In a new book — the first of his papacy, titled The Name of God is Mercy — Pope Francis focuses on the theme of mercy in Christian doctrine as he discusses the challenges facing the Church in the twenty-first century. He emphasizes that the Church is not meant to condemn the sinner, but bring her to God’s mercy. He calls on the Church to stop ostracizing gays and divorcees, but instead share the gospel of “God’s infinite mercy.”
Emphasizing his awareness of sharing a common humanity with people labeled as “sinners,” he admits he is a sinner.
“Every time I go through the gates into a prison to celebrate Mass or for a visit, I always think: Why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here,” he writes.
He then draws attention to moral hypocrisy of corruption in the Church hierarchy.
According to Pope Francis, mercy is the “God’s identity card,” and it is the “most important message” of Christianity to the world.
“The Church does not exist to condemn but to bring about an encounter with God’s mercy… [The Church should] embrace the outcast, the marginalized and the sinner.”
He stresses that a gospel or message of mercy does not mean that the Church is condoning sin.
“But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God,” he writes. “Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him — we must go back to the Gospel.”
He illustrates his vision of the Church as the vessel of God’s mercy through the analogy of a field hospital that goes out to meet with patients.
“I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this ‘Church that goes forth.’ It exists where there is combat, it is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities,” he said. “It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care, so that its soldiers do not die.”
Drawing on his personal experiences — such as his confession as 17-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Father Carlos Duarte Ibarra on the day of the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle in 1953 — and those of members of his family, Francis speaks of how the Roman Catholic Church’s rigid doctrinal position on divorce has affected people’s lives negatively.
He condemns the form of Christianity and Christian life that consists mainly of “mental habit,” in which those who claim to be Christians “no longer feel the need for forgiveness and mercy.”
He also discusses the problem of corruption in the Church, declaring that Christians who do not acknowledge their sins are also corrupt people living a “double life.”
Analysts are scrutinizing Pope Francis’s remarks in his new book — offered as an interview conversation with Italian journalist and Vatican expert, Andrea Tornielli — for evidence of his position in the ongoing debate over the Church’s teaching on divorce and exclusion of divorcees who remarry without the Church’s approval from the Eucharist.
Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage has been widely criticized and blamed for alienating otherwise faithful members.
Catholic teaching does not recognize divorce, and teaches that marriage is permanent. Thus, Catholics who divorce and want to remarry cannot receive the Eucharist because — according to Church teaching — they live in “public and permanent adultery.” Only those who obtain a formal annulment or have their previous marriage declared invalid by the Church are allowed to remarry and receive the Eucharist.
He cites the example of an unnamed niece who married a divorcee who had not received a formal annulment of his previous marriage from the Church. The niece and her husband were unable to receive the Eucharist because they were married in a civil ceremony, and the man had not obtained annulment of his previous marriage from the Church.
Francis also offers deeper insight into his thinking on the Church’s position on gays. He insists that people should not be defined by their sexuality and calls on the Church to “overcome prejudice and rigidity” and welcome gays.
Francis admits he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy and acknowledges that he might have ended up in prison if the circumstances of his life had been different. He recalls that even Peter — the first Pope in Catholic teaching — had betrayed Jesus before he repented.
He says, “The Pope is a man who needs the mercy of God.”
He expresses his opposition to death penalty and the need to help prisoners reintegrate into society.
“Every time I go through the gates into a prison to celebrate Mass or for a visit, I always think: Why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here,” he writes. “Their fall could have been mine. I don’t feel superior to those in front of me.”
He writes about the problem of corruption within the Church, such as clergy taking bribes and priests showing “excessive curiosity” about sexual matters by demanding details of sexual sins during confessionals.
“The corrupt man does not know humility,” he writes. “He does not consider himself in need of help.”
He speaks about the hypocrisy of clergy who hide their corruption by “keeping up appearances.”
He notes that the public perception of the rigidity and moral hypocrisy of the Church explains why large numbers of people are turning away from the Church in search of new spiritual and religious experiences.
Pope Francis’ new book comes soon after his December 8 announcement of the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy. He called on Catholics around the world to embrace the gospel of mercy, as opposed to judgment of sinners.
“Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him — we must go back to the Gospel.”
On the more controversial issue of homosexuality, he follows up on his 2013 remark that he would refrain from passing judgment of gays, saying that the Church has the responsibility to reach out to gays.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
He urges the Church to treat gays with dignity and “delicacy and not marginalize” them. He says he prefers “that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together.”
Pope Francis’ book will be published in 86 countries on Tuesday, January 12.
[Photo by Gregorio Borgia/AP]