Mercy, Mercy

Pope Francis has launched the Year of Mercy and so the comments about being merciful are frequent these days. But the pope may have gotten ahead of himself when he said that Jesus needed to ask forgiveness of Joseph and Mary (and only the Remnant seems to have objected):

. . . to give credit where credit is due, the Holy Father said some very fine things in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Family. Indeed, his pronouncements nearly always contain much that is good, true and spiritually helpful. He could surely never have been elected to the highest office on earth if his track record revealed that most of what he said was foolish, mistaken, superficial or heterodox. Nevertheless, it will only take a small drop of venom to make a rich and delicious Christmas cake highly dangerous for your health. Likewise, just one shocking affirmation in a papal homily can make its overall effect deeply unsettling and dangerous for our spiritual health.

In this case, the Pope has said something which makes many of us shudder; for it is something which it is not easy to exculpate, at least at the objective level, from the charge of blasphemy. Intentionally or otherwise, he has spoken words which, taken in their natural, unforced sense, imply that the Son of God himself has committed sin.

Consider these words by which His Holiness, preaching in Italian, commented on the Gospel incident: “We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, provoking great suffering (provocando una grande pena) to Mary and Joseph, who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’ (questa ‘scappatella’), Jesus probably had to ask forgiveness (dovette chiedere scusa) of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it.”

That may raise problems for the theologically picky, but Pope Francis has also said that Mary has lots of forgiveness to give since she is the “mother of forgiveness”:

For us, Mary is an icon of how the Church must offer forgiveness to those who seek it. The Mother of forgiveness teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits. Neither the law with its quibbles, nor the wisdom of this world with its distinctions, can hold it back. The Church’s forgiveness must be every bit as broad as that offered by Jesus on the Cross and by Mary at his feet. There is no other way. It is for this purpose that the Holy Spirit made the Apostles the effective ministers of forgiveness, so what was obtained by the death of Jesus may reach all men and women in every age (cf. Jn 20:19-23).

For anyone wondering if the pope’s statements might qualify as heretical and so complicate the doctrine of papal infallibility, keep in mind the fine print. In order to define infallibility in a way that made room for the seventh-century pope, Honorius, the Vatican Council had to finesse papal authority (with papal approval, of course):

In order to save infallibility it is better to admit the historical possibility of a heretic Pope, rather than shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a Council ratified by a Roman Pontiff. It is common doctrine that the condemnation of the writings of an author is infallible, when the error is anathematized with the note of heresy, whereas, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not always necessarily infallible.

During the First Vatican Council, the Deputation of the Faith confronted the problem by setting out a series of rules of a general character, which are applied not only in the case of Honorius, but in all problems, past or future that may be presented. It is not enough for the Pope to pronounce on a question of faith or customs regarding the universal Church, it is necessary that the decree by the Roman Pontiff is conceived in such a manner as to appear as a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of obliging all the faithful to believe (Mansi, LII, coll. 1204-1232). There are, therefore, non-infallible acts of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium, since they are devoid of the necessary defining character: quod ad formam seu modum attinet.

Pope Honorius’ letters are devoid of these characteristics. They are undoubtedly Magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations. The Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot ever pronounce a heresy ex- cathedra.

Bottom line, Pope Francis should be okay. Back to your regularly scheduled shrugging.

3 thoughts on “Mercy, Mercy

  1. From Wikipedia:

    Example of ordinary magisterium includes the social teachings of recent popes or theological opinions that the popes or bishops make public. Catholics are not free to merely dismiss such teachings, however. The Church demands a “submission of the intellect and will” to them, even if not supernatural faith. However, this is to varying degrees depending on a variety of things, especially when teachers disagree. Catholics must respectfully hear all opinions from equal authorities and judge which is best, makes more sense, is more consonant with the tradition of the whole history of the Church, or how to reconcile them. However, the use of a higher level of authority trumps past disagreement—for example, if a pope condemns the teaching of a bishop (even if both the condemnation and the teaching are fallible), or if an infallible teaching disagrees with a past fallible teaching. Catholics are free to weigh a variety of factors, however, in judging divergent opinions that are of the same level of authority, and being taught more recently does not necessarily give it more authority. For example, the different teachings of two bishops may be considered and judged by Catholics, and the fallible teachings of the current pope, for example, do not necessarily trump the equally authoritative fallible teaching of previous popes even when they disagree, especially if many of them taught something different. However, the fallible teachings must always be viewed in light of the infallible teachings of the Church.

    Clear as mud.

    One of the fundamental problems with the infallibility of the church is that a current generation has very little to go on in order to know whether or not what is being said is infallible, and then the distinction doesn’t seem to make much difference for submission. Was the call to the Crusades infallible or fallible? If at the end of the day it was fallible but you are due to obey it anyway, what is meaningful about calling it fallible or infallible? And nobody living at the time of the Crusades could know into what category the calls fell.

    Just looks like a lot of “Shut up and obey.”


  2. pope: “The Mother of forgiveness (Mary) teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits.”

    prooftext? Not sure when she was called this and when she did this teaching? But it IS recorded that she did say: And Mary said: “My soul exalts THE LORD Luke 1:46

    not that people aren’t commended by name in His word- eg Paul, commended a 6 Mary – though we don’t know who this one was – and right along with Romans 16:1 commending Phoebe 3 Prisca and Aquila 5 Epaenetus 7 Andronicus and Junias 8 Ampliatus 9 Urbanus and Stachys 10 Apelles and Aristobulus. 11 Herodion and Narcissus 12 Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis 13 Greet Rufus14 Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas 15 Philologus and Julia, Nereus and Olympas


  3. Papa Frank may be inclined to give mercy leading up to 2017, but it sure feels like his biggest supporters can’t find much mercy in their hearts for Protestants, especially a special friend of ours, D. Hart:

    Good response right back at ol’ Fr. Dwight:


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