Pope Francis walking out of the Paul VI Hall after Synod sessions during the Synod of Bishops on October 9, 2015. (Daniel Ibanez/CNA)
Having just returned from a week covering Pope Francis's triumphant journey to the United States, I can confidently tell you that the news media are in love with the Vicar of Christ. Time and again, commentators, pundits, anchorpersons, and editorialists opined that Pope Francis is the bomb. They approved, of course, of his gentle way with those suffering from disabilities and his proclivity to kiss babies, but their approbation was most often awakened by this Pope's "merciful" and "inclusive" approach, his willingness to reach out to those on the margins. More often than not, they characterized this tenderness as a welcome contrast to the more rigid and dogmatic style of Benedict XVI. Often, I heard words such as "revolutionary" and "game-changing" in regard to Pope Francis, and one commentator sighed that she couldn't imagine going back to the Church as it was before the current pontiff.
Well, I love Pope Francis too, and I certainly appreciate the novelty of his approach and his deft manner of breathing life into the Church. In fact, a number of times on the air I commented that the Pope's arrival to our shores represented a new springtime after the long winter of the sex abuse scandals. But I balk at the suggestion that the new Pope represents a revolution or that he is dramatically turning away from the example of his immediate predecessors. And I strenuously deny that he is nothing but a soft-hearted powder-puff, indifferent to sin.
A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis's stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God's essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God's essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.
Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or to shift to one of the Pope's favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires, not minor treatment, but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked, in a famous interview two years ago, to describe himself, he responded, "a sinner." Then he added, "who has been looked upon by the face of mercy." That's getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenaged Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn't reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person.
When Pope Francis speaks of those on the margins, he does indeed mean people who are economically and politically disadvantaged, but he also means people who are cut off from the divine life, spiritually poor. And just as he reaches out to the materially marginalized in order to bring them to the center, so he reaches out to those on the existential periphery in order to bring them to a better place. In speaking of mercy and inclusivity, he is decidedly not declaring that "I'm okay and you're okay." He is calling people to conversion. As my mentor, Cardinal Francis George, said, "All are welcome in the Church, but on Christ's terms and not their own."
Nowhere has the confusion on this score been greater than in relation to the Pope's famous remark regarding a priest with a homosexual orientation, "Who am I to judge?" I would wager that 95% of those who took in those words understood them to mean that, as far as Pope Francis is concerned, homosexual activity is not really sinful. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Pope was responding to a hypothetical involving a priest with same sex attraction, who had fallen in the past and who is now endeavoring to live in accord with the moral law, a sinner, in a word, who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.
So as we quite legitimately exult in the beauty of Pope Francis's unique style and theological emphasis, let us not turn him into an advocate of an "anything goes" liberalism. As St. Augustine long ago reminded us, misericordia (mercy) and miseria (misery) are two sides of the same coin.