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Happy 80th birthday, Pope Francis

Samuel Gregg

On March 13, 2013, I was fortunate enough to be standing in Saint Peter’s Square to see the then-unknown Jorge Bergoglio emerge onto the balcony to the faithful’s acclaim.

Today, the man who asked the crowds in the Square to bless him, Pope Francis, turns 80.

Francis enjoys a presence surpassing that of any contemporary politician. His simple manner and uncanny ability to highlight the plight of those who live in conditions the rest of us would find unbearable is unequaled. His example and words have certainly helped me to think about those who endure poverty in less-abstract, more personal ways.

Over time, however, my view of the Argentine pope has become increasingly critical. The reasons are many. They include his often snarky remarks about priests, his populist rhetoric, his odd propensity to reduce all the world’s ills to economic problems, his historically uninformed comparisons between Christianity and radical Islam, and his caricatures of those who dispute some of his criticisms of market economies.

But my primary criticism of Francis is this: Rather than presenting the Catholic faith in all its fullness as the source of truth and true happiness, he focuses almost exclusively on the theme of mercy.

But how could speaking about mercy ever become a problem, especially for a Christian?

Mercy is certainly central to the Christian Gospel. As a priest once said to me, “When I die and go before Christ to be judged, I’ll be pleading for his mercy — not justice.” The same goes for me. We’re all, without exception, sinners.

Nonetheless, the word truth — which appears countless times in the Scriptures — doesn’t feature heavily in Francis’ lexicon. Sometimes he even seems to present truth and mercy as opposites. Mercy, it appears, trumps everything else. Conversely, if you express a concern for truth, you’re basically labeled a modern-day Pharisee.

Francis never quite puts matters so starkly. Yet there’s a definite sense he views those Catholics who affirm the Church’s responsibility to talk about truth as, in his words, “rigid” or “legalists.”

Unfortunately, once you’re perceived as decoupling the mercy offered by Christ from the truth proclaimed by Christ — especially those hard sayings which caused many of Christ’s disciples to abandon him — you bolster those who would dilute Christianity into a mildly-religious sentimental humanitarianism.

Much of our world today is drenched in emotivist feelings-talk. We don’t need more sentimentality or snowflakery. That’s one reason why liberal Christianity is collapsing everywhere. Moreover, a Church which proclaims mercy without also teaching the truth that sets us free and leads to happiness risks becoming something Francis says he doesn’t want the Church to be: just another NGO.

So, if there was anything I’d suggest to Pope Francis, it would be to stress that proclaiming Christ’s mercy can’t mean viewing the truths of Christian morality as an “ideal” no-one’s really expected to live up to.

Contrary to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s bizarre 2014 claim that “heroism is not for the average Christian,” all Christians are called to lives of sanctity. To allow mercy to become an excuse for mediocrity is to trivialize the Gospel and the witness of saints and martyrs.

But all that aside, Happy 80th birthday, Holy Father! We do love you.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.