My old friend and graduate school classmate, the distinguished Catholic theologian Germain Grisez, made the news recently with a sharp criticism of Pope Francis’s interview in Civilità Cattolica. He accuses the pope of being “self-indulgent,” speaking with “little care” about the fact that his remarks will give comfort to those who seek to subvert “the truth... that it is his job to guard as inviolable.” He sums up by suggesting that the pope was speaking as he might “unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine.”
Grisez’s opinions are not to be lightly dismissed; he is an influential philosopher and theologian of the Catholic right. He has been an adviser to the Vatican and the U.S. bishops. I didn’t agree with Grisez’s approach to theology way back in grad school, and I am no more convinced by it now. His views seem to me to rest on a misunderstanding of the character of the Christian truth that he so staunchly seeks to defend.
If you are Gemain Grisez, a devout Catholic who has spent a lifetime producing the closely reasoned three-volume The Way of Our Lord Jesus Christ, you are probably predestined to object to giving weight to a mere papal interview. On the other hand, unburdening oneself “with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine” is a pretty fair description of the Jesus of the Gospels. Commentators have suggested that the Gospels overall might be classified as Jesus’s “table talk.” There are numerous occasions in the Synoptics where Jesus discourses at dinner; the Gospel of John contains five chapters on just one dinner: the Last Supper. As for wine: at the beginning it is miraculously created at Cana, and at the end it is transfigured into the Lord’s blood. Speaking after plenty of wine! Jesus’s enemies regarded his strange words as those of a “wine bibber.”
Table talk and wine are of special interest to biographers because they offer a view of the person beyond, say, the studied prose of a lecture or the carefully constructed self of official social intercourse. In vino veritas is not misleading. Over and above what might be revealed in what one says over the table, live communication, face to face, reveals who speaks. We read who is speaking in the tone of voice or the toss of the head. Live speech calls attention to the speaker beyond the words.
Presumably one did not have to catch Jesus “off guard” to comprehend who he is. Nevertheless, if we turn to the Gospels, one can conclude both first and last that it is the impact of his person, who he is, that precedes and transcends what he says. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew before he preaches a single word: “Follow me!” and they “immediately left their nets and followed him.” It was Jesus, not a teaching, that caused them to follow. While his person somehow compels, just who he is remains the insistent question throughout the New Testament. His enemies consider him insane, in league with the devil, a glutton and, yes, a “wine bibber.” In Matthew 16, the disciples suggest Elijah or John the Baptist resurrected. Peter gets it right—“You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God”—but then immediately gets it wrong because he cannot understand a suffering Messiah. Jesus himself repeatedly demands attention to who he is: “You have heard it said, but I say to you….”
It is often commented that unlike many other great sages and spiritual leaders of humankind, Jesus never wrote a word; his impact was in live speech. The primacy of live speech, face-to-face communication, is a deep lesson about the nature of Christian truth and teaching. I believe that Pope Francis in the interview places the particular person speaking prior to instruction. The interview with Civilità Cattolica starts with “Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?” The answer: “I am a sinner—a sinner who has been forgiven by Christ.” For Francis, the voice that claims to teach the truths of Christianity is the voice of a forgiven sinner. Grisez might counter that this is all very well for Bergoglio, but not for one charged with the office of pope. The pope should speak in a “universal” voice, not as Ratzinger or Bergoglio. I think a universal voice fails to carry the full Christian message, and that is the radical shift that Pope Francis effects. Face-to-face is the site of Christian teaching.
The church claims to have the power to preach forgiveness. Jesus forgave sin and was accused of blasphemy, arrogating to himself the authority of God. If the pope represents the church and the power to forgive sin, he is not sinless, he is only a forgiven sinner. Since the thirteenth century, popes have styled themselves “Vicar of Christ,” a title that entails an exalted register. I suggest that Francis is drawing on an earlier title, “Vicar of Peter.” When the pope speaks as Vicar of Peter his voice is that of the forgiven sinner to sinners, a humbling admission that establishes communication not from on high, but from compassion. It is a voice that could make sin and forgiveness believable.
When asked whether he approves of homosexuality, Francis deflects the question. He turns back to the questioner. “Tell me, when God looks at a gay person does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? ... Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting with their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.” This is the voice of Peter, the forgiven sinner.
About the Author
Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.