Just inside the line…

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.”

— Martin Luther, Letter 99 (1 August 1521)

“He who who does not sin is not human. … Life without conflict is not life. … We need to caress conflicts.”

– Pope Francis, 29 Nov. 2013 [Catholic Herald; full PDF]

padre pio single mass

Speaking at his general audience today, Pope Francis said:

“Sometimes someone asks: ‘Why bother going to church, the people who always go to Mass are sinners like the others’. If you do not feel in need of God’s mercy, if you do not feel you are a sinner, then it’s better not [to] go to Mass [Italian: “Se ognuno di noi non si sente bisognoso della misericordia di Dio, non si sente peccatore, è meglio che non vada a Messa!”], because we go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, to participate in His redemption, His forgiveness.

“That ‘I confess’ we say at the beginning is not a ‘pro forma’, is a true act of penance, ‘I am a sinner and I confess’. We have to go to Mass humbly, as sinners, and the Lord reconciles us.”

Oh, Pope Francis. This is one of those times I wince with pity, rather than groan with frustration. A basically sound point buried by sloppy pastoralism. A fundamental understanding of the theological truths blurred by a fixation on feelings. Yes, we must go to Mass humbly, but, no, we must not wait until we feel sufficiently sinful to go! Choosing not to assist at Sunday Mass is a mortal sin, but that one careless caveat by Francis sends a totally different message: you’d be better off abstaining from Mass if you are not properly disposed. What’s missing, of course, is a reminder that the sacrament of penance is available before Mass precisely in order to redeem and perfect our otherwise imperfect dispositions. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it highly problematic for the pope, and not for the first time, implicitly to equate being humble with being a sinner. I’m sure that the theologically informed readers of FCA are aware that the general act of contrition is not on a par with making auricular confession with a priest. But, as always, how many of the very many devotees to the person of Pope Francis are aware of that disparity, and how does Francis’s “off-the-cuff” comment strengthen their attachment to making confession, regardless of how they “feel”?

Keep in mind that the context is the ongoing and increasingly rambunctious “dialogue” underway in the Church about the “freedom of conscience” which remarried Catholics should enjoy, without having to submit to the “querulous” needling of canon law. Granting as I do that the Confiteor is “a true act of penance”, the unspoken question remains, “Then why can’t the Church respect the consciences of remarried Catholics and let their Confiteor clear their way to the Altar? After all,

“although [the Eucharist] is the fullness of sacramental life, [it] is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak… [which bears] pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.’ [EG §47]”

I suspect that not a few European clerics and layfolk would vigorously agree with the implicit laxity which ambiguity always affords.

As Padre Pio’s opening quotation reminds us, “It’s not about you.” The Mass is not primarily about feeling “recharged” or feeling “restored”, but about fulfilling our religious duty to offer a pure sacrifice to God in the Sacred Gifts. Therefore, even if we do not feel penitential, nor feel inspired by the Lord’s tender mercy, we must still assist at Mass: it is our chief duty to honor God, not simply to follow the weather sock of our own emotions and consciences. Indeed, it may be precisely by attending Mass week by week, regardless of a lack of any spiritual consolation or conviction, that we are converted by the Word and the Prayers. The most acute irony is that the pope’s emphasis in this case upon registering sufficient humility smacks of the very Pelagianism which he condemns. I had a pastor, openly enamored with Francis, say at Mass some weeks ago, “If you’re coming to Mass but it’s not changing your life, you might as well stop coming: you’re wasting your time.” A chill instantly went up my spine. If the merit of my presence at Mass depends on the quality of my progress in virtue outside of Mass, then we’re all Pelagians and the jig is up.

Now I realize that no one may be inclined to believe a “hater” like me, but I’m writing this post from a place of sincere compassion and filial respect. I think our prayers are having an effect on Francis, and I think he’s learning to speak at least less callously (getting a new speech writer seems to have helped lower the RPM’s). I wince because I think “he meant well”, and unfortunately we all know whither ledeath the road paved with good intentions. Regardless of what message he meant to convey, mixed up with it is an official, in-print sanction, yet again, of the pervasive “I’m OK, you’re OK” spirit of religiosity among so many Catholics nowadays. Indeed, I have a relative whose virtual spiritual motto is this: “I’ve made my peace with God. I don’t need to go to Mass.” Unfortunately, the weed nestled in the pope’s recent homily is precisely what my relative, and countless other believers who have “outgrown” the “need” for church, long to hear from HQ. As recent surveys indicate, and as I think we’ve known for decades, the majority of Catholics appear to be saying to the Church, “Thanks, guys, I’m good: I don’t feel aware of any sin; in fact I feel close to the Lord, so I’ll sit this one out.” What good does it do for the Holy Father to gild such a tendency for all the world to see?

Since no one loves a mere carper, I’ll answer the question you might have asked by now: “Well, what do you wish Pope Francis had said?” Something like this:

“Sometimes someone asks: ‘Why bother going to church, the people who always go to Mass are sinners like the others’. If you do not feel in need of God’s mercy, if you do not feel you are a sinner, then it’s still better to go to Mass. We go to Confession before Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, so that in the Mass we can fully participate in His redemption.

“That ‘I confess’ we say at the beginning is not a ‘pro forma’, it is a true act of penance, ‘I am a sinner and I confess’. We have to go to Confession humbly, as sinners, and the Lord reconciles us, so we can then celebrate in freedom during the Mass.”

The above statement may not be as pastorally winsome as what the pope actually said, but at least it removes the obstructions he put in the way of his own intended message. What makes this even more bittersweet is how it follows so closely on a truly profound homily on the intrinsic glory of the Mass just a day or two earlier. If it is too much for the Holy Father to express well rounded truths in a single homily, at least we bloggers can help him knit together his at times scattered garments of orthodoxy and therefore cover any potential “nakedness” in his fatherly witness. Whatever happened to fear of the censure of “offending pious ears”, to say the least? Join me as we keep praying for Papa.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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9 Responses to Just inside the line…

  1. Tony Jokin says:

    The day when the Church admits (or realizes) that hiding, not upsetting people, or stating the truth ambiguously is not what being “pastoral” means, that is when we will start making progress. One would think this is obvious given that Jesus himself was upsetting people, St. John the Baptist was upsetting people, the Apostles, many Martyrs of the faith were all guilty of upsetting people who were living in sin.

    BUT, the Church today values one “doctrine” or “discipline” above the deposit of faith: “Though shalt not upset the mind of those who sin”!

  2. joe m says:

    I think you missed it on this one. “Going to Mass” suggest at least having an intellectual sense of needing communion. If you have no sense of personal sin, no belief in your sinfulness — if you think yourself not in need of forgiveness — you are not supposed to take part in a service you find false. Any more than you should take communion if you know yourself guilty of gross unconfessed sin. And no one who feels that way IS going to go to confession before Mass. Why would they?
    Francis is not here saying “I’m OK, You’re OK.” He is saying “You are not OK, and if you think you are OK you don’t even get what Mass is about.” We are all sinners, all sick, all in need of God’s grace. If you think you are “above” that, you are not properly disposed to receive, and are probably blind to spiritual truth. That’s my take away. Not “Come even if you don’t see the point.” There has got to be some sort of concept–if not sense–of need. Otherwise you are attending as would an atheist.

  3. ErnstThalmann says:

    “I’m sure that the theologically informed readers of FCA are aware that the general act of contrition is not on a par with making auricular confession with a priest. But, as always, how many of the very many devotees to the person of Pope Francis are aware of that disparity, and how does Francis’s “off-the-cuff” comment strengthen their attachment to making confession, regardless of how they “feel”?

    Sincerely, I find it hard to believe that a pope would discourage anyone from attending Mass at any time and for any reason. Sinners don’t attend Mass to confess sin. What sin is confessed at Mass is communal, mechanical and almost abstract anyway. It has none of the force and authenticity of the confessional. To see it as serving the purpose of the confessional is, frankly, grotesque. This man’s connectedness with the construct, I-am-a-sinner-and-in-so-being-I’m-to-be-adjudged-as-humble, is at best an outrage. Sinners aren’t humble, they’re arrogant and prideful. Why this kind of equation? At core, its more of Frank’s penchant for the pharisaical, his terribly public “humility”.

    Truthfully, I’ve begun to detest this man. And what to say of someone that has attained to feelings of this kind, time to go? He holds much too much in the way of responsibility to the Church – to me, and to you – to deal this casually with questions of this kind. I’m sick of Francis and have begun to see little in any Catholicism he might lead.

  4. Joe, I’ll put it this way.

    Me: “Would you like to visit Mass with me and my family, and then we can go for lunch?”

    Pagan Coworker (with whom I’ve established trust): “Lunch sounds good, but I don’t, well, I don’t accept the idea that I need the mercy of a ‘Higher Power’, you know?”

    Me: “Oh, by all means, yes. My bad, I didn’t mean to proselytize. After all, Pope Francis reminded us recently that if you don’t feel like you need God’s mercy, you shouldn’t go to Mass.”

    Pagan Coworker: “Man, I love that pope!”

    As I noted in the post, there is a place for impenitent Catholics: it is at Mass, but it is not at the communion rail. It’s simply stunning to hear a pope advise people they’d be better off not attending Mass until, frankly, they feel spiritual enough. He needs to call them to Mass but remind them not to “drink condemnation” on themselves by not discerning the Body and Blood. Everyone needs to go to confession and still attend Mass, even if they do not partake of the Eucharist.

    My honest reaction when I read the statement was this: Next Sunday if I’m feeling particularly self-satisfied, it sounds like I’ve got a papal pass to forego Mass until, hopefully, the next time around when I feel spiritual enough.

    I’m frustrated by this pope, but I’m trying not to blast him. I’m glad you can see the silver lining here. Thanks for challenging me.

  5. trof4st says:

    In a certain sense, the Bishop of Rome is best just ignored, Herr Thälmann . Keep calm and carry on being Catholic.

  6. ErnstThalmann says:

    Hello, friend tro4st. I must confess that, of late, my disposition toward involving myself in the life of the Church has been simply to ignore it. Internet contact with other Catholics is as close a facsimile of fellowship that I’ve been able either to attain or manage. I haven’t been to Mass is quite a while now and, when I think of going, the fabled vision of Frank The Hippee Pope – a video which became widespread at the time of Francis’ recent interviews – comes to mind. So I quickly abandon the idea. One manages serenity with Pope Francis with not a little difficulty. I’ve had enough of him and see little likelihood of enduring his pontificate. One doesn’t go to another Church, one simply ends participation in the Catholic Church. And one does this without the slightest prick of conscience. In any case, thank you for trying to be helpful.

  7. joe m says:

    I’ll agree that esp given PF’s general routine, it is hard to know. To say the least. All I was saying is this. If you do not think you are a sinner or in need of God’s mercy, you are not even a Christian much less a Catholic. Period. So that was how I read it. If you are not a Christian, you are better off not even going to Mass, than going out of a mis-catechized idea that it accrues you Get Into Heaven points with God by virtue of your legalistic attendance. The whole rite is about the need of mercy, so if you are not on board there, unless the Holy Spirit pierces your heart through the service, you are building about a wall of auto-kiddery. “Being Catholic” does not make you OK if it is rote cultural or legalistic identification. You have to own it heart-wise. The widespread rot in AmChurch is partially due to plain Modernism, and partially due to this mindset that keeping a few old school rules ames you good. I cannot tell you the number of friends I have who are liberal and unreachable because they also 1. get support from liberal Church, and 2. have an insular self-assurance they are right with God because at least they got to Mass, even though they are “basically good” people. Basically good people can’t repent, because they already think they are good enough. Make sense? Maybe my Evangelical holdover, but Mass now seems filled with “good” pagans. Perhaps PF is trying to prick their consciences. But I think his overall rhetoric ruins that hope, too. Keep up the good writing. It is a rare dose of honesty.

  8. c matt says:

    That is certainly a believable interpretation, and even likely what he meant. But given the state of the culture in which it is heard, I think the “I’m ok, you’re ok” interpretation is going to be more widespread. Therefore, the danger in making comments in that manner.

  9. Correct. As I tried to make clear by the title and my opening paragraph, this is by no means “the worst thing” he’s said, and is not toooooo hard to salvage. But it’s the fact that it’s so crass on its face, and so bizarre a statement for a pope to make–it just doesn’t help. Would it really be so hard for him to invoke the term “mortal sin”? My impression is that he has a very clinical, in fact rather Islamic view of sin, in that sin is an internal disruption of our communion with God, and that confession is how we regain our peace and return to the embrace of “the community.” Sins are wrong, it seems to be the pope’s underlying point, because they alienate us from our true selves and from each other, and only secondarily “violate the absolute divine law.” Again, just an impression, but if my research is any indication, he’s almost literally never used the term “hell”, apart from perhaps in a biblical citation.

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