evangelii Gaudium 94 where he writes:
“A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.”
This happens across factions within the Church. Catholics in the U.S. frequently classify what is really Catholic according to their personal preferences. It’s done to the point where you can easily identify the political views of the Catholic doing the judging‡. But we cannot write people off because their positions err. Our task is to help them understand why their position is in error and help them to find the truth taught by the Church—not to simply compel them to embrace the political contrary of their position.
If we forget our role as individual Catholics and members of the Catholic Church, we’ll miss the point of our calling. We’re not called to play “goalie” (keeping undesirables away from the Church). We’re called to be medics in a field hospital, bringing others to know Christ and understand why it is important to change our ways and follow him. People tend to do a poor of job detecting their own hypocrisy, but they do a good job seeing it in others. If there is hypocrisy in our own behavior, you can rest assured that others will see it and observe that we’re not doing unto others what we would have them do to us (or those we sympathize with).
This is why Benedict XVI’s words should be heeded. There are some people who hold things we abhor. We might want them to leave—or be thrown out of—the Church, and we might be scandalized when the pope reaches out to them. But he’s doing what he must as the Vicar of Christ, and if we condemn him for doing so, we’re merely displaying our hatred of our foes, not our fidelity to the Church’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
(†) The reader will have to decide how well or how badly I have done on this.
(‡) The disputes between the so-called “Original Pro-Life Movement” and the “New Pro-Life Movement” sometimes tend to say more about the members’ party affiliation than their knowledge of the moral obligations that they often downplay when inconvenient.
Image: (left) SSPX Bishop Bernard Fellay, (right) progressive theologian Hans Kung. Wikimedia Commons.