The new collection of interviews with the Holy Father (‘The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli’, Bluebird Books, published January 12, £12.99) is already causing a stir.
‘Pope Francis tells the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that their Church “does not exist to condemn people” in a major new book in which he discusses challenges over divorce, sexuality and corruption. In the most revealing glimpse yet into his thoughts on the struggles facing Catholicism in the 21st Century, he shakes off its centuries-old image as a stern moral judge, insisting its core purpose is instead to spread the “infinite mercy of God”’.
So the Sunday Telegraph. In an article by John Bingham and Peter (‘Pope Joan’) Stanford (who else?) the impression given is that the new book is a landmark in what some have called ‘The Francis Revolution’
‘The tone of his remarks on mercy will be read closely for signals about his intentions.’
Indeed they will. But when read, few will conclude that he is saying anything new, much less revolutionary:
Francis repeats (and of course it is worth endless repetition) that Confession is not about guilt and ‘repression’, but about forgiveness and new life. In a vivid image (which in the end does not stand up to careful scrutiny) he calls for the Church to be ‘a field hospital for the wounded.’ Francis is putting mission at the heart of the Church’s life. But the notion, after all, is commonplace and perennial. ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’, said William Temple, famously. And who is Francis to disagree with him? Francis, visiting those in prison, has often felt – if things had turned out differently – that he might have been imprisoned himself. The reflection, though no doubt heartfelt, is hardly original. ‘There, but for the grace of God go I’. Francis is possessed of a conviction that he himself is a sinner. But how is that remarkable? It is surely an inescapable sentiment, especially in the lineal successor of the one who denied his Lord three times.
But the Telegraph article was not about any of these things, important as they are. So let us cut to the chase.
Each of us has to open the door “a crack” to recognise our own sinfulness, Pope Francis urges, to receive mercy. His remarks will be read with particular attention by divorced and gay Catholics, some of whom have argued at the time of the recent synods in Rome that the failure of their marriage, or their sexuality, should not be seen as a sin.
Bingham and Stanford are vainly striving to turn routine re-iteration of Christian doctrine into ‘revolutionary’ statements which support their shared agenda – which is, of course, about divorced and gay Catholics. Clearly they have never heard – or never taken to heart – the words that the teenage Jorge Bergoglio must have heard repeatedly from his beloved confessor, Fr Carlos Ibarra: ‘Go in peace and sin no more; the Lord has put away your sin. And pray for me, for I am also a sinner’.
The sinfulness of the confessor in no way justifies the sin. Like the words of Jesus to the woman taken in adultery, mercy must always serve righteousness. Which is the other name of God (Jer 23:6).