Pope Francis’ set out his overall vision for the Catholic Church during a homily at Mass for 20 new cardinals on Sunday, leading some commentators and even the Vatican to describe it as one of the most decisive and important messages of his pontificate.
It also left many traditional and faithful Catholics perturbed about his obvious sympathies in the context of reform. The Pope highlighted three “key concepts” from that day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus heals the leper, linking them to “the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate” lives.
In essence, he equated the leper, an outcast in Jesus’ day, with those who, because of sin, stand outside the church. Francis would like to attract them by, above all, placing an emphasis on God’s mercy rather than their sins and repentance of them.
This theme of the homily, which highlighted inclusivity, non-discrimination, and going out to the peripheries, is central not only to this pontificate but was a key aspect coming out of last October’s synod on the family. That meeting in Rome of around 250 bishops worldwide was meant to examine today’s pastoral challenges to the family, but it drew controversy for proposing new pastoral practices towards civilly remarried Catholic divorcees, homosexuals, and cohabiting couples — approaches that many felt were at odds with Catholic teaching.
With this homily, observers on all sides of the church say it’s confirmed where the Pope stands on these issues. In an article for The Remnant, a newspaper of traditional Catholicism, an author writing under the Greek goddess name of Megaera Erinyes, says Francis is “clearly signaling again” his intentions for the Synod, and the terms he uses show he is “wholly on the side” of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the flag-bearer of those pushing to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.
The scriptural passages in which Jesus teaches that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery couldn’t be clearer, Erinyes argues. Yet, by implicitly supporting the Kasper line in his homily (Francis’ doesn’t directly mention the issue) she believes the Pope sees obedience to Jesus’ teaching on this issue as a “lack of mercy” and “marginalization.”
Rather than a merciful approach, she argues the Kasper position actually shows disobedience to the divine law and therefore a “hardness of heart” that Jesus’ teachings aimed to remedy. That the Pope sides with this position “is a frightening thought,” she writes.
For Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer”, possibly the most comprehensive biography of Pope Francis to date, the homily was not so clear cut. He agreed it will be seen, “as one of the most defining messages of his pontificate” and it “certainly is aimed at the synod.” But he said it also captures the way Francis “sees his mission more broadly, as opening new paths for people to find their way back to the church.”
“He’s saying: it’s not enough to preach the truth and wait for people to convert and come knocking — we have to go out and tend to the lost sheep, and let God do the rest,” Ivereigh told me. “It would be wrong to read into it an endorsement of one or other strategy under discussion at the synod, although it is a clear rebuke of those who are opposed to the whole process.”
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