Editor’s (admin’s) note. When I shared this on Facebook, I introduced the link with this headnote: “New post to my spirituality blog. In which I’m reminded: (2) We’re complicated; (2) Pope Francis’ remark about saints and sinners sounds like Luther; and (3) it’s always a good idea to look for ‘both-and’ dialog and reconcile differences.” It’s such a good summary, I decided to add it here.

In a wide-ranging Nov. 22 interview with the Jesuit magazine America, Pope Francis made headlines on a variety of often-contentious topics. They included “polarization in the U.S. church, racism, the war in Ukraine, the Vatican’s relations with China and church teaching on the ordination of women,” according to the magazine’s summary of the interview, all newsworthy subjects that make sparks fly.

But I was especially interested in what the pope said about today’s extreme political polarization in the United States, both within the Catholic church and in American political institutions. And a sidebar remark about Martin Luther.

Spoiler alert: Francis said this kind of polarization is “not Catholic.” (That’s with a capital “C” in America’s interview story, but I think it works with a lower-case “c” too.) And in an aside, I thought he echoed Luther; the pope was most assuredly not referencing the religious strife of the 16h century, but it led me to wonder: How might history been different if someone like Francis had been pope in 1517?

The aside came when Francis summed up his thoughts by saying, “what is Catholic is not either-or, but is both-and, combining differences. And this is how we understand the Catholic way of dealing with sin, which is not puritanical: saints and sinners, both together.”

I want to get back to that “both-and” way of combining differences — I think it’s important. But I can’t help being reminded here of a key concept in Luther’s theology, that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, or, in the Latin of Luther’s day, simul iustis et peccator.

That saints-and-sinners language comes up often in Luther, so often, in fact, that sometimes it’s called “the ‘Simul'” for short, with the assurance that Lutherans will know what it means. An especially clear statement of the idea comes in Luther’s 1535 commentary on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Thus a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”

They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Mark Twain probably didn’t coin the phrase (it’s a common observation), and I’m not claiming Pope Francis got the idea from Luther. But it does rhyme.

At any rate, “the Simul” was basic to Lutheran theology from the very beginning. Wikipedia explains (in a very good summary of the Theology of Martin Luther): “Simul justus et peccator means that a Christian is at the same time both righteous and a sinner. Human beings are justified by grace alone, but at the same time they will always remain sinners, even after baptism.” After a brief excursion into the 16th-century thickets surrounding the theology of justification, Wikipedia adds, “The doctrine of simul justus is not an excuse for lawlessness, or a license for continued sinful conduct; rather, properly understood, it comforts the person who truly wishes to be free from sin and is aware of the inner struggle within him.”

Five representatives of America magazine flew to Rome to meet with Francis at Santa Marta, the papal residence. According to a first-person (and present-tense) narrative by executive editor Kerry Weber, “there is little pomp to entering Santa Marta,” and the pope simply enters the room “leaning on a wheeled walker.” For a sit-down interview with the pope, the first in America magazine’s 113-year history, it feels oddly informal.

“One of the strangest things about sitting face to face with Pope Francis is how normal it feels,” adds Weber. “How, despite the unusual surroundings and company we’re in, the pope makes us feel at home in his home.”

Francis’ thoughts on polarization — and saints and sinners — came when Sam Sawyer SJ, who will take over as America’s editor-in-chief in 2023, asked a multifaceted question that demands to be quoted in full:

Holy Father, in your speech to the U.S. Congress seven years ago, you warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil, or the righteous and sinners” and you also called for “a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” Yet since your speech to Congress we have seen not only political polarization grow deeper, also polarization within the life of the church. How can the church respond to polarization within its own life and help respond to polarization in society?

Answering in Spanish with a Latin word or two thrown in (as translated in America’s transcript of the interview), the pope said, “Polarization is not Catholic. A Catholic cannot think either-or (aut-aut) and reduce everything to polarization. The essence of what is Catholic is both-and (et-et).” According to Wikipedia (my go-to source for everything), Aut-Aut means Either/Or in Latin, as well as an existentialist Italian magazine and an oblique literary reference to Danish existentialist philosopher to Søren Kierkegaard. Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster dictionary are silent on et-et (which would translate to “and-and” in English). But in the remainder of his answer to Sawyer’s question, Francis makes it abundantly clear what he means by it:  

The Catholic unites the good and the not-so-good. There is only one people of God. When there is polarization, a divisive mentality arises, which privileges some and leaves others behind. The Catholic always harmonizes differences. If we see how the Holy Spirit acts; it first causes disorder: Think of the morning of Pentecost, and the confusion and mess (lío) it created there, and then it brings about harmony. The Holy Spirit in the church does not reduce everything to just one value; rather, it harmonizes opposing differences. That is the Catholic spirit. The more harmony there is between the differences and the opposites the more Catholic it is. The more polarization there is, the more one loses the Catholic spirit and falls into a sectarian spirit. This [saying] is not mine, but I repeat it: what is Catholic is not either-or, but is both-and, combining differences. And this is how we understand the Catholic way of dealing with sin, which is not puritanical: saints and sinners, both together.

As he touched on issues ranging from abortion and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Vatican’s relations with China, Russia and Ukraine, Pope Francis returned to the theme of sin and what might be considered a both-and approach to “combining differences.” It came when Sawyer asked him about coverups of sexual abuse by senior clerics. The pope’s reply: “The church takes responsibility for its own sin, and we go forward, sinners, trusting in the mercy of God.” He elaborated:

When I travel, I generally receive a delegation of victims of abuse. An anecdote about this: When I was in Ireland [in 2018], people who had been abused asked for an audience. There were six or seven of them. At the beginning, they were a little angry, and they were right. I said to them: “Look, let us do something. Tomorrow, I have to give a homily; why don’t we prepare it together, about this problem?” And that gave rise to a beautiful phenomenon because what had started as a protest was transformed into something positive and, together, we all created the homily for the next day. That was a positive thing [that happened] in Ireland, one of the most heated situations I have had to face.

The ‘both-and’ combination of differences in that 2018 homily didn’t head off controversy, as contemporary news accounts of Francis’ visit to Ireland make clear. As Francis was returning to Rome from Dublin, in fact, one of the pope’s clerical opponents released an accusatory letter (one that “said all kinds of things about me,” as he recalled in his interview with America magazine). But it was well received by the 300,000 who heard it, as arts and culture writer Harriet Sherwood reported the next day in The Guardian:

The most significant statement came in a penitential prayer said at mass in [Dublin’s] Phoenix Park. The pope listed specific forms of abuse, including sexual crimes, vulnerable women being forced by nuns to undertake manual labour, and forced or coerced adoptions. Each request for forgiveness was welcomed with applause from the crowd.

Reading this, I had to wonder: What if a both-and kind of guy like Francis had been pope on Oct. 31, 1517, when an obscure monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg? Would it have changed anything?

A footnote. For what it’s worth, the Vatican news service also highlighted the pope’s remarks on polarization in the United States in its official press release on the interview, headlined, “Pope: Polarization is not Catholic, dialogue is the only way.” A staff reporter wrote this account:

Pope Francis was then asked by Fr. Sawyer about the growing polarization of political life in the United States and even in the U.S. Catholic Church itself.

The Holy Father warned against the dangers of ideological partisanship in society, but especially within the Church, noting that U.S. society too has some “ideological Catholic groups”. “Polarization is not Catholic“, he stressed. “A Catholic cannot think either-or ( aut-aut) and reduce everything to polarization. The essence of what is Catholic is both-and (et-et)”. He recalled that Jesus went beyond the divisions among the Jews of the time between the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the  Essenes and the Zealots. proposing the Beatitudes, “which are also something different”. 

The rest of the press release was a point-by-point summary of the interview with America magazine.

Links and Citations

“Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more,” America, Nov. 28, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/11/28/pope-francis-interview-america-244225.

A. Brian Flamme, “How to Use and Understand the ‘Simul’,” Straight Path, Around the Word, Nov. 22, 2020 https://www.whatdoesthismean.org/the-straight-path/how-to-use-and-understand-the-simul.

“History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes,” Quote Investigator, Jan. 12, 2014 https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/01/12/history-rhymes/.

Frank Langfitt, “At Mass In Dublin, Pope Apologizes For Clergy Sex Abuse Scandals,” NPR, Aug. 28, 2018 https://www.npr.org/2018/08/27/642160125/at-mass-in-dublin-pope-apologies-for-clergy-sex-abuse-scandals.

Gerard O’Connell, “Ukraine, abortion, racism, women’s ordination: Highlights from America’s interview with Pope Francis,” America, Nov. 28, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/11/28/polarization-pope-francis-america-interview-244227.

“Pope: Polarization is not Catholic, dialogue is the only way,” Vatican News, Nov. 28, 2022 https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2022-11/pope-polarization-is-not-catholic-dialogue-is-the-only-way.html.

Harriet Sherwood, “Pope begs forgiveness for abuse scandals as Ireland trip ends,” The Guardian, Aug. 27, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/26/thousands-greet-pope-francis-on-arrival-in-irish-village-of-knock.

Kerry Weber, “Behind the scenes: What it’s like to interview Pope Francis,” America, Nov. 28, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/11/28/reflection-meeting-pope-francis-244229.

Wikipedia articles on Aut-Aut, justification (theology) and Theology of Martin Luther.

[Uplinked Nov. 30, 2022]

One thought on “Saints, sinners (an echo of Luther’s simul justus et peccator?), politics and ‘both-and’ dialog in Pope Francis’ interview

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