Forgiven Sinner

Francis & the Character of Christian Truth

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.



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Francis speaks of Jesus of Nazareth, not the one debated over since the age of Constantine and beyond.  Philosphers are also forgiven sinners when they listen to their hearts.


I have to side with Grisez on this one.  It's a concern I have had as well.  Pope Francis speaks "off the cuff", and while I agree that a CAREFUL reading of his words indicate a Pope who is attempting to articulate a Christian message, Marshall McLuhan reminds me that "the medium is the message/massage".  If you're in the room with Pope Francis or one-on-one with him, there is no "loss of translation"; however, that is NOT how his words are heard by most people.  They are communicated through the press, social media, etc., who usually get it wrong.  So the mass consumer gets a heavily spun and vague version of what the pope may or may not have meant (and I say "probably", because I have no idea what he means, because the Pope never provides the CONTEXT for his words).  What I do know is that, invariably, a horde of interpreters (official and unofficial) always comes forward to interpret for us what the Pope "really" meant.  And they are ignored, even if they might be correct, because the media suspect that they themselves are fracturing the "true" meaning of the Pope's words.  Seeing how the the Pope's impromptu talks are routinely MIS-understood by the vast majority of his audience, the burden falls back on the Holy Father to express himself more clearly, if he wants his message to be understood.  An example of the unintended consequences of the Pope's public speaking style (at least I think it's "unintended") is what has happened to the pro-life movement.  Catholics (and other Christians) who have devoted their lives to this ministry are now trying to sort out if their ministry has lost the support of the Bishop of Rome, given that abortion clinics are posting the words of Pope Francis in their windows to shoo away the pro-life protestors. 

"In vino veritas!"

It's not often recalled by historians, but many Catholics reacted similarly to statements Pope John XXIII made to the press.  What did he mean the Church hadn't always been blameless?  Was he implying the Church could do wrong?  Didn't he realize he was giving bad example to the Protestants?  Was he that naive, or did he really mean what he seemed to be saying? 

A lifetime later I see his example as the closest papalspeak has come in centuries (or nearly millenia?) to the example of Jesus himself.  What, after all, did HE mean when he said even half the shocking statements his followers recorded him making?  Hasn't the Church itself spent a couple millenia trying to explain what he said, or even how he didn't really mean what it so often sounded like he meant?

A great article. I also never agreed with Grisez's theology, not necessarily because he is too far right but because of the philosophy and principles that underpin his theology. 

The past 45 years of theological debate has been characterized as a bitter confrontation particularly over sexual ethical issues where Grisez was one of JP II's most ardent defenders of his teachings. While there is much to be admired in JP II, he was not free from misinformation and erroneous thinking. JP II had no patience with anyone who disagreed with him for whatever reason. He ruled with an iron-fist and demanded obedience to every teaching. No priest was ever made a bishop if he even whisped that a teaching should be the subject of a re-thinking.

The Church has lost many Catholics and reception to many teachings are the exception  rather than the rule. The bitter confrontation has divided our Church. Consider what we have witnessed: it is the Church versus the World, the Culture of Death verus the Culural of Life (taken to what many believe to be extremes), Assenters versus Dissenters, the Enlightened (few) versus the Mislead (most), Good versus Evil (as in intrinsic evil). You get the picture. What has been lost is the love of Christ and his parables and verbal messsage where he taught us that the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law.

Pope Francis' messages have shaken the foundations of the Church especially the over-emphasis on small minded rules and norms while neglecting the person adequately considered. Rather than stiffle, muzzle or micro-manage Pope Francis' verbal messages, under the rubric that the press will twist his words or too many Catholics might misinterpret his words, perhaps Pope Francis is sending everyone a much more clearer verbal message than some might think. 





The hierarchs of the Catholic Church often wound not only those under their shepherd's crook and staff but also many of those not in their flock. Any objective reading of the history of the Catholic Church makes this abundantly clear. Our religious sensitivities get hurt more easily because basically our religion brings us in touch with fundamental  questions of life and death - questions to which we crave clear and distinct answers. There is a huge hunger for meaning in life, for consolation, for reconcilation, for healing, that every hierarch in the Church should be reminded constantly that the best way to exercise authority is with compassion. By describing himself as a sinner Pope Francis identifies himself with the first Pope Peter: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Francis eschews the title Vicar of Christ out of humility and truth but he adopts Peter's strategy of keeping his eyes on Jesus the compassionate teacher and healer. I would expect no less of a follower of St Ignatius and an admirer of St Francis of Assisi.

Michael Barberi speaks of  "over-emphasis on small minded rules and norms while neglecting the person adequately considered."

I believe there is a highly vivid example of such thinking in Germain Grisez's responses to "difficult questions" on his website. His startling advice regarding, "What sexual activity is permissible for elderly married couples?" is appalling in my view, akin to a pornography all its own:

That such a professor taught seminarians for 30 years at Mount St. Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore until 2009 is chilling. God help us, indeed, if Grisez is considered a highly influential philosopher and theologian.

His opinions about Pope Francis seem right in line with the rigid, narrow legalisms that burden his writings. So, who is really more self-indulgent and self-referential than the one with all the right answers down to the most minute sexual analysis/detail? Long live Pope Francis!

Thanks Carolyn for the answers that Germain Gresiz provided Catholics on 'difficult questions' concerning the licit or illicit forms of marital sex.

When you apply Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body to practical reality you get exaggerated, unreasonable and irrational theology. Does anyone with a brain believe that Gresiz's incrediable form of micro-managing sex between spouses is truly in accordance with God's Procreative Plan? I will not grace this blog with a refutation of Gresiz's rediculous theological answers to what is moral and immoral sex.

You said it well Carolyn, "God help us". 



I think most people are capable of telling the difference  between a spontaneous remark and a studied, oracular pronouncement, intended to be treated as such. I hope Francis will be with us for a long time, long enough to make his casual and intimate approach to everyday communication become an option for Popes to come. Popes rolled out periodically to read opaque documents written in impenetrable Vaticanese, and then returned to their gilded cages may have satisfied their keepers, but how many  outside their own circle did they reach?  And how crushing an experience it must have been to be required to behave  and speak in a highly stylized and carefully vetted way for every moment of one's public life.

I wonder if Grisez 'misunderstands the character of Christian truth' partially because he is so devoted to natural law as a form of rationalism not intrinsically related to Biblical revelation. If he hasn't read people like Herbert McCabe or the Protestant Stanley Hauerwas he should. My wife of 59 years would have howled at his reference to sex between elderly couples. Grisez may want to reduce context to relativism but he must think context is like marbles in a box rather than like events in history. 

Grisez's advice to the elderly has a strange inhuman quality. He sounds like Star Trek's Mr. Spock trying to reason according to his own alien instincts, about some absurd ( to him) human activity he can't quite get his mind around. And people like this write rule-books?  God help us indeed.

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