Pope Francis, not unlike President Trump, has a knack for keeping people guessing about the true direction of his leadership. Last month the Pope shook his finger at persons who look to horoscopes, astrologists and fortune tellers for advice about the future. This is a message most Catholics have not heard since they sat in a grammar school religion class. Yet the Pontiff clearly dismisses crystal balls, tarot cards and psychic readings. This is perhaps not the greatest crisis facing the Catholic faithful today, but the Holy Father thought it important enough to speak pointedly on the shallowness of those who consult soothsayers.
Again, Pope Francis, in no uncertain terms, has ordered the Belgian arm of the Brothers of Charity to stop offering euthanasia in its psychiatric hospitals. Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, and in May the Brothers of Charity Hospital Group announced it would allow doctors to perform euthanasia on psychiatric patients. Pope Francis ordered the Brothers of Charity who serve on the group’s board to sign a joint letter to their Superior General declaring that they “fully support the vision of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, which has always confirmed that human life must be respected and protected in absolute terms, from the moment of conception until its natural end.” Brothers who refuse to sign the joint letter renouncing the practice of euthanasia will face sanctions under canon law, while the Catholic charity group can expect to face legal action and even expulsion from the Church if it fails to change its policy.
These rather hard-nosed statements from the Bishop of Rome contrast greatly with the usual citations from the Pope reported in the media. Pope Francis’ most memorable words certainly are “Who am I to judge,” regarding homosexual activity. It is a shame that the quote is only partially reported. The core of the Pope’s words, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will,” is most often omitted. These added words of course change the Holy Father’s observation dramatically. Gay is a lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching. If a person through “good will” attempts to go beyond the gay lifestyle to “seek God” then indeed that person is someone to be commended rather than judged.
Also under great discussion in the media and in Church assemblies worldwide is the celebrated footnote #351 in the recent Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia – On the Joy of Love. The lengthy document is filled with worthy guidance on courtship, marriage, family, children and conjugal spirituality. But, again, the brief footnote in a section concerning divorced and civilly remarried Catholics gets all the attention. The footnote reads: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039)…” A number of readers understand this footnote to be an encouragement to those married “outside the church” to go to confession and then once again start to receive Holy Communion. The uproar among both the pros and the cons has been considerable.
First of all, the Pope writes of the “help of the sacraments.” Holy Communion is not the only sacrament. Baptized persons in difficult marital circumstances still have baptismal resources that can strengthen them through challenging situations. These graces should not be neglected. Even if absolution is not immediately available to a penitent, the confessional can be a great source of the direction, accompaniment and strength needed on the trek to regularize a marital irregularity. And the Blessed Sacrament, even for those who must appreciate its saving grace at a distance, is a genuine source of spiritual strength for all in need. The Church’s spiritual resources should indeed be generously but appropriately offered to all.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the vineyard owner rewards the newly hired with the same wage as those who toiled all day. This latter crowd gripes about the employer’s bigheartedness. The owner scolds those who complain saying, “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” There is always something a little whacky about mercy and generosity as Pope Francis must certainly be learning. But kindness toward those who “seek God” and have “good will” in the midst of their troubles is expected from all believers and especially in unusual circumstances.