“People think the Church now approves of sin”: Francis, sin, and “the new confusion of grace and mercy”

The first few lines of this new column by religion writer Michael O’Loughlin had me just a bit wary of what was coming:

Alison Donohue teaches college writing in Hawaii, but her preference is to be back in a Catholic school, an environment where she spent more than 15 years of her career. “Once I got engaged to my wife,” Donohue said, “I was faced with the reality that being openly married and teaching in a Catholic school were incompatible.” She recalled scanning job posts that sought, “Catholics in good standing,” and thinking to herself, “I am married to a woman, which probably means I’m not.” But today, because of something that happened in Rome seven months ago, she is “hopeful” for her professional, and religious, future.

Given the headline — “With a New Pope, a More Open Catholic Church?” — it looked like O’Loughlin might, in the paragraphs ahead, tell us that thanks to Pope Francis, it will soon be okay to enter into a gay marriage or that gay marriage would soon be sanctioned by the Church. I think either conclusion would be a serious mistake.

But the more I read, the more I realized that O’Loughlin not only was not screwing up what Francis is up to; he was really capturing what’s so new and important about our Pope quite effectively. There are a lot of insightful passages in the piece — so check out the whole thing — but two especially fine comments come from people that O’Loughlin quotes:

“Francis’s main theme is mercy, and that’s mercy that Catholics direct outwards,” said the Rev. James Martin, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and contributing editor at America magazine. He said that the pope is focused on encountering the world as it is. “Jesus took people where they were. If you’re a tax collector, he comes to you at your tax booth. If you’re a fisherman, he comes to you on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. If you’re a woman who’s about to be stoned, he kneels down in the dust with you. We need to take people where they are, and that’s exactly what the pope is doing.”

***

Today, when Donohue, the writing teacher in Hawaii, looks for jobs at Catholic schools, she’s encouraged. “I feel like ‘Catholic in good standing’ means a Catholic who doesn’t judge others, who cares for the poor, who has a deep, humble spirituality. Finally, the good people are in ‘good standing.’ Thank God—and Francis—for that.”

Good as all this is, the finest comment had nothing to do with O’Loughlin or his sources; rather, it came in the comment box. What prompted it was a one-sentence comment that reflected the same wariness I’d initially felt when I began reading the article (though maybe not worded in the way I’d have chosen). A woman wrote, “Sad, that people think the Church now approves of sin.”

But then came a beautiful response, and this is the one that made the whole read worthwhile, and the one that sums up Francis better than even O’Loughlin and his quotes from others were able to do. A man named Patrick Gilmore wrote in reply to the previous comment:

I recall that it was assumed that another religious leader “approved of sin” because he “ate with sinners and tax collectors”.  I think the Pope is just trying sincerely to be more like him.  If people get confused then so be it.  People have been confused by previous Popes, and assumed that they “disapprove of sinners”.  If people are going to be confused anyway, I prefer the new confusion of grace and mercy!

Those previous popes that the commenter refers to here were fine men, excellent teachers, strong leaders, and in some cases even saints — I thank God for them. But they were not perfect, and neither, of course, is Francis. But I think Francis brings something to the papacy, to the Church, that has been lacking. You nailed it, Mr. Gilmore.

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