Pope Francis: The Ten Commandments Are Not Absolutes

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.

Here is the long version of what Pope Francis said:

“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:

Aug 18
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.

Michael Lofton
Aug 18
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.

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8 Responses to Pope Francis: The Ten Commandments Are Not Absolutes

  1. Robert L Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you for this post. I understood words of Pope Francis exactly as you did. Unfortunately, Bishop Athanasius Schneider is trying to suggest that Pope Francis is now contradicting the Catechism of the Catholic Church and embracing a view more akin to Martin Luther:https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/bishop-schneider-pope-francis-10-commandments-comments-contradict-church-teaching-akin-to-teaching-of-martin-luther-2/

  2. Father Stephen Imbarrato says:

    Thank you for this. I have serious concerns about the Pope, but some people have lost all objectivity about him. I cannot spend the time to defend him at every turn he takes nor every remark he makes, but when I heard about this comment, I sought to find out exactly the context. You have given the context and explained it well. Much appreciated.
    I have always found you to be a reliable source especially on Marian apparitions.

  3. MichaelT says:

    Thank you for the explanation Ron. The extent to which some continually view Pope Francis through a fault finding lens, more like an intruder than our Holy Father, troubles and saddens me. As you pointed out, what he said is basic theology and what Jesus taught, culminating in love being the fulfillment of the law. I’m reminded of Proverbs 24:16, that due to our fallen nature, even a holy man sins 7 times a day. To me, Pope Francis merely reiterated the fundamental truth that no one is capable of observing and keeping the law perfectly, so for even the best among us, only God’s merciful love and forgiveness can ultimately justify and save us.

  4. Jeff says:

    This schismatic approach towards the Pope isn’t merely a generation xyz based misconduct, as some might suggest. It’s courtesy of your cell phone. The “know it all” defiance of the modern era is a product of the Information Age since people have access to the internet. Instead of working with the church and using the web as a wonderful tool to deepen their faith, they take the prideful, “I don’t need guidance! I’ll find the answer on my phone” stance. It almost makes me wish we didn’t have the access that we do in these situations.

  5. Magdalena Es says:

    Thank you, I sent a link to your page to someone who is strongly opposing the teachings of Pope Francis. All they said was that “once again, Pope requires an interpreter to make sense. Schneider knows better”. I think nothing will convince those people unfortunately.

    • Ron Conte says:

      They are caught up in a subculture in the Church, one that tells them that all the members of the subculture are more faithful and more knowledgeable than the rest of the Church. This appeals to pride, as a type of elitism and even Gnosticism (e.g. we have the secret knowledge that others lack). To submit to the Magisterium, no matter what is taught takes humility as well as faith.

      As for the Pope needing interpreters, No, anyone could do the reading needed and understand what is being taught. The supports of Francis just try to make it easier to understand him with less of that effort and time. In any case, Jesus left the Church as His interpreter, the sole authoritative interpreter of Tradition and Scripture and past Church teachings.

  6. Eric Engel says:

    It’s sad that blue-pillers are still pope-splaining everything the man says. It’s only Catholic when you explain it this way, because it’s not really Catholic at all. The pope very clearly doesn’t think the ten commandments are absolutes. They are absolutes, in what they command. No one says that they justify man, so I’m not sure why he mentions that. But they have to be followed, absolutely, in what they command.

    And it’s not the encounter with Jesus that justifies us. It’s His death that justifies us.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Relativism always brings the risk that some or other alleged truth will be imposed by the powerful or the clever. Yet, “when it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal”.

      That’s Pope Francis quoting JP2 in veritatis splendor.

      Like the Bible, the Pope’s words can be interpreted badly or well. Those who have decided to oppose Pope Francis seek the worst interpretation. It is confirmation bias. “Look! He said something else that proves we are right!”

      One can easily say that the Ten Commandments are absolutes in one sense, and not in another. The meaning of Pope Francis’ talk was so clear, just from reading it once, that I think those who interpret him badly have just decided that he is their political opponent, and they will look for accusations against him at every turn. This is exactly the behavior pattern in sinful secular society in politics, which is very polarized right now. And the opponents of Francis have adopted that behavior from secular society. They are not imitating Christ. There is no faith in their attacks on Francis. They are not defending the Church — which is certainly clear from their rejection of Vatican I and II, and other recent Popes as well as past Popes. Catholic is Faith. It is not Faith to apply your own fallible judgment to the Pope, treating him like a political enemy and looking for ways to accuse him.

      No explanations are needed for Francis’ teaching. If you do not understand, simply trust in Christ and His Church.

      Ratzinger, The Primacy of the Successor of Peter: “The Catholic Church professes that this ministry is the primatial ministry of the Roman Pontiff, Successor of Peter, and maintains humbly and firmly ‘that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is — in God’s plan — an essential requisite of full and visible communion’…. We are all invited to trust in the Holy Spirit, to trust in Christ, by trusting in Peter.”

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