There is a recurring theme in the papal rhetoric of the Francis era. To insist on the moral law too forcefully, the Pope and his allies often suggest, is to be like the Pharisees. Those “doctors of the law”, to borrow from a representative papal sermon, did not “consider people’s lives but only their own rules of laws and words”, whereas Jesus was constantly willing to “go beyond the law, the letter”.
Whenever the religious law of Jesus’s time seemed to impose needless suffering, he acted to lift the burden – healing on the Sabbath, embracing the unclean, sweeping away dietary regulations and other rituals that made people believe themselves defiled. And just as Jesus transcended Jewish legalism, Catholicism under Pope Francis must transcend its own legalities.
The idea is powerful. But it is not an idea to be found anywhere in the traditional teachings of the Church; it is an idea, indeed, that the Church has rejected, out of fidelity to the Gospels.
Jesus’s anger at legalism is directed against the ritual law of 1st-century Judaism – the rules related to purity, diet, Sabbath observance, and so on, all of which he insists can and must give way in the name of mercy, healing, encounter, love. But the moral law, the Ten Commandments and their corollaries, Jesus never relativises. He never suggests that there exists some shades-of-grey world in which apostasy or adultery (or fraud or murder or theft or gluttony or any other sin) are actually part of God’s complicated plan. Instead he heightens moral demands – urging purity of heart as well as purity of action, proposing a more sweeping rule of charity towards the poor, a more sweeping warning against the dangers of great wealth, and a more exalted view of sex and marriage.
Meanwhile, he often condemns the Jewish traditionalists and legalists of his time not because they are simplistic or harsh in their moral demands, but because their ritualism obscures the clarity of the moral law, or turns the law into a too clever means for people to avoid their clear moral obligations. Consider, for instance, this passage from Mark’s Gospel – the first half famous, the second more obscure:
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
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