In a message to a gathering of bishops of the Americas in Bogota,
Colombia, Pope Francis made a point that’s always worth recalling but
especially timely now in this Year of Mercy. Sin exists, he said, within “a
history of sin to be remembered.”
“Which sin?” the pope asked rhetorically, then answered, “Ours:
mine and yours.”
All of us are sinners, and all of us need mercy. Here’s something
to think about against the background of the continuing discussion of “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), the document on
marriage that Pope Francis published earlier this year.
The fundamental question underlying that document comes down to
this: Is God’s mercy, like His love, truly unconditional or does its operation
depend in a sense on those who receive it — that is, on us?
Clearly God’s mercy is immense, beyond measuring. He is ready at
any time and in any place to forgive literally anybody for having done
literally anything. But, that said, it also appears that God’s forgiveness
requires something on our part — sorrow for our sin.
To be genuine, moreover, sorrow for sin also requires something
else. Usually that is called a “firm purpose of amendment” — the determination
not to sin again.
Obviously this isn’t certainty of not repeating one’s sin, for
who can guarantee that? Rather, a firm purpose of amendment is the honest
intention to make a serious, sustained effort not to sin again. And that
intention must include determination to begin the effort here and now, not to
delay until some point in the future when it may be easier, nor to proceed a
little at a time according to somebody’s notion of “gradualness.”
The account in Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel of the woman taken in
adultery, frequently cited in discussions of these matters, is a good example.
Yes, in this moving and dramatic episode Jesus does indeed extend mercy to a
sinner. But he also tells the woman, “Go and sin no more.”
He doesn’t say cut back a bit or put it off until it’s
convenient. He says, “Sin no more.”
But, someone might object, isn’t the conversion of St. Paul an
instance of God’s mercy reaching out to its object even before sorrow and a
purpose of amendment were present in Saul, who at that time was a furious
persecutor of Christ’s followers?
Yes, it is. But note that in persecuting those early Christians,
Saul of Tarsus truly believed he was doing the right thing. His very zeal,
mistaken though it was, helped draw God’s mercy to him. The first letter to
Timothy explains: “I obtained the mercy of God because I acted ignorantly, in
unbelief” (1 Tm 1:13). The pre-conversion Paul was wrong but he honestly
thought that he was right. God stepped in mercifully but forcefully to correct
Perhaps all this helps shed some light on “Amoris
Writing in the Vatican weekly L’Osservatore
Romano, a Spanish theology professor, Father Salvador Pie-Ninot, argues
that Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation is an exercise of papal teaching
authority requiring “religious submission of mind and will.” If so, then of
course the same must also be said of St. John Paul II’s document on marriage “Familiaris Consortio” and his encyclical on moral
principles “Veritatis Splendor.”
But to assent to something requires understanding what it says.
Amid the ongoing debate over the meaning of “Amoris
Laetitia,” these thoughts may help readers seeking to situate Pope Francis’
document in relation to the tradition of magisterial teaching.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and
author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall,
and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press).