Santità, mi scusi: An Open Letter to the Pope on His Statements to Civiltà Cattolica
I am sure it will not displease you if I address you in this way I saw that everyone is writing to you. Permit me to address you as well for some questions that lie in my heart.
After I read your recent statements, the most recent being those included in the “interview” given by you and released by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., I must admit that I was very surprised, and some distressing doubts welled up within me. These doubts have enveloped me like a noxious weed that weighs down and takes away air and light, those things that have been until today my knowledge of doctrinal certainties.
These understandings I have gathered preciously and have followed for many years in careful listening to the Gospel and homilies. The other morning, leafing through national daily newspapers, I saw that all in unison, and in a quasi-triumphalistic tone, they were announcing in headline fashion the “End of the interference” of the Church in the life of people. Obviously, then and there, thinking that this was an artificial collage of your words ad hoc just for the headlines, I wanted to read the whole interview. Unfortunately, after reading it, I was able only to take note that there had been no misunderstanding, at least on the part of the journalists, with respect to what Father Spadaro wrote.
Not having been present at the interview, and therefore not having heard these things directly from your voice, I have to take these things as corresponding to the truth, apart from any refutations of another Jesuit, Father Lombardi. Many times he had to take pains to soften the words, severe but clear and inequivocally orthodox, of Benedict XVI, but up to now he has not taken it upon himself the dangerous task of correcting the upshot of some of your phrases, often imprecise (surely because of the difficulty in the use of Italian) and because of a misinterpretation of the faithful who are less knowledgeable and well-versed than I. Niceties between members of the club?
Given that the interview is quite broad and touches on many aspects, some of them, according to me, are particularly striking, and it is to these that my considerations will be limited. In presenting these to you, I will refer only to the words of the Gospel and of the Magisterium, which are essential, as you, among other things, invite us to do, leaving behind learned theological disputations that I have no competence in. (In writing this, however, I am aware of an involuntary dichotomy: in making an argument based on the Gospel one does theology, even if at a low level.]
Your Holiness, speaking of the function of the Church, you place at the center the announcement of the Gospel focused on that part that is relative to salvation and the mercy of God.
I clearly see that what the Church most needs today is the capacity to heal wounds and to warm up the heart of the faithful, a nearness, a closeness. I see the Church as a field hospital after a battle. It is useless to ask someone seriously wounded if he has cholesterol or high blood sugar! The wounds have to be healed. Then we will be able to talk about all the rest. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…It is necessary to begin from ground level.
Up to this point, there is nothing to say. I think it is certain once the important wounds are healed, a wise doctor then should be concerned about taking care of the cholesterol, about informing the patient about ways to avoid it, and about advising the patient about the serious danger that this can lead to if the patient does not go on a controlled diet. In such a sense I anticipated your words, while continuing to read you take, at least it seems to me, a different path. It is dangerous.
The Church sometimes has closed herself up in little things, in little precepts. The most important thing is instead the primary pronouncement: “Jesus Christ has saved you!”
Said like this, we are all saved a priori. But I understood that Jesus had sacrificed himself “even to death, death on a cross” (St. Paul) to give humanity not the certainty of salvation but the freedom to choose the possibility of salvation, provided that one follows him (“whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”, Mt. 10,38). This point, I believe, has been in the past a motive for schism and the foundation of heresy. Go, therefore, to the heart of the discussion. Do not leave it so dangerously suspended in ambiguity that makes a few people happy, above all the non-believers, who then do not see any motive for conversion. The precepts, on which you speak further on in general, are they not to be followed specifically because they are salvific?
Your Holiness, I beg you, do not lay yourself open to the enemies of the Church, who I assure you after reading today’s newspapers are rejoicing. Say everything, above all when you are touching on very important themes. Do not limit yourself to central phrases and pay attention to the weight of your words. Unfortunately or not, the Italian language has a thousand nuances , and sometimes in a phrase, other than what was said, what was not said assumes an importance as well. But these “little precepts” (and the word “little” seems to mean “of little importance”) may be perhaps those to which you were referring a little before in this way:
We cannot insist only on the issues of abortion and homosexual marriage.
I would like to hope that this is not the case! Your Holiness, I pray you to tell me that this was an error that can be attributed to the difficulty of speaking in a different language and that therefore it could not express well the concept, because here I am at a total loss when confronted with the reduction to “little precepts” of matrimony (which is a sacrament) and abortion ( and the inviolable nature of life). Would these be “little precepts”? No, there was certainly a misunderstanding, but then you continue in this way:
I have not spoken much about these things, and I have been reproached. But when one speaks of these things, it is necessary to speak of them in context.
Your Holiness, I understand what you wish to say (and, in fact, thank goodness, the real meaning I found quickly the next day, when you were meeting with Catholic gynecologists in an audience, at which you confirmed the sacred value of life in the womb, condemning abortion), but in the interview it seems that you consider these things really secondary aspects. The enemies of the Church wait for nothing else than to make you say what they want so that they can say that even the Pope thinks like them about the freedom and the opportunity to have an abortion, and the concept of marriage reduced to a mere contract between two parties.
When you say that it is necessary to put situations into context, a phrase that is per se very dangerous, I would have expected that you would express with force and passion what the position of the Church is, and therefore of Christ, on these points of discussion. And instead: No. How do you proceed? In a low voice as if you had a problem with saying these words out loud:
One knows, moreover, the opinion of the Church, and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to speak of these things constantly.
Pardon me, Your Holiness, but this is what the newspapers make you say and promote: messages that create an enthusiastic sensation among non-believers and among those who believe very little and some anxiety among those who have had little catechetical instruction.
Then you analyze the importance of Confession and the role of the confessor and you say:
The confessor, for instance, always runs the risk of being either too rigorous or too lax. Neither of the two is mercy, because neither of the two takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands of the matter so that he leaves it to the commandment. The lax confessor washes his hands of the matter by simply saying that this is not a sin or something similar. The people must be accompanied, the wounds have to be healed.
It is true. God forbid! A good confessor must be just, merciful and welcoming! He must make himself a living witness to the mercy of God. But your words as you said them and without an indication of the sacramental character of Confession risks debasing the Sacrament of Confession. What you said, in my opinion, is more relevant to a spiritual father than to Confession, because the confessor more than just a confessor. Let me explain.
It is true that the merciful confessor, like Saint Pio of Pietralcina, whose feast day we celebrate today, is a good minister of God and is the first confirmation of the mercy of God. But the heart of Confession is not found in the humanity of the confessor. During the Confession, as you know better than I, the Holy Spirit operates directly, and the priest has meaning through our Lord Jesus Christ. The priest, in that moment, in spite of his own defects or merits, absolves above all in persona Christi. And when he says “et ego absolvo te”, he does not speak personally but in the name of and in behalf of Jesus Christ! During the confession and absolution the true confessor is Christ in person! It is to him that the penitent confesses his sins, and it is in his name that the priests remit them. It is to the mercy of God that the priest entrusts the soul and contrite heart of the sinner. It is dangerous to say and therefore to talk about the mercy of the priest, who nonetheless must be thorough and fatherly.
There will be a later time (and not so much in the confessional) when the priest, as a man and as a man of faith, will have to show that he is truly a spiritual father, and he will have to show in a better and true way his own personal mercy, trying to find a way to accompany people, and bind their wounds so that those wounds do not reopen. It is necessary in fact to remind the faithful that Confession is a sacrament, and not only an intimate encounter and not a conversation about social assistance. Those things are needed but it is not enough. It is risky, in my judgment, to place attention only on the endowments of the priest. During the sacramental Confession the priest, alter Christus, absolves in the name of the Holy Trinity and remits sins, in obedience to the command of Jesus: “Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted” (John 20,23)
It is necessary to remember this. What is more beautiful or more important! Otherwise Your Holiness seems to reduce Confession to a “human” relationship, between the priest(a man) and the faithful( a man), deprived of any transcendental element. My good parish priest, an older man, austere, who always dressed in a faded cassock and frayed at the edges and at the knees, listened to and welcomed all with the care of a father. He had taught me that in the confessional one encounters God and one experiences His mercy, all of this apart from any special gifts of the priest confessor. He also told me that I did not have to choose this or that confessor on the basis of who was more capable, because in that moment I was not in front of a priest but in front of the merciful Jesus who welcomed me and forgave me.
I know that this is the same concept that you wanted to express, but in the way you said it, Your Holiness, it seems totally reduced to a conversation between priest and penitent faithful. But how it was said, it’s not only that. But then who is right: You who are Pope or my parish priest?
Do you see, Your Holiness, how many doubts your words caused to arise in me? Perhaps because I do not have the capacity to discern, or perhaps my faith is not as strong as I thought, but these words of yours clash a great deal with all that I up to today have learned from the Gospel and from priests whom I have known in the course of my twenty-eight years.
And turning to the Gospel, I want to ask you another thing. Why should the Church not put herself into the private life of a person? Jesus said to his disciples to go and preach to all people and to baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Did he do this to give them something to pass the time away or to convert those who do not believe with the purpose of giving them the possibility of salvation? Why does Jesus in the gospels urge the preaching of the Good News and in this way to announce the Gospel? Because he told them to teach the central message of Love, mercy and salvation (these things so dear to you), but equally he exhorts them to strive actively in behalf of their salvation. “ ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ After having said this, he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you remit are remitted, and whose sins you do not remit, they are not remitted.’ “ (John 20,20-22) Is this division between the proclamation of the Gospel and the truth the Christian ethic possible? No. In fact you say:
The proclamation of the salvific love of God is subject to the moral and religious obligation.
But say it better, say the whole thing: you should say that the one without the other is useless, and therefore the “interference” in the private life of a person on the part of the Church is not a sort of dark control over the mind that the Church wants to exercise, but this is the vocation of the Church, it is the essence of the Church, it is its work, its charism, and its ontological component that for which she was instituted and called to be by Jesus in person! Otherwise—as you said very well in your first Mass in the Sistine Chapel just after you were elected as Bishop of Rome but also Successor to Peter and Vicar of Christ (if you remember?): a Church that does not proclaim Christ is a NGO (non-governmental organization).
How can you leave things only half-said if a little before you affirmed that:
Religion has a right to express it own opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has made us free. Spiritual interference in the life of a person is not possible.
But then it is a question of opinion or Truth? Is it the opinion of merry octogenarians dressed in scarlet robes or is it the Word of the Lord?
The Church then not only has the right, but also has the duty to express her own opinions. She was instituted by Jesus himself for this purpose: to say that He is the Truth and to evangelize all peoples. And to convert them! If the Church did not have this right, understood as the freedom of speech conceded by men to other men, she always and everywhere has the obligation at least to try to preach, even at the risk of her safety.
For what reason did the Holy Martyrs and missionaries sacrifice their lives if not to follow the will of Jesus and to give the possibility to other peoples to attain the salvation of their soul? For what reason did they often spend and lose their earthly life if not to give to others the possibility to obtain eternal life? They have been proclaimed saints justly and with reason or should we remember them as gossipy bigots who went around interfering in other people’s lives? This is not interference by the Church, but it is love for her own sons to see them saved! What loving mother does not “interfere” in the life of her own child if she sees him acting strange, introverted, nervous, preoccupied, sleepless, if they are not doing well in school? In this way the Church, moved by incommensurable love for her own children “interferes” to seek to assure the health of the soul. Otherwise she will be accountable to the Supreme Judge. Because it is true that Jesus is the Paraclete but he is also Judge (“When the Son of Man comes in his glory with all the angels, he will take his place on his glorious throne. And all people will be gathered in front of him and he will separate some from the others, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats..” Mt.25,31-33)
And then God in creation has made us free, yes, but from what? Free to follow our conscience? Or has he given us the opportunity, once his Word has been heard, to choose whether to follow him or to reject him? This is the free will of Dante and therefore Thomas. Is the liberty of Christians that of acting, “so precious, as by the one who has refused life for the sake of it” (Dante, Purg. I, 7072) or is it the liberty to flee from sin to choose the Way of Truth and Life?
And so, Your Holiness, I pray that you accept these my doubts. I entrust them to you and to your prayers like a sailor trusts a lighthouse in the night that it may guide him into safety. Lastly, I dare to offer you a piece of counsel: Your Holiness, be vigilant when you release statements, especially to journalists, and above all to those who are Italian. They are able illusionists when it comes to words, who put you on the front page not to give you honor but to use your words (some for the purpose of selling more copies, others to threaten the Church from the top.]
Do not trust wolves who are dressed up as sheep with a pen, and beyond the little lost sheep remember as well those who are tired, and in the midst of a thousand tribulations, those still in the sheepfold and who seek to remain there, because I would not want that in leaving the sheepfold to go and run after the Scalfari of the day, who does not want to know anything about God or conversion, you forget that the gate is open, and the other ninety-nine go out with the risk of the ruin of the sheepfold.
With filial devotion and sincere warmth,
Monday 23 September 2013
(Tip and translation: Fr. Richard Cipolla, DPhil. Translator’s note: Scalfari is the atheist to whom Pope Francis wrote in a letter published by La Republica