Was Pope Francis washing away sin without repentance when he made his now-famous “Who am I to judge?” comment on the flight to Rome from Brazil after World Youth Day? Surely not. This is a pope who frequently speaks like an Old Testament prophet calling all, especially those in the Church, to repentance. If he did not believe in an objective moral order, which fallible human beings frequently violate with our actions, he would not be a faithful Christian, let alone the pope.
“Following Jesus means renouncing evil, selfishness and choosing goodness, truth and justice even when that requires sacrifice and renouncing our own interests,” the pope said in his Aug. 18 Sunday Angelus reflection.
The Church sees truth and mercy as complementary. Truth without mercy can appear harsh; mercy without truth would be dishonest.
One place where we encounter the God of mercy is in the confessional. The confession of sins is the result of a searing self-examination, a process through which one sees one’s actions in the light of truth, God’s truth, not our own rationalizations. Yet, it is our intuition of God’s mercy that gives us the confidence to face the truth.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus told some of his disciples (John 8.32). The truth we encounter is the negative truth of our own sin as well as the fullness of positive truth embodied in the person of Jesus. In the centre of all that truth lies God’s mercy.
There is no whitewashing sin; there is no turning a blind eye in the hope that suddenly everything becomes OK. Mercy is, rather, the encounter with Jesus who sacrificed his life so that we might be freed from sin. If Jesus were not serious about both sin and mercy, he would not have given his life for us.
Mercy is directed at the sinner, but even more so at the victims of sin. Mercy seeks to heal the wounds of those who violated by sin. Mercy, unlike justice, is imbalanced. It is biased toward the victims.
Christian mercy, of course, does not mean persecuting or shunning sinners. We are too full of sin ourselves to condemn others.
Yet, we also have a responsibility to call others, especially other Christians, to fullness of life. Faith, said Pope Francis, “is not decorating your life with a bit of religion as if life were a cake that you decorate with cream.” Faith is the substance, not the icing. Faith changes how we live.
Moreover, faith has an objective content. One has a faith in something and if that “something” is not true, one is chasing an illusion. Yet, as Blessed Pope John Paul once wrote, justice is always in the service of mercy.
Don’t expect the pope to whitewash sin. But do expect that he will announce that sin is no match for the mercy of God.