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"A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just." - Pope Francis, 17 March 2013

 

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Pope Francis and the Naked Catholic

by Clyde Christofferson

There are some Catholics who are concerned that Amoris Laetitia is taking the Church down a path that leads to new laws which somehow would be applicable only to a few individuals.  In their view being a Catholic means having a mantra: "no new laws!"

What is it about Catholics? I am a Catholic; you are a Catholic. Where would we be without the clothing of the law?

Let me approach this in a slightly different and provocative way, because I think we end up in the same place. Pope Francis is there, too. He has maintained steadfastly that the law is not going to be changed. Jesus did the same thing, in Matthew 5:17 and (in a slightly different way) in Mark 1:15.

If you or I are looking to keep the law or to change it, we both are missing the metanoia -- the change of heart -- that Jesus preached. Is not Jesus asking us to become "the naked Catholic"?

The clothing of the law has been a deceit from the beginning, with Adam and Eve in the Garden. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is not: Christ came to liberate us from the law by keeping the law. The problem is not the law, but in our attitude.

You have probably heard it said -- from no less a saint than Augustine -- to "love God and do what you will." I had heard this from my now deceased mother, but I did not know where Augustine said this. After some looking, I found it yesterday, in a series of homilies Augustine gave on the letter of John.

Augustine said nothing about the law. He simply pointed out that Jesus gave us a new commandment: to love one another. "If you do not help your brother in need, how can it be said that you love God? If you hate your brother, how can you love God?" Augustine goes on for pages and pages in this vein. If we truly love God it will be evident in what we do.

But Augustine does not take the next step. Catholics take the next step: put on the clothing of the law. "Do as the law commands, as a sign that you are a follower of Jesus the Christ."

Jesus told a story about just this issue. It is a story we all know. But the story has a background that suggests -- never demands, just suggests -- the change of heart, the metanoia, that Jesus is seeking.

The background is Ezra, reading the Torah when the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. The Torah contained God's law, and following God's law was the mark of being God's people.

In those days the Jews of Samaria -- they were called Samaritans -- thought that the return from Babylon would mean that all the followers of the Mosaic law would have a role in the new Jerusalem. But the Samaritans were among those left behind when the leaders were taken off to Babylon, and during the years of captivity the Samaritans had intermarried with non-Jews and had otherwise taken some liberties -- as Ezra saw it -- with the law. Thus, the Samaritans were to be excluded from those people of God who wished to remain in good company.

"I know I am to love my neighbor as myself," said the lawyer to Jesus. "But who is my neighbor?"  The lawyer may have been thinking, "must I love even a Samaritan?"  Jesus then tells the story of a traveler on the road to Jericho who is set upon by thieves and left for dead. A priest passes by, not wanting to break the law (for a priest, the law against contamination by touching a corpse). A Levite does the same. The audience of Galilean peasants to whom this story is being told know about the priests and the Levites, with their pomp and circumstance, and now expect the third person -- stories always were told in threes -- to be a good Jewish peasant who would bring succor to the beaten traveler.

But who is the third person coming along the road? A Samaritan. From the point of view of a faithful Jew -- clothed in the law of the Torah -- there was no place for the Samaritan in this story. In those days, if a Samaritan came into a village of faithful Jews, he would be run off. In those times, "good Samaritan" was an oxymoron. A Samaritan? An audience of faithful Jews might have a different expectation, now that a Samaritan is in the story, than they had hoped for: the Samaritan might stop, but only to finish off what the robbers had started.

We all know how the story ends.  Luke describes how carefully the Samaritan dressed the traveler’s wounds and brought him to an inn.  What did Jesus then say? "Who was neighbor to the beaten traveler?" He did not say a word about the law, because being a good neighbor, loving one's neighbor as one's self, following the great commandments, loving God and neighbor, is not about the law. It's about something else.

Faithful Jews in those days were followers of the law. Jesus wanted to move them further along the way toward union with a loving God. It's not that the law was bad or wrong or inadequate. The law was just a step along the road. There is more to the journey toward union with God.

It is very significant what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18, but it would be ironic to see Matthew 5:17-18 as priority of law over the "new commandment" to love one another. Loving one another -- being Love itself -- is what Jesus was about.

Looking at the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics as a question of law is like a deer caught in the headlights. It is death. Pope Francis, following the example of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18, is changing nothing in the law. The law is not what Jesus preached. Leave the law as it is, so that it will not distract from the real work of loving one another.

When Francis urges us to a path of "encounter and accompaniment" and to attend to the 'other' as if in a "field hospital" he is turning our gaze away from the law so that attention to the law will not distract us from "love of God and neighbor".

Yes, he is trying to move Catholics -- Catholics who are clothed in the law -- to a better place. Jesus tried to do the same with faithful Jews, who were also clothed in the law. It is said that "mercy is God's justice." This does not mean "I'll let you off this time, but you must come back to the law." No. the point of mercy is to prompt metanoia, a change in direction, away from being a deer in the headlights of the law.

It really is about love. Those who see all this commotion about Amoris Laetitia as an opportunity to remove the shackles of the law, and achieve some form of libertarian freedom, are as much caught in the headlights as those faithful Catholics "clothed in the law."

This is difficult terrain. Habits are hard to change. Being caught in the headlights of the law is a hazard for faithful Catholics just as it was a hazard for faithful Jews at the time of Christ. A "naked Catholic"? What a crazy idea! Who would take off their clothes -- the clothes of the law -- and run naked in the street?

No one. Jesus does not ask us to do that. Nor does Pope Francis. First, put on the clothes of love for God and neighbor. That comes first. Become an accomplished lover. Then, after enough "encounter and accompaniment" with a neighbor so that you have walked a mile in their moccasins, when a little voice within you calls for mercy, do not ignore the voice. Mercy is not a rejection of the law. Mercy is a response to the Spirit of Christ within the human heart. Mercy is a practical recognition that what we call "the law" is often a simplification that idealizes -- rather than honestly reflects -- the reality of God's love.

We must be patient with ourselves and with our Church. Being "clothed in the law" is a hazard of the faith. Do not give it up lightly. Love one another. In the end, it comes down to love.

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Why I support Pope Francis

He is a man of mercy and goodness, exemplifying and preaching a Jesus who is the same.

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