The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860), by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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My friend and fellow apologist Scott Eric Alt, a staunch defender of Pope Francis all through the unrelenting patent nonsense that we have heard about him from nattering nabobs of negativism literally from Day One, has done a fabulous job again, in his post at Catholic Stand, Does the Pope Really Think Jesus Sinned? I was a consultant for this piece and we talked about it quite a bit over the last several days. I also drew some insights from discussions with other apologists. I was the one who found (yesterday) the three homilies from Pope Francis (that Scott referenced), where he clearly stated that Jesus never sinned (more on that below).
Now, let it be known that I, too, was a bit taken aback when I first read the pope’s words, and wondered how they could have an orthodox interpretation. One of my Facebook friends asked me about it and I openly stated that it seemed to be a troublesome passage and thought. I don’t just defend the pope in a knee-jerk fashion (the dumb stereotype / caricature of papal defenders [“ultramontanists!” / “papolatry!”] and indeed, of Catholic apologists generally). In fact, I ponder and think about what he says just as everyone else does.
The difference between myself, Scott, and other defenders of the pope, and his blathering, big-mouthed, charity-challenged critics, is not that we accept all his words blindingly and without any questions whatever, but rather, that we give him the benefit of the doubt before launching off into voluminous self-important tirades and blistering “o woe is us!” jeremiads.
In my book, Pope Francis Explained, I wrote candidly about another of the pope’s statements, in which it seemed that he implied that the Blessed Virgin Mary sinned. This was what had initially troubled me the most before this present matter. I cited my own words on Facebook the day before I studied the issue and felt that I had sufficiently resolved it:
That’s one way to approach the pope’s words. But be that as it may (whether deemed to be a good argument or bad one), it is a fact that the pope has made it crystal clear elsewhere that Jesus never sinned. In biblical exegesis and hermeneutics there is a very well-known principle, agreed-upon by Catholics and Protestants alike: “interpret less clear biblical passages in the light of clearer passages on the same subject.” That may be usefully applied to popes and their overall “collection” of words and thoughts as well.
This gives us only so many logical choices of interpretation, it seems to me:
1. Pope Francis (being the antichrist, etc.) lied and deceived his hearers on these three occasions about Jesus being sinless; he really thinks that He is a sinner.
2. Pope Francis believed these things at those times, but had a sudden conversion to extreme skeptical / modernist heterodoxy in the 9-10 weeks since 18 October and the disputed homily, so that he now thinks Jesus is a sinner.
3. Pope Francis believes — and has always believed — that Jesus is without sin; therefore, there is some “non-sin” explanation for the 27 December homily, whether we ourselves can figure it out or not.
I think #3 is far and away the most plausible and likely scenario. Within the purview of #3 there are various options. The pope simply could have misspoken, gotten carried away, spoken too soon without properly thinking it through (off the cuff), and therefore made a serious mistake. Popes are capable of that, just as anyone else is. Most agree that Pope Francis is not always precise in his terminology (and some would say — not without some justification — downright “sloppy” at times). But (here’s the thing) if he messed up and spoke wrongly, it doesn’t prove that he thinks Jesus was a sinner, precisely because he spoke wrongly and made a mistake. I agree with Scott that if this is the case, a clarification from the Holy Father himself would be extremely helpful.
Another option is a purely linguistic one, that was referred to above: the various possible meanings of chiedere scusa. We could hurt someone’s feelings, not meaning to at all, and say, “I’m sorry; please forgive me” without this necessarily meaning that we did anything wrong: let alone intentionally. In particular, every married person in the history of the world, I think (or anyone with a very close friend or family member), fully understands (and better understand!) this “non-sin” sense of apology. That could quite possibly be the pope’s meaning.
One Italian commenter in the combox for Scott Eric Alt’s post thinks this is indeed the case. Mariella Tonna wrote:
For what it’s worth, Italian is my mother tongue and the translation from Italian to English is somewhat misleading and erroneous. The sentence is written in the conditional, so what Pope Francis said is “might have had” then also ‘scusa’ is not used when asking for forgiveness. It’s what you say when you accidentally bump into someone or step on their toes or any minor action that might have been misinterpreted.
Or, thirdly, it could be some sort of seemingly “shocking” / striking (non-literal) rhetoric to make a point. I’d like to explore this last option in light of some things Jesus said and did that are along similar lines (analogies), that certainly did shock “pious sensibilities” at the time.
Luke 18:19 (RSV) And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. (cf. exact same passage Mk 10:18)
This is a clear case of a non-literal, rhetorical saying of Jesus. He was speaking in terms of what His hearers knew and understood (not knowing that He, too, was God). If we took it literally, Jesus would be not only denying that He was “good” but also (by implication) that He was God. But in a roundabout clever way, of course He was challenging them to see that He was indeed God (logically: “Only God is [totally] good. You are saying that about Me. Therefore, I must be God”).
Hence the Catholic Navarre Bible Commentary states about this passage:
As Matthew 19:16 makes clear, the young man approaches Jesus as an acknowledged teacher of the spiritual life, in the hope that he will guide him towards eternal life. It is not that Christ rejects the praise he is offered: he wants to show the depth of the young man’s words: he is good, not because he is a good man but because he is God, who is goodness itself. So, the young man has spoken the truth, but he has not gone far enough. Hence the enigmatic nature of Jesus’ reply and its profundity. The young man’s approach is upright but too human; Jesus tries to get him to see things from an entirely supernatural point of view. If this man is to really attain eternal life he must see in Christ not just a good master but the divine Saviour, the only Master, the only one who, because he is God, is goodness itself. Cf. note on Mt 19:16–22.
But imagine if today’s inveterate pope-bashers had heard this from Jesus. It would have been the end of their discipleship and Chicken Little. The end would be at hand. They would have treated Him just as the Pharisees habitually did (who thought He was a liar and demon-possessed). I can hear it now:
See, Jesus is a liberal! He’s a post-Old Covenant, Neo-Jewish, modernist heretic, who no doubt hates the old worship and liturgical customs as well! He probably posts at Patheos and at EWTN. Here he is denying not only that he is good, but also that he’s God! We knew he was a fake and pretender all along. His predecessor John the Baptist shouldn’t have resigned. How we long for the good ol’ days of Isaiah and Elijah, when a spade was called a spade. It’s all a big satanic conspiracy. He has condemned himself from his own lips!
That’s what we get with a hyper-literal, wooden (“fundamentalist”) interpretation. If Jesus is not all-good, then He is a sinner. But this is not all along these lines that we can find in Holy Scripture. Jesus also was baptized. Remember that? Why do we get baptized, according to the Christian faith? It is for the purpose of regeneration and washing away our sins. It presupposes existing sin. So why did Jesus get baptized? Does this not prove that He must have been a sinner?
Matthew 3:6 informs us that those who were being baptized by John the Baptist were “confessing their sins.” John mentions “repentance” as the reason for baptism (Matthew 3:8, 11). Then all of a sudden Jesus shows up and wants John to baptize Him. Huh? We can imagine John making a befuddled, astonished expression and scratching his head. But Jesus said, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What does that mean, pray tell? Scott Hahn commented in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible about this passage:
Jesus is sinless and has no need for John’s baptism (Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22). He nevertheless submits to the rite to identify with sinners and align himself with God’s plan. Jesus performs Old Covenant regulations to fulfill and perfect them in the New (5:17; cf. Lk 2:21-28; CCC 536).
These “regulations” of the Law bring to mind other actions that normally presuppose sinfulness, such as ritual washings or purification at the temple and other Jewish ceremonies and celebrations. Our Lord Jesus did these, and so did the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was sinless as well. Jesus observed the proper Jewish mealtime procedures (Mk 6:56; Mt 14:36) and the Sabbath, and priestly regulations (Mt 8:4; Mk 1:44; Lk 5:4). St. Paul and other early apostles still worshiped at the temple and at synagogues, and followed the Jewish laws and rituals, by and large. These included ritual washings and purification, which in turn symbolized being cleansed from sin. We observe Paul and others doing this at the temple:
Acts 21:26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple, to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them. (cf. 24:18)
We know that Paul sinned. But to the extent that Jesus and Mary also did these ritual purifications (as all observant Jews did), it was a symbolic act or as an example only, and not literally to wash away sins that they did not commit.
That being the case, we can very well posit that the example under consideration, with Jesus and Mary at the temple, might have been an example of the same sort of thing. Jesus “apologized” as an example, out of love for His mother, yet without sin on His part. That may have been what the pope meant.
But since the Holy Father has stated very plainly at three times that Jesus was without sin, why would anyone dogmatically, prophetically insist (loudly) that he supposedly teaches the contrary now? Did they not have time (a whopping thirty minutes for me on Google) to search for these other more traditional utterances? If not, what would they say now, in light of them? That gets back to the three logical options that I suggested above.
Well, maybe they talk and squawk as they do because of what James sagely observed, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
 So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.
 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,
 but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.
 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?
 Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.
 And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
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