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Pope Francis says mercy demands an ‘inclusive’ church open to all

Pope Francis waves as he leads a jubilee audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 10, 2016. Shortly before the event, Francis administered the sacrament of confirmation to a seriously ill Italian teenager who had written to the pontiff. L'Osservatore Romano photo via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TEEN, originally transmitted on Sept. 12, 2016.
Pope Francis waves as he leads a jubilee audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on September 10, 2016. Shortly before the event, Francis administered the sacrament of confirmation to a seriously ill Italian teenager who had written to the pontiff. L'Osservatore Romano photo via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TEEN, originally transmitted on Sept. 12, 2016.

Pope Francis waves as he leads a jubilee audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 10, 2016. Shortly before the event, Francis administered the sacrament of confirmation to a seriously ill Italian teenager who had written to the pontiff. L’Osservatore Romano photo via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-TEEN, originally transmitted on Sept. 12, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis is insisting that the Catholic Church be open and inclusive to all and that priests in particular be merciful and patient so that everyone can “participate actively in the life of the community.”

“Mercy is inclusive and tends to expand in a way that knows no limits,” Francis writes in a major document on mercy – the signature theme of his pontificate – that was released by the Vatican on Monday (Nov. 21).

As part of that effort Francis also used the letter to extend indefinitely the ability of any priest to absolve the sin of abortion – a sin that carries a penalty of automatic excommunication and had previously been reserved to bishops or specially designated priests to deal with.

The new abortion policy sparked much discussion when Francis first announced the initiative last year at the start of the Holy Year. In the letter published Monday, Francis reiterates “as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.”

But he repeated that he wanted to stress with equal force “that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart.” On this issue, he says, all priests should be “a guide, support and comfort.”

Known as an apostolic letter, the 10-page document was released a day after the pope formally closed a special Holy Year of Mercy, and it is a wide-ranging encomium to mercy that summarizes Francis’ thinking on the topic.

The constant thread is his concern for a practical application of mercy, which he sees as key to Catholicism’s credibility and to the “pastoral conversion” of its members and leaders to a more welcoming and less legalistic ministry.

The question of whether the pope’s insistence on mercy is diluting the church’s doctrinal principles has sparked concern and strong resistance by some church conservatives.

Francis’ promotion of an “inclusive” church has also become a battle cry for those who worry that the pope is relaxing sacred rules in a way that would allow, for example, divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, or for openly gay Catholics to serve in official roles in parishes. Both issues have been flashpoints in the U.S. church.


READ: Is the pope Catholic? Francis dismisses critics of his teachings


In the letter, Francis says that family life today is complex and that Catholics must “regard all human problems from the standpoint of God’s love, which never tires of welcoming and accompanying.”

“This demands, especially of priests, a careful, profound and far-sighted spiritual discernment, so that everyone, none excluded, can feel accepted by God, participate actively in the life of the community and be part of that People of God,” he writes.

Francis cautions against the “temptation to theorize ‘about’ mercy” and he stresses that “by its very nature, mercy becomes visible and tangible in specific acts. Once mercy has been truly experienced, it is impossible to turn back. It grows constantly and it changes our lives.”

The letter is titled “Misericordia et misera,” Latin for “Mercy and misery,” a phrase used by the great fifth-century bishop and theologian St. Augustine in a meditation on the parable in the Gospel of John about Jesus saving a woman taken in adultery from the threat of stoning by religious authorities.

“Here what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person and seeing the deepest desire hidden there,” Francis writes. “God’s love must take primacy over all else.”

Francis clearly did not want the Holy Year of Mercy to come across as a one-time event. Rather, he sees it as the organizing principle for his pontificate and, in his view, for the entire church going forward.

The pope also indefinitely extended the authority to hear confessions to priests of a right-wing group, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.

The group is also known as the Lefebvrists, after the archbishop who led them to split with Rome in the 1980s over their insistence on celebrating the old Latin Mass and their opposition to church reforms such as the acceptance of religious liberty and dialogue with other churches and religions.

The Vatican has been trying for years to end the schism and reintegrate the Lefebvrists, and Francis’ gesture, first announced last year, was seen as a signal of his desire to heal the split.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

19 Comments

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  • The Priestly Fraternity (officially “Society”) of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is not just “rightwing.” The Southern Poverty Law Center deemed the SSPX a hate group because they are “hard-core, anti-Semitic.”The Simon Wiesenthal Center, in its report “European Extremist Movements” named SSPX as influential within the French far-right, anti-Semitic party. Also yesterday, the pope said abortion – even to save the mother’s life – is an “horrendous crime.” Previously he said “it’s what the Mafia does.”

  • I’ve asked this question of Catholics before and have never understood: Why is it so important to reconcile with the SSPX? At every turn they seem to want to pick a fight with the Vatican, and the Vatican always takes them back. But when a liberal group suggests ordination of women, tolerance of gays, etc., it’s “heretic,” “apostate,” even the dreaded “Protestant.”

  • “This demands, especially of priests, a careful, profound and far-sighted spiritual discernment, so that everyone, none excluded, can feel accepted by God, participate actively in the life of the community and be part of that People of God,”
    Dear pope: How is it that people who are filthy in their unrepented sin are able to work in your institution? These people are not member of the body. They have not shown an inclination toward loving the Lord and repenting of their filthy sin. Some choose to endorse their sin – which is a further rebellion against the Lord. You want people working like that in your assemblies? If that is true, why did you take the child molesters out then? You don’t think further damage is going to happen to children with unrepentant sinners actively participating in your assemblies?
    You did the right thing with the child molesters. Don’t put further children at risk with other unrepentant sinners.
    We are supposed to be bringing new generations to love the Lord. If they are participating in unrepentant sin, they are not loving the Lord, and, they are not a part of His family, or did you forget that?
    Here is another scripture you seem to have forgotten in your rush to be ‘inclusive’:
    1 Corinthians 5:11 -New International Version
    But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” And you want to share communion with them? (edit)
    While they should be in the congregation so they can learn about the love they defy, they should not be a member of the church proper until they have chosen Jesus over their sin.
    1 Corinthians 11:27 -“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”

  • Re: “These modernists have damned our generation with their false mercy which is nothing more than code for absolute moral relativism.”

    Actually, the moral relativists are those who refuse to acknowledge their own “sin,” yet who freely screech and rail over others’ “sins.” The relativism comes in picking and choosing the “sins” they object to. Their own, of course, aren’t all that bad. Other people, however, are “sinning” in unpardonable ways and must be destroyed.

    The problem with all of this is that “sin” is not, according to Christian scripture, relative at all — with some “sins” demanding destruction of their “sinners” but others … well … not-so-bad. Rather, all human beings are “sinners”:

    … all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)
    … yet there is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin. (Eccl 7:20)
    If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 Jn 1:8)
    For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all. (Rom 11:32)

    This is what Christianity teaches. Like it or not.

  • No, I’m an agnostic, but a former Catholic and then a fundamentalist Protestant.

    That said, what I am is not relevant here. What I am doesn’t change what Christianity teaches. And not even distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism matter, either. Their scripture (which I’ve quoted above) is the same, and all Christians believe all human beings are “sinners.”

    The problem is with Christians (not just Catholics, or Protestants, or Orthodox, or what-have-you) who pick and choose which “sins” they rage sanctimoniously against and which they don’t care about. The sport of “relative sin” is one all Christians of all types love to engage in. They happily wield the label of “sinner!” as a cudgel to hammer away at people they subjectively dislike … without realizing, or caring, that the same label of “sinner” also applies to them, by definition.

  • Because the RCC thrives on triumphalsim and being “self referential” (even though PF has cautioned against this); thus, a far-right wing group such as SSPX–so long as they identify with imperial Romanism–is given more latitude by church officials than their liberal counterparts, given that liberal views are seen as a threat to traditional Romanism.

  • Okay Sandi, please enlighten us… just what do you consider to be “the church proper?”

    More food for thought… did Jesus himself not associate with sinners? If so, then why shouldn’t the pope, or you and I for that matter? Did it occur to you that you might have a positive effect on a “sinner” in their time of need… or do you find it easier to just avoid and/or chastise them?

  • We are to associate with sinners, just not sinners who call themselves a brother and are engaging in immorality.

  • Booyah,”PsiCop”; nailed it! ?.I’m a Protestant,”antimodernist”; your point is what,exactly? [ Resident Protestant Gadfly,here.]—I sincerely hope that you are NOT one of those Catholics who struggle so mightily with the clear teachings of Holy Writ.I have read the writings of the Early Churchmen(Irenaeus,Ignatius,Athanasius,Origen,et.al.,and they revered and valued the Scriptures; modern-day Catholics, not so much…why is that,antimodernist? I’ve read the NAB and the NABRE, both said to be standard Catholic Bibles,and they both seem pretty straightforward to me.I’ve always been of the impression that the Holy Scriptures have never needed that much interpretation; to me,Proverbs 3rd chapter,vss.5-6 applies and suffices:”Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths”. That is my daily touchstone passage,as it were; what is yours, antimodernist? I await your reply—PEACE IN CHRIST, ALWAYS!???.

  • You argue in circles to avoid our Lord’s greatest admonition–to love your neighbor as yourself.

    Hint: Brother in Christ or no brother, ALL have sinned and fall short of His glory.
    (Christianity 101)

  • Here, I’ll help you:
    1 Corinthians 5:9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church[b] whom you are to judge? 13 God judges[c] those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

  • The pope’s welcoming attitude of all to the church, is music to my ears! Several years ago I threw in with a group of laypeople who were offering a widowed & divorce recovery weekend retreat program that was indeed, open to all (we didn’t have any LGBT folks join up–there hadn’t been any divorced or widowed at that time from that community) As a non-Catholic I was fully welcomed and embraced as another wounded healer. They even allowed me to join their central team, where I served for 2+ years. We were indeed a living example of “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

    The clergy that supported us were mainly of the renegade variety, who “flew under radar” to offer confession, reconciliation and even communion to estranged, divorced Catholics along with all the others who came seeking that from anyone representing God. It’s great that all these people have now been able to come out of the closet and openly be “intruments of God’s peace” to an estranged and hurting world.

    This illustrated how well any “top-down” approach works! After a few decades of such a welcoming message moving the hierarchy, the pope finally catches on!

  • Re: “I don’t buy into your personal interpretation of Christianity.”

    It’s not my “personal interpretation.” I merely quoted scripture, including the “apostle” Paul and the author of the Johannine epistles, to the effect that all humans are sinners. Those are the words on the page. “Interpretation” is not required in order to know what they mean. If they mean something other than what they mean … well, there’s nothing I can do about that. You’re free to disagree with me — and in fact, I assume you will, since I identified myself as an agnostic and am no doubt persona non grata to you — but still, those are (as I said) the words on the page. They mean something to Christians, including Catholics, who venerate them.

    Re: “I think you have cited a few scriptures, focused on making one point, and ignored what the Church has taught.”

    What the Church has taught is irrelevant. As I said, the words on the pages of the Christian Bible are clear: All humans are sinners. Denying those words are there, is foolish … because they are.

    Re: “Admonishing the sinner is listed in my missal as a work mercy.”

    Yeah, I have no doubt you view as an obligation your need to run around telling everyone else what to think, say, and do. Still, that too (I suspect) is an unscriptural mission. After all, did your Jesus not say:

    “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3)

    But when they continued asking him, [Jesus] straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at [the adultress].” (Jn 8:7)

    You are, of course, free to ignore Jesus’ instructions not to stomp around judging everyone else while ignoring your own sinful nature (which your own Bible says you have). But I suspect Jesus might (assuming he exists) one day say to you:

    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Mt 7:21-23)

    Re: “Not only that, but you have ignored the concept in Catholicism of original sin and failed to distinguish between venial and mortal sin in reference to the parts of the bible you quoted.”

    First, your Bible makes no such distinction (i.e. between “venial” and “mortal” sins) beyond Jesus’ claim that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is the lone unpardonable sin (see Mt 12:31-32, Mk 3:28-29, Lk 12:10). Your Church manufactured something out of whole cloth which has zero scriptural basis. Second, Catholicism is not — in spite of anything you’ve heard or what you might believe — the only Christian sect with an “original sin” trope.

    Re: “St. Peter said the ignorant wrest the scripture to their own destruction.”

    Shakespeare, too, said the Devil engages in the same tactic (The Merchant of Venice I.iii). But what of it?

    Re: “There is a huge history of rebuking sinners in the bible.”

    Perhaps, but you were also explicitly ordered never to do so. Maybe this presents a paradox for you, but to be perfectly honest, that’s not my problem. It’s yours. If you choose to resolve it by picking and choosing which scriptural passages to obey and which to ignore — which seems to be the case — then you’re just going to have to own up to your own relativism.

    Re: “I am not going to spend my time reviewing all of the various instances in both the old and new testament, just answer this one. Why did God send the prophet Nathan to King David?”

    I will answer that question with one of my own: What does anything Nathan or David said or did matter, when Jesus came along — after both of them — and clearly ordered his followers never to judge each other? His instructions on this matter are explicit and permit no caveats. Why do you ignore them in favor of your Nathan/David thing?

  • Re: “I am not planning on responding to your long essay on your personal form of Christianity.”

    I have no “personal form of Christianity.” I’m an agnostic, as I said earlier.

    Re: “Instead, consider this, what are you trying to do to me?”

    I’m trying to figure out why you’re so militant about not doing what your own Jesus — as reported by the evangelists and apostles — told you to do.

    Re: “Are you not admonishing me and my beliefs?”

    I suppose I am. Are you unable to withstand scrutiny? Besides, why would you object to me “admonishing you and your beliefs” when you clearly have no reservations about admonishing others whose “sins” you object to?

    Re: “A world in which we could not judge others would be horrible.”

    Maybe so, but I’m not the one who ordered people not to judge others. Your own Jesus did that. If you have a problem with it, take it up with him, not with me.

    Re: “We make judgements all the time about others’ actions.”

    Yes, but Jesus didn’t want you to.

    Re: “Parents teach their children not to steal, but according to your line of thinking they should not do this but instead consider their own sins. Judges, police officers, the public, and even you would not be able to survive if they did not make judgements every day.”

    Not my problem. It’s not my religion and I’m not obliged to follow these teachings. You, on the other hand, being a Christian, are. If the teachings of Christianity are inherently absurd (and I don’t dispute some of them may be), then perhaps you need to ask yourself why you’d want to follow an absurd faith. Maybe it’s time either to join another religion that’s not absurd, or rip from your Bibles the parts of it that create the absurdity. But so far no Christian I’ve ever heard of has been willing to do so.

    Re: “If your response is that you can judge and punish others but can’t call it sinful, then I suggest you have some beef with God (and His laws) and want to find a way to keep sinning and tell yourself it is okay rather than follow His laws.”

    Again, I’m not beholden to your deity’s laws. You, however, are. This is a problem for you to deal with, not me. So deal with it already and stop demanding I do so for you.

    Re: “It was the appeal (to fallen man’s lower nature) of Luther’s teaching.”

    Not just Luther considers humanity “fallen.” It’s a core aspect of all Christian sects.

    Re: “However, the truth is that with God’s grace all humans can avoid mortal sin.”

    To this, I can only respond by citing your own sacred text:

    If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 Jn 1:8)

    I don’t see how the Johannine author agrees with your claim that it’s possible for humans to avoid sin. If you disagree with it, take it up with him.

    Oh wait, you can’t, he died by 100 CE or so. Too bad so sad for you.

    Re: “I sincerely pray for the best for you.”

    If it makes you feel better, then go ahead. After all, your feelings are the most important thing in the universe! But just know, your prayers don’t mean anything and will do neither of us any good.

  • God does not dispense “mercy” because God is not an angry dysfunctional parent ready to harm us for transgressions. God is not surprised by anything we do.

    A Church that is inclusive would not be headed by an exclusive pack of males discriminating against all women and most men.

  • Re: “While you seem to be inexplicably hostile to me …”

    “Hostile”? Really?

    Re: “You have misinterpreted scriptures.”

    No I haven’t. I neither “interpreted” not “misinterpreted” them. I quoted them and explained their plain meaning. No “interpretation” is involved.

    Re: “Jesus also said, ‘Judge not according to the appearance but judge just judgement.’ (St. John 7:24)”

    Yes … and so what?

    Re: “Jesus is not instructing people to never judge anything, he is saying do not be a hypocrite and/or judge rashly because God is just and will measure out to you any thing judged falsely.”

    Correct. But when everyone is a “sinner” according to other scripture, then by definition it becomes hypocrisy for Christians to stomp around judging others’ sins. I’m not sure what can be done about this, but it’s the plain meaning of the words on the page.

    Re: “He is also pointing out that a hypocrite with a beam (large sin) in his eye will not be able to see the small sin (splinter) in his neighbor’s eye to remove it properly.”

    If you think it’s impossible for you to have a beam in your own eye while you vilify others for the specks in their own, then you’re denying other scripture (e.g. Rom 3:23 and 1 Jn 1:8 among others). You’re not getting the Bible’s point, which is that all humans are sinners. All of them. All the time. Including you. Again, all the time.

    Re: “You have simply misinterpreted the bible if you take it as a series of one-liners without considerig its context.”

    The context of these passages doesn’t change what they say, nor does it alter the fact that you’re denying your own sinful nature.

    Re: “Jesus told his followers to be perfect as your heavenly Father.”

    He told them to be “perfect,” but his own Bible says they cannot be perfect (again, I refer you to Rom 3:23, 1 Jn 1:8, and other passages I’ve already cited, which you repeatedly and persistently refuse to accept).

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