Now the talk is whether Francis, the charismatic Pontiff, is going to change the Catholic Church. “Modernize” it, as they say.
Some conservative folks had hoped that he would condemn gay marriage. He didn’t. On the other hand, he didn’t endorse it either. What he did was to preside over a carefully scripted celebration of traditional marriage. Sort of reminded me of the old song: “You gotta ak – sen –chu –ate the positive, ee – lim -- anate the negative. Don’t mess with mister in between.”
The secular media has spent much time talking about the Pope’s famous comment, “Who am I to judge?” They see it as an endorsement of the secular moral commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Judgmental.
Many of us were tempted to answer the Pope’s rhetorical question with something like this: Who are you? You’re the Pope, for goodness sake. You occupy the Chair of Peter, to whom Jesus said “Upon this rock I shall build my church. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” It’s your job to teach folks about right and wrong, to pronounce infallibly, ex cathedra, ‘from the chair’ on matters of faith and morals. What do you mean, “Who am I?”
The truth is that the Chair of Peter is not a comfortable seat for a humble man. Francis teaches us that loving the sinner is more important than hating the sin. Indeed, he challenges us to forget about hating anything – sin included. Especially since we are all sinners. Especially because the divine gift of free will means that all human beings have the capacity to do what they know they should not do.
The Church reserves condemnation to the human conscience. That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is all about. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” “I have sinned.” Not, the neighbors say I have sinned or the media says that I have sinned, or the Church, or the Pope says that I have sinned, but I am telling you that I have sinned. I am my only accuser.
It’s called conscience, and it is the moral compass that holds all of human society together. At the University of Detroit, nearly three quarters of a century ago, Jack Roland taught us that Ethics is the science of the “oughtness of things.” He told us that human beings have an instinctive inclination to think about what they should or should not do, and that free will involves the constant tug of war between ‘I wanna’ and ‘I awta.’
Dwight Eisenhower put it this way; as individuals and as a nation, we should seek always to act in our enlightened self interest. Perhaps enlightenment is the one moral imperative on which all people of good will can agree.
We live in an age of communication. We are surrounded by the incessant drumbeat of advertising, solicitation, news, information, and personal communication. We are emailed, facebooked, tweeted, texted, and harangued non stop from television, telephone, radio and computer. Just how much of it is fairly called enlightenment is hard to say.
But it does seem to me that enlightenment about the oughtness of things should be given a rather high priority in human communication. In the last analysis the experience of mankind is the best teacher, and we ignore it at our peril.
History, indeed, is an imperative teacher. He who does not learn the lessons of history is condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. It makes no sense to mandate the latest dicta of behavioral science in our classrooms while forbidding the teacher to post the ten commandments on the bulletin board.
We Americans are the fortunate heirs of the civilization known as Christendom. It has enabled us to become a people governed by representatives of our own choosing, committed to the rule of law, and united in the pursuit of justice and liberty.
The Roman Catholic Church is an important part of that heritage. The Pope is its leader. He is not a judge. He is a teacher.
Pope Francis is an Argentine. He doesn’t speak our language, at least not very well, so far. But he is the Pope. The Vicar of Christ on earth. He is a blessing and wellspring of enlightenment for all men and women of good will. He will help us all to figure out for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
And in the end, our personal judgment is what really matters.