Pope Francis’s mercy mission

Can the pope’s call for a more tolerant Catholic Church carry modernisers and traditionalists?
Pope Francis © FT/Getty

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The Name of God Is Mercy, by Pope Francis, translated by Oonagh Stransky, Bluebird, RRP£12.99/Random House, RRP$26, 176 pages

The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, by Garry Wills, +Viking, RRP£19.99/$27.95, 288 pages

The Promise of Francis: The Man, the Pope, the Challenge of Change, by David Willey, Gallery Books, RRP$26, 320 pages

Pope Francis: Untying the Knots: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, by Paul Vallely, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 496 pages

The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh, Allen & Unwin, RRP£9.99/Picador, RRP$16, 480 pages

Francis: Pope of Good Promise, by Jimmy Burns, Constable, RRP£25, 448 pages

Now in his 80th year, Francis is a pope in a hurry. He has made headway reforming the dodgy Vatican Bank; shaking up Vatican bureaucracy, which he accuses of “spiritual Alzheimer’s”; and establishing safeguards to protect children from priestly paedophiles. But all along he has nurtured a wider devotional purpose: to give the faithful a spiritual makeover.

Here is his bid. Francis has written a book, The Name of God is Mercy, with a powerful message for the world’s 1.2bn Roman Catholics. We are all sinners, he is saying, all guilty; but God’s mercy is infinite and so is the mercy of God’s Church.

Published this week in more than 80 countries, the book may console Catholics who have struggled to keep within the Church’s rules. But it will anger those for whom the rules are everything. It is also likely to puzzle lay and clerical Catholics with sensitive consciences. Is the pope saying that the rules can be broken? Is he saying, for example, that the ban on contraception has ended? That it is all right to be a practising homosexual? The answer to these questions is not straightforward. His critics may well accuse him of having over-reached himself.

Francis has only one fully functioning lung and suffers from chronic sciatica. He rises at 4:30, starting his day with two hours’ prayer. He takes no holidays. Last year was a helter-skelter. There were back-to-back meetings with recalcitrant church committees. In October he chaired the second of two contentious synods on the family — high-level clerical talking-shops in which elderly celibate prelates squabbled heatedly over the status of Catholic divorcees who remarry.

He preaches a daily homily in his Vatican chapel, twice-weekly public sermons, and many more at major ceremonies and pastoral visits around Italy. Last year he made official trips to 11 countries, including long-hauls to Cuba and the US (helping to restore diplomatic relations between them on the way), and a sweltering journey into the terror-ridden Central African Republic.

Amazingly, he found time to write. Last June he published a hard-hitting book-length encyclical on the environment. Now comes The Name of God is Mercy, which is described as a conversation with the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. Coinciding with the “Holy Year of Mercy” that Francis has declared, the book appears to be targeted at those Catholics who are, by the Church’s rules, living in sin.

It is not difficult for sexually active Catholics to be sinful somewhere along the line, since official Church teaching bans sex outside marriage; gay sex and, therefore, same-sex marriage; autoerotic sex; pornography; every form of contraception except abstinence; and remarriage after divorce without an annulment. Abortion is condemned as a heinous sin; gender reassignment is banned as self-mutilation. Technically, all sexual sins, even including sexual fantasy, are classed as “grave” or “mortal”, and exclude a Catholic from receiving holy communion at Mass: unconfessed at death, so the Church taught down the ages, a mortal sin drags a soul down to Hell.

The book’s background is the antagonism between what we might call the Catholic “neats” and “scruffies” on these matters. The neats are conservatives, sometimes known as the traditionalists or rigorists. The scruffies are the liberals, sometimes known as the progressives. The neats regret the passing of traditional Latin devotions and clarity in Church doctrine, especially on sexual and marital matters. They insist that the Church’s teachings are not subject to alteration; that living in serious sin and calling yourself a Catholic is not an option.

The scruffies argue that devotions and doctrines can be “updated”, citing the Italian catchphrase employed by Pope John XXIII: aggiornamento. They call for decentralisation from Rome, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Garry Wills, a notable scruffy and a professor of history at Northwestern University, insists in his The Future of the Catholic Church with Francis that the Vatican should listen to the faithful at large because they are the Church and set the pace for change.

The scruffies believe that many of the so-called sins of a sexual kind are minor, or not sins at all, especially the use of artificial contraception and sex outside marriage. Beyond this divide are the countless demoralised who have abandoned the faith because they despaired of living up to the Church’s strict ideals.

Francis is often taken for a scruffy. He talks in everyday language and has a ready smile. He lives and eats in a kind of Vatican hostel rather than the marble grandeur of the apostolic palace. He prefers a Ford Focus to the papal limo, and shuffles along on old scuffed shoes. The Promise of Francis by the Rome-based BBC correspondent David Willey provides amusing details of his effect on the denizens of the Vatican, where bureaucrats once took phone calls from the pope on their knees. Apparently Francis’s hostel neighbours find his bonhomie a bit much before their first morning espresso.

His lack of ceremony, his humility and evident kindliness is of a piece with his former pastoral work for the marginalised, as many of the biographies attest. According to Paul Vallely, a veteran social affairs and investigative journalist and author of Francis: Untying the Knots, Francis, as Archbishop Bergoglio, spent hours in the red-light district of Buenos Aires sitting on a roadside bench bringing spiritual comfort to prostitutes.

Shortly after he became pope he was asked about homosexuality. To the scandal of the neats, he said: “Who am I to judge?” When asked how he would describe himself, he said: “I am a sinner.” Within weeks of his election, Francis announced that he saw the Church as a “field hospital after battle”.

On the pope’s flight back from Africa at the end of November, a German reporter asked him about the Catholic ban on condoms even for HIV victims, citing an estimated 135,000 new cases in Uganda alone the previous year. “Is it not time,” the journalist continued, “for the Church to change its position on the matter? To allow the use of condoms to prevent more infections?”

“The question seems too small to me,” Francis responded. “[T]his question makes me think of one they once asked Jesus: ‘Tell me, teacher, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ . . . but malnutrition, the development of the person, slave labour, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems . . . l would say to humanity: ‘make justice’, and when all are cured, when there is no more injustice, we can talk about the Sabbath.”

He was saying that the use of condoms is a minor matter beside all the social and economic problems that the peoples of Africa endure. At the same time, he seemed to be suggesting that the purpose of the question was to catch him out. Later he let fly at the pharisaical nitpicking of the neats: “We Catholics have some, not just some, so many, who believe they have the absolute truth and they move forward with calumnies, with defamation . . . ”

The following week came a lofty rebuke from the American Catholic periodical First Things. “[I]t’s strange that Francis often seems to see Christian teaching on sex as distant from — even counter to — solving social problems,” wrote deputy editor Matthew Schmitz. “His attempted revision of Catholic teaching on divorce and communion is one such example. His admittedly offhand and inconclusive comments on Aids and Africa might be another.”

Conservative criticism of Francis is routine. The American Cardinal Raymond Burke, champion of the neats, said recently: “One gets the impression . . . that [Pope Francis] thinks we’re talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman. But we can never talk enough about that.”

Cardinal Burke says that gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics who are trying to live good and faithful lives are like “the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people”.

The Name of God is Mercy does not seek to rewrite Catholic doctrine on sexual and marital morality, nor on life issues such as abortion. But Francis’s book signals a plea for a change of attitude on the part of the faithful and their pastors.

He is asking the faithful to return to the “Sacrament of Reconciliation”, as Catholic confession is now called — the ritual whereby a penitent confesses sins to a priest and receives absolution. There are more than 100 references to confession and confessors in a text of 146 pages.

Francis wants confessors to exercise compassion rather than follow the strict letter of the law. Confession, he says, is an opportunity to bestow and receive mercy; it is not “like taking your clothes to the dry cleaner”. He likens sins to wounds, and speaks of the good confessor offering Christ’s “caress” to repeating sinners. Rigid, legalistic pastors who know how to “close doors and draw boundaries” are roundly condemned.

At the heart of the book is an unusual distinction that will excite professional moralists. In a chapter titled “Sinners Yes, Corrupt No”, he argues that corruption is denied mercy because it does not seek it. His example of “the corrupt” includes employers who cheat their workers and tax-dodgers — people who are institutionalised, habitual, in their sins and yet consider themselves to be good Christians.

The scruffies will cheer Francis on with his call for a less judgmental Church. Yet there is an ambiguity throughout the book that will worry penitents, scruffy or neat, who seek answers to major moral dilemmas. A case in point is the question posed at those contentious Roman Synods over divorce and remarriage. Will a “merciful” confessor now be at liberty to tell a Catholic presently excluded by the official rules that he or she is permitted to receive the Eucharist at Mass? Will a confessor be able to tell a woman on the contraceptive pill that it is all right to carry on?

The pope does not say, which means that the burden of conscience will be shouldered by the confessor: a circumstance that will not please many priests, scruffy or neat. At the same time, pastors will question whether a return en masse to confession is a realistic prospect. Out of embarrassment, perhaps, researchers long ago ceased to pose questions about recourse to the sacrament in Europe and the UK. In the US, where there are close to 70m Catholics, the latest statistics reveal that only 2 per cent of the faithful attend confession regularly, 45 per cent never, the rest rarely. Against a background of parish closures and a massive decline in the numbers of priests, who is going minister to the penitents if they now attempt to flock back to the long-abandoned confessionals?

While Francis concentrates on the “spiritual works of mercy”, he does not neglect the “corporal works”. There is an equivalence between Francis’s emphasis on mercy towards the sinful and his call for the relief of poverty. Just as he speaks less of nurturing virtue than of mercy to sinners, he speaks less of wealth-creation than of charity towards the poor. He derides the supposed trickle-down benefits of wealth-creation and attacks the globalised economy and international banking system. Catholic neats of America claim that he is naive on economic affairs and wrong about globalisation, which, they argue, has lifted a billion souls out of poverty.

Francis’s principal biographers have explored the growth of his economic and political thought. Born in 1936 to parents of Italian origin, he grew up in Buenos Aires through the long era of Peronism in its different manifestations. Juan Perón (Argentina’s president from 1946 to 1955, and again from October 1973 until his death in 1974) instituted a brand of national corporatism that favours selection over election, dictatorship over democracy. Perón claimed that his politics were derived from the social teachings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. He, like his successors as presidents, was pro-nationalisation, anti-liberal capitalism, and paranoid about investment from the US and Europe, Britain in particular.

If the pope’s biographers detect a link between Peronism, Argentina’s basket-case economy, and the views of Pope Francis on economics, they do not offer an opinion. Austen Ivereigh — who leads Catholic Voices, a British organisation promoting positive media reporting of Catholic affairs — declares without further comment in his The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope that Francis was, and is still, something of a Peronist at heart.

Then there is the pope’s role, as head of the Jesuits, and as Archbishop Bergoglio, during the 1976-83 “Dirty War” waged by the Argentine junta on its perceived enemies. Vallely portrays a Francis not without human frailty. He suggests that Francis may have done things for which he is ashamed — there were accusations on the part of fellow priests that he had betrayed fellow pastors to the military. Vallely is convinced that Father Bergoglio underwent a profound spiritual conversion, which has made him the pope he is today: deeply and vocally conscious of his own sinfulness. Ivereigh is convinced that Francis had no need of such a conversion. Although based on authoritative scrutiny of the known sources, his portrait of Francis emerges in a hagiographical glow.

Another expert on those formative Argentine years is Jimmy Burns, a former journalist on this paper. He was in Argentina during the Dirty War, and witnessed the conflicts and atrocities at first hand. Burns places himself — his Catholic upbringing and experience of the faith from his Jesuit-schooled boyhood to the present — squarely within the narrative scope of his Francis: Pope of Good Promise.

In a series of personal encounters Burns unpacks the many and varied contemporary angsts of Catholicism: the paedophile priest crisis; the sexism of an all-male clergy; John Paul II’s centralising policies; those inescapable questions of sexual morality.

Burns accepts that many Catholics persevere in their Church today by being imperfect Catholics — scruffies, in other words, not too upset by their failure to achieve the highest ideals of moral dogma. The pope would seem to agree, provided that the scruffies acknowledge their imperfections, their sinfulness and their need for God’s mercy.

Many Catholics who hoped for practical answers to individual moral dilemmas will scratch their heads, consulting their pastors as to what it all means. Meanwhile, bishops and priests will talk and quarrel over the text for months, even years to come. And that, perhaps, is what Francis intends: a disruption of the status quo; a call for open-ended discussion about conscience, and sin, based on new priorities. He has started the conversation by setting compassion for the poor, oppressed and deprived of the world above casuistic rule-keeping.

The neats will charge that the pope has created confusion and sailed close to heresy. They may well invoke the threat of schism. Such is the popularity and charisma of Francis, he will surely carry the Church at large with him.

John Cornwell is the author of ‘The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession’ (Profile)

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