As usual, Pope Francis said something insightful and clearly true, and his opponents turned it into an implicit accusation of heresy. I have not seen anyone say “heresy” on this particular point, but if their accusations were true, heresy is implied. The short version of what he said:
Pope Francis “do I disregard the Commandments? No. I observe them, but not as absolutes, because I know that it is Jesus Christ who justifies me.”
We must observe the Commandments, but we are not thereby justified. This is basic theology. If you refrain from committing the sins in the Ten Commandments, how would you go to Heaven? You must be in the state of grace when you die, to be judged worthy of eternal life after death. Avoiding grave sin is necessary but not sufficient. Christ obtained our salvation; He merited the graces needed for us to be saved. Salvation is a free gift; but having accepted that gift, we must live according to those graces. We must live a life of love.
“What does this mean? That after the Law we can say, ‘We believe in Jesus Christ and do what we want?’ No! The Commandments exist, but they do not justify us. What makes us just is Jesus Christ. The Commandments must be observed, but they do not give us justice; there is the gratuitousness of Jesus Christ, the encounter with Jesus Christ that freely justifies us. The merit of faith is receiving Jesus. The only merit: opening the heart. And what do we do with the Commandments? We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ.
“This teaching on the value of the law is very important, and deserves to be considered carefully so we do not give way to misunderstandings and take false steps. It is good for us to ask ourselves if we still live in the period in which we need the Law, or if instead we are fully aware of having received the grace of becoming children of God so as to live in love. How do I live? In the fear that if I do not do this, I will go to hell? Or do I live with that hope too, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ? It is a good question. And also the second: do I disregard the Commandments? No. I observe them, but not as absolutes, because I know that it is Jesus Christ who justifies me.”
Jesus makes us just. Jesus obtained our salvation. Even the Jews of ancient times were saved by Jesus, even though they did not know Him (except as a promised future Messiah). When non-Christians are saved, they are saved by Jesus. When atheists are saved, they are saved by Jesus.
We can view what Pope Francis says as stages in a person’s spiritual life. Are you still a beginner in the spiritual life, in that you are still struggling against mortal sin? Then continue to try to keep the Commandments, of course. As you progress in spirituality, and you do not have any mortal sins in your life, then you must focus more on the positive precepts: Love God above all else; love your neighbor as yourself.
Why are the Commandments not absolutes? It is because they cannot save in and of themselves. That is the sense in which they are not absolutes. They do not contain the whole Faith and the whole of Salvation. They point to Christ, but do not mention Him. They prepare a holy people to accept Him, even now.
And notice what Pope Francis says: “I observe them.” He is not saying that we do not have to observe the Commandments. But he does not give the Ten Commandments, the rules to be followed, the highest place, as love of God must be first.
Also, Francis refutes the idea that the Commandments do not need to be followed. “What does this mean? That after the Law we can say, ‘We believe in Jesus Christ and do what we want?’ No!” So he is not taking away the Commandments, nor is he reducing them to relative rules that can be broken in certain circumstances. He means that justification comes from Christ, not from us refraining from certain sins.
An unbaptized infant has no personal sins, but is not justified, until baptism — which is a free gift. Avoiding sin is necessary, but not sufficient. We must move forward in love, faith, and hope, and the other virtues. We must bear fruit for Christ and His Church, and for those in need in the world.
And what else does Francis say? “We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ.” The wording that Francis used was open to misinterpretation. But the whole text of what he said clearly refutes the most common misunderstanding (that the Commandments are relative). It is uncharitable to interpret the teachings of a Pope as if they were a grave error.
Michael Lofton published this tweet on the subject:
Lofton quoted a tweet saying: “Thou shalt not murder is obviously an absolute.” Then he wrote:
I dont think people are understanding him well. If we were to ask him do you think there are exceptions to “thou shalt not murder” do we really think the person who says the death penalty is inadmissible will answer “sure, in some cases we can murder!” This stuff gets tiring.
Only a paranoid hermeneutic of mistrust would automatically read Pope Francis in such an uncharitable way.
This hermeneutic of paranoia and mistrust is something Francis’ opponents are using to their own advantage. It helps them keep a group of Catholics, who are unhappy with the Pope, as their followers. This gives them power, influence, and even money. If they were to support the Roman Pontiff, they would lose most of their followers. Those who attack the Pope have many followers, and those who support the Pope have few followers.
They will be judged by God for the way that they have treated the teachings of the Vicar of Christ.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.