Pope Francis and the Senseless Galatians

In two back-to-back Wednesday audiences last month, Pope Francis managed to bring upon himself a great deal of criticism from two quite different audiences: faithful Catholics and the Grand Rabbinate of Israel.

While Catholic outlets were quick to pick up on what Pope Francis said on August 18 about the commandments of the Decalogue not being “absolutes” (e.g., “Pope Francis on the Ten Commandments: ‘I observe them, but not as absolutes’” by Kennedy Hall), Jewish objections to the August 18 audience about the Torah not giving life did not garner attention until Philip Pullella broke the story for Reuters in his August 25 piece, “Israeli rabbis ask pope to clarify remarks on Jewish law.” The Grand Rabbinate wrote a letter expressing their objections the very day after Pope Francis’ remarks (August 12), but they waited some time to make the letter public, apparently choosing Reuters’ well known liberal Vaticanist as their preferred medium.

So what did the Holy Father say that set off this twin kerfuffle? The two Wednesday Audiences were part of an ongoing catechesis on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, and it was the Holy Father’s treatment of Saint Paul’s teaching that caused the controversies.

I will reproduce the key texts here, as excerpted from the Vatican website, and offer my own comments.

What Offended the Grand Rabbinate of Israel

Here is an excerpt from the Wednesday audience of August 11 (emphasis mine):

Having said this, one should not think, however, that Saint Paul was opposed to the Mosaic Law. No, he observed it. Several times in his Letters, he defends its divine origin and says that it possesses a well-defined role in the history of salvation. The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it. The Law is a journey, a journey that leads toward an encounter. Paul uses a word, I do not know if it is in the text, a very important word: the law is the “pedagogue” toward Christ, the pedagogue toward faith in Christ, that is, the teacher that leads you by the hand toward the encounter (cf. Gal 3:24). Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ. —Catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians: 4. The Mosaic Law

It is very easy to see why the Grand Rabbinate of Israel was offended: Pope Francis is here simply asserting Catholic doctrine. What Saint Paul says about the Law of Moses in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians is offensive to Jews who do not accept Jesus Christ. Saint Paul says, “For if there had been a law given which could give life, verily justice should have been by the law” (Gal. 3:21). But justice was not of the law, but by Faith: “The just man liveth by faith” (Rom. 1:17), and not just any generic “faith,” but “the faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). In asserting that the Mosaic Law does not give life, Pope Francis simply repeats Saint Paul and the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

This simple fidelity to the Gospel elicited a strong reaction from Rabbi Rasson Arousi, the chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, who wrote this in a letter to Cardinal Kurt Koch: “In his homily [sic: it was not a homily, but a “catechesis”], the pope presents the Christian faith as not just superseding the Torah; but asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the present era is rendered obsolete.” He went on to say, “This is in effect part and parcel of the ‘teaching of contempt’ towards Jews and Judaism that we had thought had been fully repudiated by the Church.”

Needless to say, Saint Paul was a Jew himself, and what he had to say about the Law of Moses was neither contemptuous of his own people, nor of the Law itself, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: “For the end of the law is Christ” (Rom. 10:4). What Saint Paul wrote can only be read as offensive by someone who rejects Jesus Christ — and there is the quite simple yet insoluble nodus of the issue. I say “insoluble,” not because there is no solution to the problem; there is a solution, the one offered by Saint Paul: Faith in Jesus Christ.

As long as unbelief exists, this controversy will.

Philip Pullella being a liberal, he obtained some de rigueur money quotes from progressivist Catholics, namely these gems from Rev. John Pawlikowski and Prof. Philip Cunningham:

“To say that this fundamental tenet of Judaism does not give life is to denigrate the basic religious outlook of Jews and Judaism. It could have been written before the Council,” said Father John Pawlikowski, former director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. [Before the Council? Get the smelling salts!]

“I think it’s a problem for Jewish ears, especially because the pope’s remarks were addressed to a Catholic audience,” said Professor Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

“It could be understood as devaluing Jewish observance of the Torah today,” Cunningham said.

If readers recognize either of those names, it may be because both of them were on hand to denounce Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when liberal Catholic voices were useful for that purpose (see here and here).

For a clear and non-controversial academic treatment on the Catholic teaching on the value of the Mosaic Law, see “The Old Law as a Preparation for the New.”

Cardinal Kurt Koch has said that his dicastery is reviewing Rabbi Arousi’s letter. It would be wonderful if His Eminence would deliver to the Rabbi an invitation to Faith in Jesus Christ, assuring him that this will definitively satisfy his objections to Saint Paul’s doctrine concerning the Mosaic Law.

What Offended Faithful Catholics

In his August 11 audience, Pope Francis referred the Law of Moses as a “pedagogue,” a theme he came back to one week later. The reference comes from the same Epistle to the Galatians, back in Chapter 3: “Wherefore the law was our pedagogue in Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after the faith is come, we are no longer under a pedagogue.” In his catechesis of August 18, Pope Francis explained what a pedagogue was in the classical world: a slave who took a boy to school. His explanation was incomplete, because this slave was not only an escort, but also a tutor. But — and here we see the beauty of Saint Paul’s use of the word — the pedagogue was a tutor who was not sufficient of himself to teach the boy, only to assist with his studies, which the boy had to learn from a master. The connection is clear: the Mosaic law was servile and preparatory in relation to the Master, Jesus Christ. (Click here for some informative links on “pedagogue.”)

That said, here are the Holy Father’s words that offended believing Catholics, from his audience of August 18, Catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians: 5. The propedeutic value of the Law” (bold emphasis mine):

Once one has come to faith, the Law exhausts its propaedeutic [preparatory or introductory] value and must give way to another authority. What does this mean? That after the Law we can say, “We believe in Jesus Christ and do what we want”? No! The Commandments exist, but they do not justify us. What justifies is Jesus Christ. The Commandments must be observed, but they do not give us justice; there is the gratuitousness of Jesus Christ, the encounter with Jesus Christ that freely justifies us. The merit of faith is receiving Jesus. The only merit: opening the heart. So what do we do with the Commandments? We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ.

This teaching on the value of the law is very important, and deserves to be considered carefully so as not to fall into misunderstandings and take false steps. It will do us good to ask ourselves whether we still live in the period in which we need the Law, or if instead we are fully aware of having received the grace of becoming children of God so as to live in love. How do I live? In the fear that if I do not do this, I will go to hell? Or do I live with that hope too, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ? It is a good question. And also a second one: do I scorn the Commandments? No. I observe them, but not as absolutes, because I know that it is Jesus Christ who justifies me.

The last sentence is the one that grabbed so much attention — and rightly so. The statement as it appears here is utterly irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine. (Unless I’m missing some subtlety, this appears to be an accurate rendering of the Italian original: “Li osservo, ma non come assoluti, perché so che quello che mi giustifica è Gesù Cristo.”) The Holy Father’s statement is remarkably consistent, however, with Amoris laetitia, particularly the part that says that unrepentant serial adulterers may receive Holy Communion.

There is an important distinction needed. A careful reading of the text has lead me to conclude that the Holy Father is blurring the distinction between the moral law as summarized in the Decalogue (which is what we most often mean when we say, “the commandments”) and the totality of the Mosaic Law. The moral law, or natural law, is binding on all Christians, not relatively but absolutely. The moral law was one of the three parts of the Mosaic Law, the other two being the ceremonial precepts and the juridical law. Those two other parts are, after the promulgation of the Gospel, both dead and deadly, to cite the authoritative doctrine of the Council of Florence (cf. “Catholic Truth and the Salvation of Souls are at Stake”). The moral law has been absorbed into and elevated by the the New Law of Christ, so much so that the two-fold commandment of Charity (love of God and love of neighbor) corresponds to the two tablets of the Decalogue. That the demands of the commandments are even greater in the New Covenant is quite plain from the Sermon on the Mount.

In blurring the distinction between the Decalogue and the rest of the Mosaic Law, the Holy Father reduces the former to the “propaedeutic” role of a pedagogue; but that is not the doctrine of Saint Paul. And it is not the doctrine of the Church, which holds Christians to the demands of the Decalogue. It is Lutheranism with its sola fide doctrine, not Catholicism, that downplays the Decalogue by having grace somehow negate the obligation to keep the moral law.

As Dr. Josef Pieper points out, every sin is an injustice, that is, a violation of the cardinal virtue of justice. Each sin, no matter who else it might wrong, is first and foremost an injustice to God. It is not merely an inconsequential violation of some impersonal law, but a personal affront to the divine Lawgiver Himself. It is against this very real backdrop of divine justice that God’s tremendous mercy stands out. Unless we are firmly rooted in the idea of God’s justice, God’s mercy is to us an entirely meaningless concept.

But we may go further: Every sin is also a violation of Charity. This is most radically seen in the fact that mortal sin drives that greatest of theological virtues out of our souls, along with Sanctifying Grace. Any authentic “encounter” with Jesus Christ will include the very important notion that love demands the keeping of the commandments. It was no mere suggestion that Jesus made when He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

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Since I began work on this Ad Rem, the Holy See has responded to Rabbi Arousi’s objections, at least indirectly. Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, Argentina, penned a brief “commentary on the fulfillment of the Law according to the Jewish and Christian traditions,” dated August 30 and entitled, “Law and grace for Jews and Christians.” It is interesting as far as it goes; and, if the issue between Rabbi Arousi and the Catholic Church were merely a discussion of the inadequacy of the external observance of God’s revealed Law without the internal love of God, it would be sufficient. But that, of course, is not the whole of the issue. What was left out is what Bishop Barron left out of his conversation with Ben Shapiro, but what Saint Paul did not neglect to teach the Galatians or the Romans or the Hebrews: the burning question of the fulfillment of the Old Law — in both its externals and its interior observance — in Jesus Christ, and the necessity for salvation of supernatural faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the King of Israel.

For those interested, this week’s Reconquest, which I called “To Galatia (and Jerusalem), with Love,” is on the same topic treated in this Ad Rem.