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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Latest Pope Francis Blooper: The Catholic Faithful Are No Better than Criminals in Prison

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The Latest Pope Francis Blooper: The Catholic Faithful Are No Better than Criminals in Prison

Another day. Another off-the-cuff remark by Pope Francis. Another rhetorical blunder that undermines sound teaching.

Last week, in his general audience address, the Pope rightly reminded the faithful of the spiritual work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned only to make yet another mess of things with yet another of his impetuous departures from prepared texts. To quote from the Italian original on the Vatican website (translation mine, there being no official English translation), the Pope said this about those who are in prison:

But each of us is capable… Listen well to this: each of us is capable of doing the same thing as that man or that woman in prison. We all have the capacity to sin and do the same, to make a mistake in life. He [the one in prison] is no worse than you or me! Mercy overcomes every wall, every barrier, and brings us to look always for the face of the man, the person. And it is mercy that changes hearts and lives, that can regenerate a person and allow him to integrate himself in a new way in society.

Really? Each of us is capable of cold-blooded murder, violent rape, child molestation, armed robbery, pimping, selling drugs to children, and a host of other heinous crimes committed by those who fill the prisons? The perpetrators of these crimes are no worse than we are? Their crimes are to be viewed as “mistakes in life” that we could just as easily commit ourselves?

Or was the Pope referring only to white-collar criminals, like the family man under financial pressure who does a ballet with the company books and gets in too deep to get out? It does not appear so. It appears Francis was talking about criminals of all kinds, including violent offenders in maximum-security prisons. As Francis said, arguing in his typical mode of shooting down childish objections from the hypothetical timid Catholic who constantly serves as his straw man: “But Father, no! This is dangerous. These are bad people.” (Notice how in these little rhetorical exchanges with himself the Pope is always referred to as “Father,” just as the Pope said it was “Father Bergoglio” calling when he telephoned the Argentinian woman living in adultery to assure her that she could receive Holy Communion.).

Granted, we are all sinners, but does the Pope really think any Catholic is literally capable of the kinds of heinous crimes that result in imprisonment? Given his penchant for ad libs, which he seems to think are more “authentic” than carefully prepared instruction for the faithful, he probably merely said what sounded good to him at the moment, without realizing that it is one of those glittering clichés of pop culture, usually uttered by the cynical, world-weary cop in a B movie who concludes that everyone is basically a criminal at heart, even the cops.

A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that the cliché is false even on the level of natural virtue. Against the Pelagians, Saint Thomas teaches that without grace it impossible to fulfill all the precepts of the natural law. But this does not mean that man’s nature, though corrupted by Original Sin, has entirely lost its inclination to the good or that man is incapable of fulfilling at least some precepts of the natural law, including those that forbid killing and stealing, even if his natural motives (such as a sense of right and wrong or a worldly commitment to justice) do not involve the supernatural virtue of charity present in the justified. Man is not, after all, totally depraved by nature, as Luther and his fellow “Reformers” claimed, even if some men become such. That is why the natural man is not generally inclined to commit murders and rapes, for example.

Add sanctifying grace to the picture, however, and the Pope’s off-the-cuff remark becomes, quite frankly, preposterous. Are we to believe that a cold-blooded killer who views his crime as perfectly justified by a need for money or some other advantage is “no worse” than the Catholic in a state of grace who would never even consider killing another human being or even committing serious bodily harm for personal gain?

“There but for the grace of God go I” is certainly a maxim that applies to many sins to which we might have succumbed. But Catholics cannot possibly be expected to believe that that they are all naturally and commonly capable of terrible crimes and are thus no better than those who have actually committed them and been sentenced to prison. While Francis did not intend this, he inadvertently lent credence to the rationale of the psychopathic career criminal who, agreeing with the world-weary cop, says: “You are really not much different from me. The only difference between us is that I have the courage to act in order to get what I want. You are really no better than I am. I merely do what you think about doing and what everyone might do in given circumstances.”

The Pope who ridicules “a monolithic body of of doctrine… leaving no room for nuance” seems to be a stranger to nuance himself. Perhaps what he really meant to say, sufficiently nuanced, was that any one of us could have been raised in circumstances in which, deprived of any moral formation and subjected to childhood abuse, we might have become totally depraved and ended up in prison for murder or some other high crime. But why is it that the faithful are so often left to revise the Pope’s remarks in order to demonstrate that he “really meant” something consistent with Catholic teaching? Is there no one in the Vatican who will suggest to the Pope that he think twice before he shares with the whole world a thought that comes into his head on the spur of the moment?

Finally, it is not our exercise of mercy that “changes hearts and lives, that can regenerate a person,” but rather divine grace, the grace of justification. Justification depends upon repentance (also a work of grace) and the exercise of divine, not human mercy. The Pope’s whole “time of mercy” program appears to involve a profound confusion between divine mercy and a false human mercy that would tolerate by way of “pastoral solutions” what can never be tolerated.

Here Francis might have mentioned another work of mercy, one that seems to have disappeared into the post-conciliar memory hole: to admonish the sinner. Then again, Francis has spent a great deal of time admonishing Catholics who are not in prison for murder, rape, or armed robbery but whose sin appears to be a strong attachment to the traditional doctrines and practices of the Catholic religion.

Last modified on Monday, September 15, 2014
Christopher A. Ferrara

Christopher A. Ferrara: President and lead counsel for the American Catholic Lawyers Inc., Mr. Ferrara has been at the forefront of the legal defense of pro-lifers for the better part of a quarter century. Having served with the legal team for high profile victims of the culture of death such as Terri Schiavo, he has long since distinguished him a premier civil rights Catholic lawyer.  Mr. Ferrara has been a lead columnist for The Remnant since 2000 and has authored several books published by The Remnant Press, including the bestseller The Great Façade. Together with his children and wife, Wendy, he lives in Richmond, Virginia.