Am I the Prodigal Son’s Brother?

On Monday evening of this week, on a plane flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, I sat, amidst the poor lighting and the turbulence, transfixed, pouring over the pages of the Holy Father’s recently published interview, about which several on this page, and thousands elsewhere, have opined.  So, I was not reading it with fresh eyes, but rather through the prism of not only the New York Times, but also by way of the assessments of several writers whose opinions I respect and from whom I have learned much, including Royal, Wiegel,Scalia, Wehner, Reno, Lopez, Dreher, and Garnett, to name just a few.

Like some of them, I found myself not entirely pleased with the language that Pope Francis employed. Some of his words, including those that rightly suggest that our moral theology will appear disjointed if wrenched from the anthropological and soteriological contexts they naturally reside, were later, ironically, wrenched out of the ecclesiastical context in which Papa Francesco is asking us to understand his prescriptions for the global Church.   

That, it seems to me, is precisely what happened with the account in the New York Times, and among the reports offered by some Catholic and non-Catholic believers who saw in the de-contextualized words of Francis a glimmer of hope that the barque of Peter would begin to transition to its proper role as a dinghy on the cultural Titanic of liberal progressivism.  Apparently, if  John McEnroe were to become the Times’ religion reporter we would soon see the headline, “Tennis Mentioned in Bible,” since, after all, the Book of Genesis does say that “Joseph served in Pharoah’s court.” (Gen. 41:46). 

Nevertheless, I began to wonder whether my modest displeasure with the pope’s language – manifested in mild, though visceral, defensiveness – was the result of my clinging to a style of Christian cultural engagement that is not the sort the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to practice at this point in its history.

Of course, as others have pointed out, there was nothing in the words of Pope Francis that is inconsistent with, or contrary to, Catholic moral theology.  The Holy Father is offering to the world, as Christ offered to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), a Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, a message that has been, at times, purposely submerged by media determined to paint a picture of the Church that conforms to popular culture’s own prejudices and bigotries about the Catholic world.

           Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, c. 1664

For this reason, the ease by which the Holy Father is able to move the conversation reveals that he fully grasps the degee to which this false picture has been uncritically embraced by otherwise intelligent people. He also understands that the way in which the Church and its members sometimes speak and conduct themselves in public is presented through an uncharitable filter that does not communicate “good news.” 

Thus, the Pontiff’s success in drawing sustained international attention to both the Church’s mission and the words of its chief bishop is as much a consequence of his genius as it is of the world’s vanity. 

Those who see in Francis the “non-judgmental” pope of their dreams do not understood Christianity or the true meaning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Francis knows that when he, or even the Lord Jesus, says to a penitent, “Neither I condemn you; go and sin no more,” he is not saying that what you did is a sin no more. For reconciliation requires separation, just as a hospital requires illness. 

Thus, when Francis offers the Gospel to the world – and in doing so describes the Church as a field hospital – his offer comes embedded in a judgment.  But it is not his judgment. It is, in the words of Christ, the judgment of the Holy Spirit, who our Lord calls, of all things, “The Comforter”: “And he, when he is come, will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” (John 16:8)

So, when I reflect on my initial reaction to portions of the Pope’s interview, I have to consider the possibility that there is something wrong with me, and not him.  In that case, I may be more like the Prodigal Son’s brother than I’d like to admit.  While my father is offering love, shelter and a permanent home to his wayward progeny, I find myself disturbed that he may be conceding too much to one, who in the past, did not hesitate to take unfair advantage of his patrimony.

Then I hear, gently tapping on my conscience, the words that Christ put in the mouth of the prodigal’s father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (John 15:32)

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).