Prior Provincial, Dominican Friars,
Central Province, USA
Pope Francis recently caused a big wave in the media when he told a reporter that he was no one to judge a gay man who was sincerely pursuing God. Later on he said that he thought the Church was spending too much time on questions regarding abortion, contraception and homosexuality. He said the Church must be careful not to be “obsessed with the transmission of a multitude of doctrines.” To do so, he said, would be to place the Church at risk of falling like a house of cards, losing the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Some felt that the Pope had gone soft on important church teachings like abortion. One commentator suggested that he differed from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who felt the Church could only survive by sticking to its “core values.” But let’s not presume that’s what happened. Pope Francis did not repudiate any of the core values of Benedict XVI; what he did was to enlarge and refocus the Church’s core values. Instead of focusing on homosexual acts, for example, he talked about the importance of the person. “When God looks at a gay person,” he said, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”
Similarly, he did not reject the Church’s tradition on abortion or contraception, but put it in the larger context of concern for the poor. He even embraced atheists, saying “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the blood of Christ. ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists, everyone.” If love of the poor and of sinners and of unbelievers does not represent the “core” of the Church’s tradition, then it is hard to imagine what does.
What may be most important in the tone of Pope Francis’ statements is that he is making a subtle shift from what we should not do to what we should do, from merely observing laws – no matter how important they might be – to making those laws and the values behind them part of who we are. In short, the Pope is urging us to cultivate virtue rather than just compliance.
Love is an easy word, but in practice it’s pretty hard. And making love the core of our lives so that it leads to justice, courage, prudence and temperance is even harder. In fact, it is a life-long pursuit that only ends in God himself.
Of course, virtue is really important to Dominicans. St. Thomas Aquinas did not invent the notion of virtue, but he built his understanding of the moral life around it. Indeed, one could say that the whole of his theology is based on the intelligent person’s search for virtue and happiness. Virtues are nothing other than “moral skills.” They are something like athletic or musical skill. We have to practice in order to perfect it, but eventually it pays off with a great performance. So it is with the virtues. As we develop these skills, with the help of grace, we begin to feel the deep satisfaction that comes with a good act.
Love is the ultimate virtue, the intellectual and emotional desire for the good. And that leads us to love of the poor, love of the sinner, and ultimately to love of God. Love is an easy word, but in practice it’s pretty hard. And making love the core of our lives so that it leads to justice, courage, prudence and temperance is even harder. In fact, it is a life-long pursuit that only ends in God himself. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless till they rest in You.”
It would be sad if Pope Francis’ remarks are a cause of division among Catholics. Instead, we should all see them as a call to go deeper into the radical mystery of the Gospel. We need to embrace the greatness to which the Gospel calls us, but we also need to realize that there will be suffering and lack of clarity. We need to keep the specific rules and norms of morality in sight, but also remember that they are only the means to an end. They lead us to holiness only if we remember why they exist in the first place. And the “why” is our human happiness. Above all, God wants us to be happy, and to be with him forever.