Pope Francis on Communication & Mercy

The Holy Father issued a very challenging document over the weekend on the occasion of World Communications’ Day. Appropriately in this Year of Mercy, he focused on the relationship between mercy and communications. The statement has implications for pastors of the Church, politicians, and for those of us who write in the Catholic press.

Pope Francis writes, “The Church, in union with Christ, the living incarnation of the Father of Mercies, is called to practise mercy as the distinctive trait of all that she is and does.  What we say and how we say it, our every word and gesture, ought to express God’s compassion, tenderness and forgiveness for all.” I read that sentence and thought to myself, “This is from a man who has never had to write a daily blog? Every word?” But, of course, we are not part-time Christians, and it is no excuse that those with whom we disagree have been nasty to us for thirty-five years.

In the very next sentence, the Holy Father places this ethical challenge on a clear doctrinal footing, writing, “Love, by its nature, is communication; it leads to openness and sharing.  If our hearts and actions are inspired by charity, by divine love, then our communication will be touched by God’s own power.” There are columns when I do feel that God’s own power is moving my hands across the keyboards, especially those columns when I am trying to get to the heart of the kerygma. Alas, sinner that I am, there are other columns in which I am conscious of committing delectatio morosa, those columns in which I am writing in response to something George Weigel or another Catholic neo-con has written. I confess that the mere mention of the words “Acton Institute” get my teeth on edge.

But, the Holy Father invites us all to charity, and not because it will make society more pleasant, although he also harbors that hope, but because this is what it means to be a Christian. We are so accustomed to the checklist spirituality, especially when considering the place of Catholics in political life. We have seen the list of “non-negotiables” or the abuse of technical theological terms like “intrinsic evil.” The pope reminds us that we are to respond to those who are uncharitable towards us by being charitable to them, not because it is efficacious, not because it is an effective strategy, but because that it is how Christians are supposed to behave. 

The Pope went on to state:

Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society.  How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony.  Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world.  Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred.  The words of Christians ought to be a constant encouragement to communion and, even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication.

That seemed to tease out what he said more simply to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral last September: “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor.” How often, in recent years, we have heard that the Christian Church needs to draw clear boundaries between it and the world, not build bridges? How often have we experienced words from our clergy that not only fail to encourage, but traffic in condemnation, judgment and almost a delight in breaking relationships.

The Holy Father addressed part of his message specifically to those in politics:

Our political and diplomatic language would do well to be inspired by mercy, which never loses hope.  I ask those with institutional and political responsibility, and those charged with forming public opinion, to remain especially attentive to the way they speak of those who think or act differently or those who may have made mistakes.  It is easy to yield to the temptation to exploit such situations to stoke the flames of mistrust, fear and hatred.  Instead, courage is needed to guide people towards processes of reconciliation.  It is precisely such positive and creative boldness which offers real solutions to ancient conflicts and the opportunity to build lasting peace.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:7-9)

One wonders if he wrote that paragraph after watching one of the GOP presidential debates? I am less convinced than most of my friends on the left about the connection between violent language and more actualized forms of violence. But, what I have come to appreciate is the way in which demonization of people on the margins can cause real harm, most especially in the person doing the demonization, but also among the population demonized.

Pope Francis then returns to the situation of pastors, and no doubt reflecting on some of what he heard at the synod, set forth a pastoral approach that speaks for itself:

How I wish that our own way of communicating, as well as our service as pastors of the Church, may never suggest a prideful and triumphant superiority over an enemy, or demean those whom the world considers lost and easily discarded.  Mercy can help mitigate life’s troubles and offer warmth to those who have known only the coldness of judgment.  May our way of communicating help to overcome the mindset that neatly separates sinners from the righteous.  We can and we must judge situations of sin – such as violence, corruption and exploitation – but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts.  It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen.  The Gospel of John tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).  The truth is ultimately Christ himself, whose gentle mercy is the yardstick for measuring the way we proclaim the truth and condemn injustice.  Our primary task is to uphold the truth with love (cf. Eph 4:15).  Only words spoken with love and accompanied by meekness and mercy can touch our sinful hearts.  Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness.

I hope all of our bishops here in the U.S. will remember those words the next time someone they do not like speaks on the campus of a Catholic college, or the next time they are asked to speak about LGBT issues.

I read the pope’s words and recognize that they stand in judgment over me too. I shall try to be more charitable in assessing the arguments of my opponents. I shall try to be more generous in grasping the situations of those with whom I disagree. Of course, we bloggers need to throw sharp elbows every now and then or our prose would become dull. But, let’s all try and make sure the elbows are directed at ideas, not people, and that we recognize how, for some people, their ideas or their sexuality or their experiences or their nationality, are so intertwined with their own sense of their identity, that it is hard to distinguish between the one and the other, and that the old saw about “hating the sin and loving the sinner” must be used carefully, like a scalpel, and not like a sledgehammer.

It can’t be said often enough: If you, dear reader, do not feel personally challenged by this pope, you are not paying attention. He is challenging all of us and a good thing too. Complacency stalks all of our habits of the heart and pride is always standing in wait to spread its particularly virulent form of enmity. The Pope offers a different way, The Way, in which truth and love are only credible when clad in mercy and meekness. If that way sounds familiar, it should: It is the way of Jesus of Nazareth.


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