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On St. Matthew and What Pope Francis Really Said - Homily by Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP
Today’s gospel is a gospel of mercy. Jesus goes to sinners and eats with them, saying: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” All of this sounds very much like what Pope Francis just said in his recent interview. In fact, he quotes this very Gospel in the beginning, deriving even his papal motto (miserando atque eligendo) from it. He mentions his favorite painter, Caravaggio, and his painting in St. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, which depicts precisely this scene.
I am sure you have heard of Pope Francis’ interview, which predictably was taken by the media to mean that they have now an ally in the pope against the teachings of the Church. They take the pope to say: “The Church should cease to be obsessed about abortion, gay marriage or contraception. It should become a Church of love rather than of dogma.” These are quite literally the headlines of the NYT. But what did the pope really mean? And what did he really say?
To begin with the last part: nowhere does the pope contrast love with dogma. To do so would be a mere absurdity. Why is it absurd? Because it is an old philosophical insight that you cannot love what you do not know. Unless you have at least some glimpse of something, there is no way that you could ever love it, him or her. Someone you do not know is off your radar screen, pure and simple. It would not even occur to you to love a person of whose existence you are not aware.
What is it that dogma lets us know? The person of Christ. All teachings of the Church are ultimately about the person of Christ. The early dogmas of the Church about the Trinity and the hypostatic union are all concerned with the very identity of Christ as God and man and as the second person of the Trinity. They try to make sure that we do not mistake the one whom we claim to love for someone else; for this would mean that we lose the one whom we love, namely Christ. In other words: dogma safeguards love. The modern liberal world that projects its own faulty opposition of dogma and love onto the Holy Father is structurally incapable of true love, if it really means what it says.
St. Matthew, whom we celebrate today, knew Jesus personally. And he loved him, for he responded to his invitation to follow him. He followed, because he saw. He loved, because he knew. And he understood that others needed to know as well. That is why he wrote his Gospel. He wrote about Jesus and his life, so that others can get to know Jesus as well, and so that they might love and follow him, too. He made Jesus known in the telling of His story. It was for others to figure out theologically what this story means and how we need to think of Jesus to truly appreciate him.
This concerns even moral teachings: moral teachings are a part of the teaching and dogma of the Church as well. And what morality means is nothing but what it means for us to follow the one whom we love: our Lord Jesus Christ. Take up your cross and follow me. Follow me! Jesus says, and this means: live as I did! And follow what I am teaching you. And he did not dispense with moral exhortations, just as Pope Francis continues to preach on many moral and behavioral matters.
But did Pope Francis not say that the Church should stop preaching about all those moral questions, such as abortion, gay marriage or contraception? It is true that he said that it is not necessary to speak about them all the time; he did so simply because he was accused of not saying enough about them. But he continues to say that, for one, they are a matter of unalterable Church teaching, and that his concern is rather that they are taken out of context, while missionary work needs to focus on the essentials. And the necessary context and the most essential thing is, again, the person of Christ and the saving love of God that has been revealed in him. Nobody would ever disagree with this assessment; and it is really all that he said in that regard.
Nor did he mean that we should stop speaking about these neuralgic moral issues. This is quite clear from what he did at the very time that this interview was published. Just the day before he had sent words of encouragement to the growing March for Life in Berlin. And the day afterwards he further exemplified what he meant by his statements in the interview when he spoke to the doctors of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. There he said that “The first right of the human person is his life,” and asked the doctors to “bear witness to and disseminate the culture of life,” at a time when the medical profession shows signs of real confusion about ethical standards. The Pope observed that today, “while new rights are attributed to or indeed almost presumed by the individual, life is not always protected as the primary value and the primordial right of every human being.”
Pope Francis compared this to the modern “throwaway culture;” we are discarding human beings when they are not considered valuable. And the Pope urged: “Our response to this mentality is a 'yes' to life, decisive and without hesitation.” “…there is no human life more sacred than another.” Each human life is precious and must not be discarded. This does not sound like what the New York Times took it to mean.
But in that very same address the pope also exemplified what he means by anchoring the evangelization in the essentials of our faith, namely in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love we ought to have for him who loved us first. Here is what he said to the doctors: "Every unborn child unjustly condemned to be aborted has the face of Jesus Christ. And every elderly person, sick, or even at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ."
And so this is how it all hangs together. We need to know what we ought to love, and the Church cannot stop proclaiming the truth, which is Jesus Christ; so that all mankind throughout the ages can follow him.
There is more. We cannot love what we do not know. But it is also true that we cannot truly know what we do not truly love. It goes both ways. For what happens, if you have come to know someone and have come to love him or her? You want to know more about this person. You want to get to know who this person is.
And so, if St. Matthew came to know and love Jesus, he wanted to make him known to others. And so he also began to be the first theologian of Jesus. His Gospel is full of connections that show us, in the very story, how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The later theologians and Church councils only continued what the Gospels began: they wanted to know who this Jesus is, whom they had come to love and follow. So there is an important place for growth in the knowledge of Christ, as we have heard in St. Paul:
"And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,
to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,
for building up the Body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,
to the extent of the full stature of Christ." (Eph 4, 11-14)
Thus, there is nothing wrong with dogma or theology. Dogma becomes stale and lifeless only if it is not driven by the love that truly wants to know. At one point the Holy Father mentions the Blessed Virgin Mary; he says: “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.”
Here too, he can hardly make a contrast between love and knowledge pure and simple, because both go together. Genuine theologians are themselves part of the people; they study Mary, because they love her and want to know her better. The Holy Father himself is an example of this. And he stands in stark contrast with many theologians after the Second Vatican Council, who had nothing good to say about Marian devotions. They even threw away their rosaries, sometimes ostentatiously destroying them in protest at the pulpit. That is the arrogance of theologians that comes not from knowledge, but from a lack of knowledge. With all their theologies and often ideologies they do not truly know the Blessed Virgin Mary. Otherwise they could never do such things.
The Holy Father defends the faith of the people against such arrogance from the side of liberal post Vatican II theologians. This is yet one of the many continuities between Pope Francis and a great theologian like Pope Benedict that people fail to understand. Pope Benedict said: "The primary good for which the Church has responsibility, is the faith of the simple people. The respect and reverence for this simple faith must be the inner measuring rod of all theological teaching." "This simplicity is the True, and the True is the simple."
What Pope Benedict has begun for the liturgy, a rediscovery of its roots and the richness of its tradition, Pope Francis seems to do for devotions. An earlier Vatican document taught that devotions connect the official liturgy and the dogmatic theology of the Church with the lives of the individual people in the world. This seems to be the concern Pope Francis took on, especially when he prayed the rosary in St. Peter’s square, with an ancient icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And so perhaps it would be good if the self-proclaimed fans of Pope Francis began to read what he in fact said. This would prove them to be true fans, i.e. true lovers of Pope Francis; for someone who truly loves wants to know. Currently they know so little that they can hardly claim to love.
It might be that we have lost our basic ability to read and understand texts. But it also might be that there is, at the root of it, a basic misunderstanding about the nature of love itself. Love cannot be without knowledge. It is not an infatuation that projects one’s own needs and expectations on the other person. This indeed would make us incapable of hearing or seeing anything else but what we want to see or hear. Amor oculus est, says another pope, St. Gregory the Great. Love is eye, love makes seeing. True love, that is.
The one who loved Jesus most, is the one to whom Pope Francis has such a great devotion: the Blessed Virgin Mary. One of the titles of Mary is “Seat of Wisdom:” she is the seat of knowledge, the seat of Jesus her Son, the Divine Logos. And this is what enabled her to love him best.
May Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, help us to know and love her Son evermore.