Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Law, Rules, and Salvation

A few days ago I suggested that I would return to a brief comment on Pope Francis's recent interview on which others here at the Mirror of Justice have previously commented. I think that the pope's words have a bearing on the law as it is a system of rules or precepts. Interestingly, some commentators have focused on what the pope called "small-minded rules," but then not all rules, not all laws--be they of God or of Man--are small-minded. The pope also reminded priests of the need to offer in their homilies the need to address what he calls "the first proclamation": salvation. In view of these points, here is a homily for this weekend that brings together particular messages from sacred scripture and the pope's words:


26th Sunday—C

Amos 6:1, 4-7

Timothy 6:11-16

Luke 16:9-31


Wasting, self-indulgence, and complacency—while not necessarily evil—are not good attributes for any person to pursue. This is something about which the prophet Amos reminds us. This is one way to the road to sin, and sin exiles as from God as the prophet further suggests. In sin, we fall from God’s grace because we become absorbed in our own interests that may not be the things of God. Sin leads to a fall, a fall that damages the soul because we engineer a chasm between ourselves and the God of mercy and forgiveness. Yet there is still hope…

I was reminded of the significance of the fall and of hope on Friday morning as I was attempting to cross Michigan Avenue near the Chicago Water Tower. Intent on reaching the pedestrian light before it was too late, I did not realize that my left foot caught on the uneven pavement, and I was destined for a bruising fall. Here I was a sinner whose mind was on other matters but falling once again; yet, I was pulled from a more painful experience by three kind souls who were attentive enough to realize a fellow pilgrim in distress. The fall was broken by the hope displayed by those who came to my aid and helped save me from more serious consequences. 

This episode of a modest form of a kind of salvation history recalls Saint Luke’s account of the rich man Dives and the chasm he established between himself, Lazarus, and Abraham. Dives was not intentionally cruel to the poor Lazarus or to anyone else. He simply did not see anyone else, including God. Lazarus is not real to the rich man because of the self-indulgence with which Dives surrounded himself. His whole life centers on himself.

The world of Dives can be summarized in this fashion: It is all about ME! The great chasm, the separation, is self-inflicted by Dives. He does not quite get the picture: no one forced him to do this. He chose this path himself. Abraham reminds Dives of this. Then Dives begins to wonder and worry about his five brothers—will they share the fate of Dives? It seems that Abraham is callous to Dives request to help the brothers. But this is not correct, for Abraham is telling Dives that they have had and continue to have warnings about the proper way to live one’s life in this world. All they must do is pay attention.

Hence the reference to Moses and the prophets: those who are inclined to sin nonetheless have warnings. All they need to do is pay attention to them, but do they? Will they? The answers to these questions depend on their openness to the God’s mercy and forgiveness. But first they must realize that they alone are causing themselves to sin. This realization was at the very core of Pope Francis’s candid interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro a fellow Jesuit. Pope Francis returned to the reality of his own sinfulness.

But unlike Dives, Francis turns to the mercy and patience of God to receive what the pope calls the “spirit of penance.” Pope Francis, unlike Dives, realizes that even for the sinner—one who acknowledges his intentional wrongdoing before God and man—is the recipient of salvation.

Unlike Dives who was self-centered, Francis has shown the way that Christ, the One who came to save us from our sins, is and must be at the center of human existence.

What gets the human person back on track to God by turning from self-indulgence is thinking with God and His Church—God’s holy people. Francis warns that this is not thinking with the misguided populism that often captures the minds of those who live in the present moment; rather, it is thinking and acting in accord with those who seek the path to greater holiness and, therefore, proximity to God in their lives.

Francis’s words about “small-minded rules” have been misinterpreted and misappropriated. These “rules” have been confused with fundamental teachings of the Christian faith that are inextricably tied to human salvation. We need to be mindful that first and foremost Christ has come to save us from our sins and sinful tendencies. What leads us to this realization is not “small minded” in any fashion. To intensify the significance of the centrality of this principle of faith, Francis spoke of the importance of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Our good confession must be handled by a good confessor—not one who is too rigorist and not one who is too lax. With exuberant rigor, we may miss the mercy of God; with laxity, we may miss the fact that we have sinned and, like the woman in John’s Gospel who had sinned, that we are asked by God, through the confessor, to go and sin no more. The sacrament is not designed to condemn; rather, the sacrament was established to reform so that we sin less and less and seek authentic holiness more and more.

As Pope Francis properly noted, the sacrament of confession is not a “torture chamber” but a place that incubates and intensifies holiness. When we realize that our free will is better suited to directing ourselves to what we ought to do rather than to what we want to do, the mercy of God to absolve us from any defiance we have committed becomes all the more clear. The chasms we have generated by sin become crossable by the grace of God and His tender mercy. But when we ignore God’s mercy and beckoning to Him, we become like Dives separated from God and His holy people by the deepening chasm of sin. But the gulf can be forded when we acknowledge the wrongdoing that seemed at one time so attractive and excusable.

This is the message of salvation that Christ brought into this world; this is the reality of God’s self-gift and His suffering for our sins. All that is needed for the salvation to become complete is the redirection of our human will to embrace God’s mercy and forgiveness and to sin no more. But even if we cannot absolutely guarantee that we will sin nor more, may we at least seek to sin no more by not forgetting to ask God’s help to thwart whatever temptations come our way!

All that is needed is faith and adherence to what God asks. With that as our disposition: God will surely help us with the rest. For as the Psalmist reminds us: blessed are those who keep the faith, who hope in God, and who exercise caritas. Then will God’s protection and salvation be at hand!  




RJA sj


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