Wednesday 12 June 2013

Cheap Grace and Atheists

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Sadao Watanabe, The Anointing with Oil and Tears, 1979

Recently I gave a talk called “What Pope Francis Expects from Us” at a forum in Vancouver, in which I shared six points I thought the Holy Father has highlighted in the first three months of his pontificate. One of these points was his frequent emphasis on God’s mercy. This could very well end up being the major theme of his papacy.

First, Mercy was the topic of his first homily at the Vatican parish St. Anna’s, on the first Sunday after his election. “For me,” he said, “and I say this humbly, the strongest message of the Lord is mercy.” That day, the Gospel was about Jesus sitting and eating and talking with sinners. “Jesus forgets,” the Pope insisted. “He has a special capacity to forget. He forgets, he kisses, he embraces, and he only says, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

To be sure, Pope Francis is not talking as if God dispenses forgiveness automatically, like a machine. There is no “cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who challenged Hitler and was arrested in 1943. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, personally ordered his execution in April 1945, just months before the Allied liberation of the concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was. His writings survived the Nazi purges and his idea of cheap grace has been a reminder to the Christian West about what can sometimes pass for Christianity: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Pope Francis is not talking about mercy as if it were cheap grace, as if God doesn’t care about our sins. The “sin no more” part of the scene with the woman caught in adultery is just as important as the “neither do I condemn you”. But it seems that the accent of Francis’s papacy is on the part about mercy.

We see it in his remarks to the 6,000 journalists three days after his election, when he said: “Many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, others are not believers. From my heart I impart this blessing, in silence, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each one, but knowing that each of you is a child of God: May God bless you.” This delighted many of them, and was reported around the world.

We see it in a in a homily on May 22, in which he said: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! … ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” The Pope has a heart for those who struggle to believe in God.

Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes, declared atheism “among the most serious problems of the age”. But it acknowledged the actions of Christians often prompt people to reject God: “To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.” Gaudium et Spes recommended that believers and non-believers work together for the common good of the world: “While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue.” Pope Francis's remarks are encouraging just this.

On his papal coat-of-arms, Pope Francis has chosen the motto: Miserando atque eligendo – “Seeing through the eyes of mercy, he chose him.” The line comes from a homily by the Venerable Bede, a Church Father, who was referring to the call of Matthew. This phrase has a special meaning for the Pope because when he was 17 years old he went to confession on the feast of St. Matthew, and he has said that this experience gave him a new and profound awareness of God’s infinite capacity to forgive (and he felt there his call to the priesthood). Mercy is evidently linked to the Pope's own personal journey.

Christ said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall see mercy”. I believe this is true. In fact, I stake my life on it! We are being invited by Pope Francis to be merciful: first to our neighbours, and then to never tire of seeking God’s mercy in our lives. Now how can I better appreciate this great gift and mystery?

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