Francis is asking us to take sides

by Brendan Butler

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When asked "Which side are you on?" — as the song goes — most of us feel uneasy and generally try to sit on the intervening fence.

However, that is the question Pope Francis asked Catholics in his closing address to the bishops and cardinals — and by extension all Catholics — at the extraordinary synod on the Family Oct. 18. Noting the "moments of tensions and temptations" that occurred during the synod, Francis asks us to be honest with ourselves and declare which side we are inclining towards: the "traditionalist" or the "progressive” wing of the church.

In his final address Saturday, Francis warned of "temptations" to avoid. The first temptation he notes and which he ascribes to the “traditionalists” is a “hostile inflexibility” and not allowing themselves “to be surprised by God, the God of surprises.”

He describes them as being closed in on themselves, being inflexible towards change and being “hostile.” (Anyone who has studied Latin will remember that the word hostis, generally translated into English as “enemy,” was frequently used by Latin grammars as an exemplar of the third declension.) Hostile represents the attitude of an enemy and is a very strong word used by Francis in connection with the traditionalists’ inflexibility.

He describes the temptation facing the progressives or liberals as having a destructive tendency to goodness (buonismo, in Italian.), and a “deceptive mercy” which binds the wounds without first curing them. These words are less straightforward than those describing the traditionalist .

Later in his address, Francis speaks of his vision of the church as “not being afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds.” The wounded church is a constant feature in his talks and writings. He has spoken about the church as a battlefield hospital and tending to the wounded. So he might easily be describing himself in his description of progressives.

Sometimes a person’s wounds, whether physical, emotional, spiritual or mental need immediate attention, needing to be bandaged quickly to prevent further aggravation of the wounds. When is mercy deceptive and when does goodness become destructive is a conundrum in itself and we need Francis to explain in plain language what he means.

Overall, I think that the pope’s harshest criticism, judging by his use of language, is reserved for the traditionalist attitude. Referring to wounds and the pouring of oil and wine on wounds contextualizes the traditionalists and progressives.

The traditionalist is like the priest or Levi passing by the wounded man on the road to Jericho because they are caught up and closed in on themselves. The progressive is like the Samaritan who stops to tend the wounded man, however deceptive his mercy may appear to be.

Within the next year there needs to be a walking together of both sides under the action of the Holy Spirit to guide us all, the people of God, on the paths of truth and compassion.

[Brendan Butler is a leader in We Are Church Ireland, which is part of the coalition Catholic Church Reform International.]

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