One of the great themes of the pontificate of Francis is his critique of ideologies. Those on both the political left and the political right really don’t know how to deal with him because every time they think they have him figured out – that he is either “on their side” or “on the other side” – he makes a statement that confounds them and takes them back to square one.
In the latter half of the third chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate the Holy Father skewers both the left and the right with his interpretation of the story of “The Judgment of the Nations” from Matthew 25. For most of us, this is simply the story of “the sheep and the goats,” but at its core it is the roadmap to the eternal destiny of every human person. If you would like to be a sheep, inheriting the Kingdom, all you need to do is give Jesus food and drink when He is hungry and thirsty, welcome Him, clothe Him, visit Him. If, on the other hand, you would like to be a goat, sent into the eternal fire, then simply do the opposite: ignore Jesus when He is in need.
Pope Francis takes these words and uses them as a mirror to show the idealogues of both the left and right where they have gone astray. On the left, the temptation is to “separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with Him, from openness to His grace.” How easy it is to turn the Church into just another NGO, trying to build a better world, maybe even a heaven on earth, yet ultimately destined to fail because it produces a world separated from “the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta.” In other words, it produces hell rather than heaven.
And while those on the political right are not tempted to secularize the sacred they can, in their disdain for the phrase “social justice”, relativize the needs of their sisters and brothers. Certainly those on the political left are mistaken in their blindness when it comes to the unborn, and the Holy Father affirms that “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.” Yet, this in no way relieves us of our duty to those whose lives are “equally sacred” meaning: “ the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Catholicism’s vision of holiness is never an either/or proposition, it is always a both/and. The Works of Mercy, the heart of the discourse in Matthew 25, are all-inclusive. Jesus never says that we fed Him when we fed our friends or those who deserve to be fed: that’s assumed. He says that we fed Him when we fed “one of these least brothers of Mine.” Jesus never draws a line between those who deserve and those who do not, and thank God He doesn’t! Who of us could ever be on the deserving side of that line?
No, the only line He ever draws is between the sinner in need and those who judge, just as He did when the woman was caught in adultery and the righteous mob wanted to stone her. Jesus confounds the conservatives by preaching mercy, yet he upsets the liberals by referring to her “consensual” activity as a sin. For Jesus, the either/or proposed by idealogues has no meaning: there is only the both/and of mercy where all are afforded another chance – both the judged and the judging – and holiness is attainable for anyone willing in humility to accept the mercy of God.
In these uneasy times where ideological walls are very thick and the mobs on both the left and the right are more than happy to get out their stones, it is good to keep the words of Jesus at the forefront of our thoughts. Pope Francis understands this and therefore exhorts us to reread “these great biblical texts frequently, referring back to them, praying with them, trying to embody them. They will benefit us; they will make us genuinely happy.” And if genuinely happy, then genuinely holy.