Pope Francis again returned to the theme of rigidity today, saying those who unbendingly follow the law of God are "sick" and in need of the Lord’s help.

In his morning homily at Casa Santa Marta, the Pope drew on today’s Gospel reading from Matthew in which Jesus’ healing of a crippled woman angered the Pharisees, leading him to denounce the leaders of the synagogue as “hypocrites”.

This is an accusation Jesus often makes to those who follow the Law with rigidity, the Pope said. “The Law was not drawn up to enslave us but to set us free, to make us God’s children”, he said.

From Vatican Radio:

Concealed by rigidity, Pope Francis said, there is always something else! That’s why Jesus uses the word ‘hypocrites!’: "Behind an attitude of rigidity there is always something else in the life of a person. Rigidity is not a gift of God. Meekness is; goodness is; benevolence is; forgiveness is. But rigidity isn’t!” he said.

In many cases, the Pope continued, rigidity conceals the leading of a double life; but, he pointed out, there can also be something sick [behind it].  Commenting on the difficulties and suffering that afflict a person who is sincere about realizing their rigidity, the Pope said this is because they lack the freedom of God's children: “they do not know how to walk in the path indicated by God’s Law”.

“They appear good because they follow the Law; but behind there is something that does not make them good. Either they're bad, hypocrites or they are sick. They suffer!” he said.

Pope Francis went on to recall the parable of the prodigal son, saying that the elder son showed a certain type of goodness but behind it was “the pride of believing in one’s righteousness”. He was rigid and conducted his life following the Law but saw his father only as a master, the Pope said.

“It is not easy to walk within the Law of the Lord without falling into rigidity” he added, and concluded with a prayer calling on “our brothers and sisters who think that by becoming rigid they are following the path of the Lord. 

“May the Lord make them feel that He is our Father and that He loves mercy, tenderness, goodness, meekness, humility. And may he teach us all to walk in the path of the Lord with these attitudes,” he said

The Pope's Favorite Theme  

The theme of rigidity, like his many criticisms of “doctors of the law”, is one of a number of topics the Pope returns to almost on a routine basis.

He once called those who try to unbendingly follow the Law of God people as having “weak hearts” whom he confessed he would like to trip up with banana skins so they would know they are sinners. In June, he said “rigid” people in the Church who tell us “it’s this or nothing” are heretics and not Catholics.  He has also warned about seminary formation being too rigid to allow for the development of priests.

To understand the Pope’s almost obsessive focus on rigidity and why he holds it in such disdain, it’s perhaps helpful to see how he views his ministry, the Church and the world.

According to one of his closest advisers, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, for Francis both the Church and the world are in constant flux, and so his pontificate is one of “discernment, of ‘incomplete thought’” for which the rigidity of rules is an obstacle.

The Holy Father, he added, doesn’t want to teach “a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world”. For him, Father Spadaro said, “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.”

The Pope also sees the Church as a “people of pilgrims” who transcend “any institutional expression, however necessary.” This tension, he added, “animates Francis’ reflection with regard to that which he has called ‘the conversion of the papacy’

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis further explains, and perhaps most clearly, where his aversion to rigidity comes from. He criticizes what he calls a "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism" among those who "ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past."  

"A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism," he believes, "whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying."

He further believes that "in neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others" and argues it is "impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity." 

Elsewhere in the document, he says it is his hope "that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: 'Give them something to eat' (Mk 6:37)."

[Since this article was first published, the excerpt from Vatican Radio has been corrected to give a more accurate rendering of the original Italian text. Among other errors in the original VR translation was the word "pathological" which should have been translated as "sick" or "ill"].