by Leonardo Boff, Theologian-Philosopher, Earthcharter Commission
Pope Francis' speeches are not framed either by the doctrines or dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not that he does not appreciate them, but that he understands that they are theological works created during different historical times. Those doctrines and dogmas provoked religious wars, schisms, excommunications, the burning of theologians and women (such as Joan of Arc and the women considered witches) at the stake of the Holy Inquisition. That lasted for several centuries and the author of these lines had a bitter experience in the cubicle where the accused were interrogated in the forbidding building of the former Inquisition, located to the left of the Basilica of Saint Peter.
Pope Francis has engendered a revolution in the thinking of the Church, returning to the praxis of the historical Jesus. He is restoring what is now called "The Tradition of Jesus", that precedes the present Gospels, written 30-40 years after His execution on the cross. The Tradition of Jesus, or as it is also called in The Acts of the Apostles, “the path of Jesus”, is grounded more on values and ideals than on doctrine. The essentials are unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, justice and preference for the poor and the outcast, and a total openness to God the Father. Jesus, to put it bluntly, did not intend to found a new religion. He wanted to teach us how to live. To live with fraternity, solidarity and caring for each other.
What stands out most in Jesus is His good sense. We say that someone has good sense when that person has the right word for each situation, appropriate behavior, and the ability to quickly identify the gist of a question. Good sense is linked to the concrete wisdom of life. It distinguishes the essential from the secondary. It is the capacity to see and put things in their rightful places. Good sense opposes exaggeration. This is where the madman and the genius, who are so close in many aspects, are fundamentally distinguished. The genius radicalizes good sense. The madman radicalizes exaggeration.
Jesus, as the Gospels witness, manifested Himself as a genius of good sense. A matchless freshness runs through everything He says and does. God in His goodness, a human in his frailty, society with its contradictions and nature with its splendor, appear with crystal clear immediacy. Jesus neither preaches theology nor appeals to superior moral principles. Jesus does not get lost in tedious and heartless questions of right and wrong. His words and attitudes go directly to the point where reality bleeds and the human must make a decision for himself and before God.
His warnings are incisive and direct: “first be reconcíled to thy brother” (Mt 5,24). “Swear not at all” (Mt 5,34). “Do not fight back against evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right check, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5,39). "Love thy enemies, and pray for those who spitefully use thee and persecute thee” (Mt 5,44). “When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Mt 6,3).
This good sense has been missing from the institutional Church (popes, bishops and priests), but not from the Church of the bases, especially on moral questions. The institutional Church is hard and implacable. Humans with their pain are sacrificed to abstract principles. The institutional Church is ruled by power, rather than mercy. As the saints and wise men and women warn us: where power prevails, love vanishes and mercy disappears.
How different is Pope Francis. The principal quality of God, he tells us, is mercy. He often repeats: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk 6,36). And Pope Francis explains the etymological meaning of mercy: miseris cor dare: «give the heart to the miser», to those who suffer. In his Angelus talk of April 6, 2014, he said in hushed tones: «Listen well: there are no limits at all to the divine mercy offered to all». And asked the multitude to repeat with him: «There are no limits to the divine mercy offered to all».
He reminds us as a theologian that Saint Thomas Aquinas affirms that, where practice is concerned, mercy is the most important virtue «because it overflows to the others and also succors them in their weaknesses».
Filled with mercy in the face of the dangers of the zika virus epidemic Pope Francis opens a space for the use of contraceptives. It is about saving lives: «to avoid a pregnancy is not an absolute evil», the Pope said in his visit to Mexico on February of the current year. To the new cardinals, he admonishes them with the words: «The Church does not condemn forever. The punishment of hell used to torment the faithful is not eternal». God is a mystery of inclusion and communion, never of exclusion. Mercy always triumphs.
This means that we must interpret the Bible references to hell not in a fundamentalist way, but pedagogically, as a way to lead us to do good. Logically, we do not enter in any form into the Kingdom of the Trinity. We must first pass through the purifying clinic of God, until we emerge, purified, into the blessed eternity.
This message is truly liberating. And Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation confirms "The Joy of the Gospel”. This joy is offered to everyone, including non-Christians, because it is the path of humanization and of liberation.