Pope Francis, Making Distinctions

There’s no letting up in the blogosphere on the Pope Francis “Who am I to judge?” comment. What does it mean? Is it just tone, or is it content, too?

Mark Silk hammers away at conservative commentary.

The piece I think is missing is one of the ability or inability to make distinctions, to be fair across the board, and to be able to apply discernment to moral issues when they occur outside of oneself.

As an individual believer, I have been formed morally by parents, teachers, peers, and my own conscience. I suppose God’s grace is at work in all these. So when I get a twinge about doing something wrong, or about not doing something right, it is incumbent on me to pay attention.

I don’t just pay attention when I’m on the job, and let loose when I’m home. I don’t do it in public, but then figure any private sin I commit is only harming myself and God. To be clear, I do commit public and private sins. But I strive to have a high standard of conduct, especially with regard to sins of omission–things I could have done, but didn’t.

As I see it, the problem with some believers is that they have pet sins that send them over the edge. Usually sins of other people. And since Western culture is so sexually over-charged, the sexual sins tend to get a lot of attention. And also since Western aggression is so prevalent, it tends to get ignored as a vital sin. We have violence in sport, in entertainment (video games and movies), not to mention political aggression and American adventurism in southwest Asia. These sins leave no little scarring among military personnel, game players, and innocent bystanders.

My perception is that Pope Francis has pinged a few bishops. They won’t admit it. But what’s operating here is a lack of discernment on the part of sexual crusaders in Catholicism. The problem is that such believers seem unwilling to apply the same judgment to other very public, very damaging sins.

And when, for example, a bishop is unwilling to tackle pornography (for example) but will talk about homosexuality, I see a person who has made particular choices about sins. He has been discriminating (in the broad sense) to focus on one sin and not another.

By any standard, pornography has destroyed far more marriages than the same-sex couple down the street. So if marriage is in need of a “defense,” then why isn’t the real threat, the more dangerous sin, addressed. While his own take on pornography was rather limited and naive, I will give my former bishop, Robert Finn, credit for tackling an issue others have avoided.

The fair alternative is that a bishop or believer will come down hard on every moral failure. And then the question becomes one of tone. Is the whole world steeped in sin? Heck, we already knew that. Is there any good news? Maybe we wonder if the prophet has any perspective on that at all.

Critics of sin strike me as akin to the older brother. They are quick to point out the failings of the young sibling: he took money, he wasted it on sinful living, he is no brother of mine. The father takes the role of the pastor: mercy is my choice, the sinner is your brother.

Too many bishops have gotten stuck as the older brother of Luke 15. They have not graduated to the role of the father, the pastor.

And again, nothing the older brother relates is untrue. Some people are sinners. Some people get more than they deserve. Others who are loyal labor faithfully without a reward.


Maybe that tells us something.

I think Pope Francis is on the right track with this change in tone. I notice that Archbishop Dolan is openly re-thinking some of the trappings of his office. I think other bishops will get the message. And the rest of us, we are urged to continue to be watchful over our lives and our conduct. After all, we can hear God calling, feel the nudges and urges to be good, to do good. And we can always bring such awareness, including our failures, and work hard to cooperate in the eradication of sin.

I don’t find Pope Francis’s approach to be a problem. I think it shows a lot of wisdom and experience, and it’s something from which everyone can learn.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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