By now, the Pope’s impromptu press conference, on his flight back from Brazil, has been analyzed the world over. But in all the discussion over Francis’ comments, very little has been said about the key line in his now famous exchange on homosexuality. “This is what is important,” declared Francis to reporters, “a theology of sin.”
That is what should have made headlines after the papal press conference—not that Francis used the word “gay,” or expressed a merciful (and thus deeply Christian) attitude toward those seeking reconciliation with God.
“This is what is important: a theology of sin.”
The words are striking, especially to a world often in denial of sin; but it is typical that many secular commentators blew right past them, instead focusing on Francis’ now-famous “Who am I to judge?” comment. (Never mind that Francis was speaking about individuals who humbly confess their sins before the Lord—not those who adamantly persist in them.)
Since his elevation to the episcopacy, and especially since becoming pope, Francis has promulgated a “theology of sin” with force and clarity. He often returns to the theme that we are all sinners who offend God, need to examine our consciences daily, and amend our lives accordingly. He has referred to himself as a sinner, publicly asked forgiveness for his sins, and requested that people pray for him. And when he was asked during the press conference why he “so insistently” invites prayer, he answered as a true shepherd would:
I have always asked this. When I was a priest, I asked it. . . . I began to ask with greater frequency while I was working as a bishop, because I sense that if the Lord does not help in this work of assisting the People of God to go forward, it can’t be done. I am truly conscious of my many limitations, with so many problems, and I a sinner—as you know!—and I have to ask for this. . . . It comes from within. I ask Our Lady too to pray to the Lord for me. It is a habit, but a habit that comes from my heart and also a real need in terms of my work.
Last April, Francis described his theology of sin as a three-part process. The first part is to recognize the darkness of contemporary life, and how it leads so many astray:
Walking in darkness means being overly pleased with ourselves, believing that we do not need salvation. That is darkness! When we continue on this road of darkness, it is not easy to turn back. Therefore, John continues, because this way of thinking made him reflect: “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Look to your sins, to our sins, we are all sinners, all of us. . . . This is the starting point.
The second stage is to realize that confession is not simply a way to remove stains from our souls—as if the confessional were a theological “dry cleaner”—but rather, an encounter with Jesus Christ, who is always ready to forgive sins and transform lives. But in order to receive his healing grace, we have to acknowledge not just our sins, but our shame in violating his will. We have to be willing to say, as Francis does,
“Lord, look . . . this is how I am.” We are often ashamed to tell the truth: “I did this, I thought this.” But shame is a true Christian virtue, and even human. . . . You need to stand in front of the Lord “with our truth of sinners.” . . . We must never masquerade before God. . . . This is the virtue that Jesus asks of us: humility and meekness.
The third and final part of this process is having absolute faith in God to renew us:
We must have trust, because when we sin we have an advocate with the Father—“Jesus Christ the righteous.” And he “supports us before the Father” and defends us in front of our weaknesses.
In an address to his fellow Jesuits, on the Feast of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis summed up his Catholic vision of life: “To put Christ and the Church in the center; to allow ourselves to be conquered by Him in order to serve; to feel the shame of our limitations and our sins, in order to be humble before Him.”
It’s instructive to contrast the Pope’s views with those of the secular world. Francis takes it for granted that sex outside of marriage (to cite only one sin) is gravely wrong; the world does not—and increasingly doesn’t even believe in the proper definition of marriage. The Pope maintains the urgency of confessing our sins; the world believes in celebrating and justifying them. The Pope believes it essential to acknowledge and promote a healthy Christian concept of shame, whereas the world mocks the very idea of shame. Perhaps that is why Francis, in his April address, reserved some of his strongest words for the “unashamed”:
I do not know if there is a similar saying in Italian, but in our country [Argentina] those who are never ashamed are called “sin verguenza”: this means “the unashamed,” because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble, of the man and the woman who are humble.
In a recent column, John Allen proposed that Francis become known as “the Pope of Mercy,” since “his signature idea is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God’s endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the Church above all today is a message of compassion.”
That is certainly true, but it is equally true that Francis’ understanding of mercy is not the kind dissenters and secularists believe in, much less the kind of false compassion Venerable Fulton Sheen powerfully exposed and answered. True Christian mercy presupposes a strong moral order with clearly defined teachings on good and evil: It is not an open-ended, amorphous, free-floating concept; nor is it a prelude to changing moral doctrines rooted in eternal truth.
Francis’ teaching on mercy is beautiful and inspiring, but clearly takes place within his full theology of sin, from which it can never be isolated. It includes acknowledging the shame of our grievous sins, and abandoning them, with the help of the Lord Jesus. Only then can we experience the full joy and healing that awaits us from the merciful Son of Man.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.