I WAS taught a lesson this week. Two lessons, actually. And they both grew out of the readings from last Sunday’s lectionary. “Now, priests, this warning is for you, the prophet Malachi thundered. “You have strayed from the way . . . so I in my turn have made you contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people.”
And then Jesus, in chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, excoriated those pious scribes and Pharisees who “like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels”, but who “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders”, and will not lift a finger to help them.
I confess that at the end of the Gospel passage I found myself wondering what, as they read this aloud from the altar, went through the minds of ultra-conservative legalists such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, with his fondness for the cappa magna, a vestment some 15 feet in length, which requires an attendant to carry it; or, indeed, the Capuchin priest Fr Thomas Weinandy, who recently accused Pope Francis of teaching “with such an intentional lack of clarity” that he risked “sinning against the Holy Spirit”.
To accuse the Pope of the only sin which Jesus called unforgivable is heavier-duty condemnation than even Martin Luther ventured.
Lesson number one came from one of the priests of my parish. Rather in the way that the parable of the Good Samaritan is nowadays often turned on its head, so we are invited to see ourselves not so much as the prodigal, or even the forgiving father, but the resentful elder brother, so our Sunday sermon suggested that we needed to look inside ourselves rather than out to others, for pharisaical traces. Ouch.
But then Pope Francis himself offered a rider. Noting that this passage of Matthew comes as Jesus’s death is drawing near, the Pope hinted that the indignation that imbues Christ’s words may be righteous. Francis criticised those who use authority not to help people, but to oppress them and hamper their spiritual growth.
It is easy to see what has stung the Pope. Cardinal Burke was one of four cardinals to sign a document expressing “dubia”, or doubts, over his teachings. That was followed by a “filial correction” signed by 40 clerics and theologians, most of them with leanings towards the Society of St Pius X, extremists who still reject many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Most recently, Fr Weinandy — who was director of the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine during the clampdown on theological dissent under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — has joined the dissenters himself, accusing the Pope of calumny, intolerance, and so demoralising Catholics that they are “losing confidence in their supreme Shepherd”.
The lessons from the pulpit and the Pope were nicely complementary. We need to turn our gaze on ourselves before accusing others of behaving like the Pharisees; but, to quote Pope Francis, a healthy dose of modesty “is essential for an existence that wants to be conformed to the teaching of Jesus, who is meek and humble of heart and came not to be served, but to serve.”