Yesterday we began to go through Pope Francis’ letter to the editor of La Reppublica, which has caused such a stir and such outrage in some quarters. See yesterday’s post to get brought up to speed about this if you don’t know to what I am referring.
Having stated his own personal belief in Jesus Christ, a belief coming to him from Scripture and sacrament through the life of the Church and expressed in love and service to the poor, he now turns to the unbelieving reporter’s sincere questions. He begins by staying, and inviting the man to stay, with attention focused on one thing along: the person of Jesus: ‘one must be confronted with Jesus, I would say, in the concreteness and roughness of his event… the “scandal” that the word and practice of Jesus caused around him stem from his extraordinary “authority”… Jesus, in fact, strikes, breaks, innovates beginning with – He himself says so – from his relationship with God, called familiarly Abba, who gives Him this “authority” so that he will exercise it in favor of men.’
He goes on to show that in the Gospels Jesus clearly exercises divine authority and calls those listening to him to abandon all to follow him, and himself is true to his divine message and preaching to the point of dying rather than deny it. Having established for the reporter Scalfari the centrality of Jesus and his Incarnation to Christianity, he underlines what this means for us who are Christian: ‘the fact that the Son of God came in our flesh and shared our joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats of our existence, to the cry of the cross, living everything in love and fidelity to Abba, attests to the incredible love that God has for every man, the inestimable value that he gives him. Because of this, each one of us is called to make his own the look and the choice of love of Jesus, to enter into his way of being, of thinking and acting. This is the faith, with all the expressions that are described unfailingly in the encyclical.’
He goes on to talk about the uniqueness of Christian faith, that it ‘makes us participate , in Jesus, in the relationship that He has with God who is Abba and, in this light, the relationship that He has with all other men, including enemies, in the sign of love.’ This union with God in Christ calls us to love all people and does not separate us from others but calls us to seek unity with others.
At this point, one may be justifiably wondering what on earth people are shocked and scandalized about. The Pope is preaching Christianity in a most beautiful and persuasive way here, isn’t he? This is why we cannot go with silly media distortions, but have to take the time to read what the man actually said. Everything he is about to say about atheists and conscience must be read in context of everything he has said about Jesus and his divine authority. It is grossly dishonest to do otherwise.
Skipping over his beautiful reflections about the role of Christians in civil society and the Church’s proper concern in relation to this, and the Church’s growing awareness of our Jewish roots and the friendship in the God of Israel this calls us to, and how we understand the current state of the Jewish covenant with God, let’s jump to what has caused such a shocking controversial stir.
Asked directly about the attitude of God towards non-believers, here is what he has to say: ‘the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.’
Now, there’s not a word here about heaven and salvation, I should point out. So the British screaming headlines ‘Pope says to atheists: You go to heaven by following your conscience,’ is objectively inaccurate. We do not go to heaven by following our conscience. I do not go to heaven by being a good little Catholic boy. Let me shout this out to you by putting it in full caps: WE GO TO HEAVEN BY THE LIMITLESS MERCY OF GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sorry to shout. But seriously, folks, this is not controversial. It is God’s mercy that saves us, and we receive that mercy by having a sincere and contrite heart. And non-believers can come best to having that sincere and contrite heart by following their consciences. That is what the Pope actually said, and how on earth anyone can find this objectionable or ground-breaking is beyond me. Do we not know our Catholic faith? Because that is, you know, a very Catholic sentiment. Not remotely new, not remotely different from previous popes, not remotely controversial. And if you think it is, then you just don’t know what the Catholic Church teaches.
Now the word conscience has, no doubt, become a very problematic word. It is an abused word, often enough meaning to people ‘just do whatever you want.’ But that is not what conscience means, and abused as it is, there is no other word available for us. Following your conscience means the direct opposite of doing whatever you like: it means a serious, deliberate, thoughtful, and passionate determination to do the right thing, not the easy thing, not the self-indulgent thing, not that thing that happens to correspond with our own desires and passions.
Properly understood, following one’s conscience is a path of serious moral reflection and sacrificial generosity. And, as a man of faith, I would say that a non-believer who is seriously following his or her conscience in the real sense of the word has set out on the path of faith already, whether they know it or not, since that voice of conscience within us is an echo of the voice of God, and listened to with sincerity and consistency, will lead us to at least the threshold of faith.
Well, that’s quite long enough for one day. The rest of the letter is quite beautiful on what we believe about absolute truth, and I will come back to it on Wednesday (tomorrow is ‘Tuesday with Francis’ day at TTP). See you then, and let’s all try to follow our consciences today. Mine is calling me to go to Lauds right now…