Does Pope Francis Think that Jesus Was a Sinner?

Does Pope Francis Think that Jesus Was a Sinner? February 27, 2014
. . . Beyond Bearing Our Sins on the Cross (i.e., Partaking / Entering Into Sin)?
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), by Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




Some are now going after the pope’s homily from 15 June 2013. He made a comment on 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here it is from RSV:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

In turn this passage reflects the biblical language of, particularly, three other passages:

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree”.

Isaiah 53:6 the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

1 Peter 2:24  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

As the Lamb of God, in biblical analogical thinking, Jesus was completely innocent (just as a lamb is), but took the punishment on Himself, to die for us and redeem us. According to some lexicons and commentaries, one of the thoughts in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that He was a “representative” of sin.

The Holy Father’s critics in this instance have pounced upon his phrases (from the article above): “He became the sinner for us” and later “become the sinner for us.” This, they claimed, goes beyond the traditional biblical, Catholic terminology, drawn directly from the Bible: “made him to be sin” (a topic I have written about before). And they argued that it was problematic, because it would entail some heretical Lutheran or Nestorian elements, whereby Christ actually became a sinner and partook of  entered into sin.

As it stands, one might conceivably think there was possibly bad theology here, or a sloppy terminology that was not ideal. For my part, I conceded, in argument with one such critic, that the language was unfortunate and attempted to explain it in part as follows:

My speculation is that the pope is right-brained, and not as concerned with precision as others of us are. Lots of saints were that way, including St. Francis of Assisi, who was quite “unsystematic.” Blessed Pope John Paul II was the opposite: the left-brained philosopher. Pope Benedict was perhaps in the middle, but closer to John Paul II, as a theologian and author; whereas Pope Francis is pastoral and a “popularizer” (somewhat like Blessed John XXIII).

I proceeded to make an argument that the problematic terminology had to be interpreted in light of the more conventional phrases that were also present in the same homily, and that he was using “sin” and “sinner” in a synonymous sense, as comments on 2 Corinthians 5:21. I also found an old quote from St. John Chrysostom (Homily 11 on 2 Corinthians, specifically on 2 Corinthians 5:21) where he said that to say that Christ is “sin” is far more striking than if the Bible had said He was a “sinner.” I had actually thought of that as an argument myself, so was pleasantly surprised to find it. As always, I gave the pope the benefit of the doubt (very unlike his numerous strong critics): that he knows his basic theology.

These critics apparently think that the pope is ignorant of various basic Catholic soteriology: that, indeed, Christ not only bore our sins, became sin (biblical terminology) but literally became a sinner in every sense of the word, just as we are. Now, I maintain that that is utterly implausible from the outset, because it would project onto the pope errors of such a magnitude that it would amount to saying he is utterly ignorant of basic theology. That I contend is ridiculous on its face. To establish such a charge would require much more than merely an out-of-context critique of some arguably sloppy, imprecise language. There would have to be ironclad proof beyond all doubt. That is simply not present here.

I assume, on the other hand, that the pope knows basic theology and that the Cardinals knew that he did, therefore elected him, and that his less-clear remarks can be interpreted by the more clear ones that directly correspond to biblical language. That’s sensible, plausible, consistent, involves no second-guessing of the pope’s abilities or orthodoxy, assumes what is routinely assumed (the pope knows theology), and doesn’t involve unwarranted assumptions or hostile ones.

But alas and lo and behold, I spent the better part of my work day in futile endeavors: complete with the obligatory insults and potshots from detractors all along the way: including, today, “Gnostic” (a new one!) and the obligatory “ultramontane” (the inevitable fate of all who defend the pope). I had forgotten for a moment that, so often, the translations we get out of the Vatican are less-than-ideal. I learned that when I wrote my book, Pope Francis Explained.

I had presupposed for the sake of argument that I was working with an accurate translation. So out of curiosity, I did a Babylon translation of the offending phrases in their sentences, since one of the critics provided the Italian version of the “controversial” part of the homily. Here are the results that I found, using three online translators and also in consultation with an Italian friend, Greta Villani:


1) La vera riconciliazione è che Dio in Cristo ha preso i nostri peccati e si è fatto peccato per noi.

a) Vatican translation: “True reconciliation means that God in Christ took on our sins and He became the sinner for us.”

b) Babylon translation: “True reconciliation and that God was in Christ took our sins and was made sin for us.”

c) Google translation: “True reconciliation is that God in Christ has taken our sins and was made sin for us.”

d)  Bing translation:The real reconciliation is that God in Christ took our sins and became SIN for us.”

e) Greta Villani translation: “The true reconciliation is that God in Christ took our sins and he became sin for us.”

2) E a lui piace, perché è stata la sua missione: farsi peccato per noi, per liberarci . . .

a) Vatican translation: “And Jesus likes that, because it was his mission: to become the sinner for us, to liberate us . . .”

b) Babylon translation: “And he likes, because it was his mission: to be sin for us, to liberate us.”

c) Google translation: “And he likes it, because it was his mission to be sin for us, to free us.”

d) Bing translation: “And he likes to, because it was his mission to be sin for us, to get away from …”

e) Greta Villani translation:And he likes it because it was his mission: to become sin for us, to free us . . .”

I asked my friend, Greta: “How lousy was it, then, to translate those sentences as ‘became / become the sinner for us’? Is that permissible or possible to do, or is it taking liberties?” She said: “It definitely changes the meaning of the phrase.”

With this bit of information, the argument collapsed, and even the person I was primarily disputing about it with, conceded as much. The pope in fact echoed closely if not identically the biblical language and it was yet another tempest in a teapot and bum rap; much ado about nothing, just like all the other instances I have investigated thus far: all in my book except for this alleged “difficulty.”

It has turned out to be entirely a “false alarm.” This should be good news all-around: a win-win: the pope wasn’t heterodox, nor was he sloppy in language. The infallible, inspired Vatican translator (heaven help us all!) was the one who was sloppy, leading to needless suspicions of heresy. If he was truly that stupid, he should be fired.

Pope Francis never even said what it was claimed that he said. I had to devote an entire work day to a non-issue that should have never been raised at all if a translator wasn’t asleep or drunk on his job. But I’m delighted that it has been resolved. That’s well worth the time spent. If someone runs across this “argument” online they can also find this article, if they look hard enough.

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