It seems that at the heart of our Catholic Church’s maladies these days is a chasm that exists between the people of God and ecclesiastics (church types). The chasm widens as young people leave the church in droves, bishops lose moral credibility, and ecclesiastics permit, even promote, pharisaicalism. Pharisaical attitudes, according to Jesus, were the biggest problem in the institutional church of His time. I think it is the same for our time. We experience or hear about it regularly: a priest who refuses communion to someone he judges to be living in sin, a zealous sacristan who complains to a bishop when a priest prays words not found in the roman missal, a bishop who protects institutional interests over that of his people…
As we consider Jesus and the Pharisees, it is obvious what He found to be wrong—obvious to everyone except Pharisees. They spent their time, energy, and efforts enforcing matters in the name of God that were important to them but not to God. They were well educated and well-versed; they memorized The Torah and proudly quoted it to win arguments. They were totally convinced that their laws, religious observances, and orthodox attitudes were infallible; their mission was to protect the institution. Their biggest criticism of Jesus was that He violated their rituals and laws, that His words and unorthodox actions contradicted their strict interpretation of rubrics and regulations.
Among their complaints were that Jesus didn’t wash correctly according to religious ablution rites, that He said incorrect words when healing or healed on the wrong day of the week, and that He associated with common sinners. Pharisees would never associate with sinners—they only condemned them. As Jesus pointed out, they love places of honor, titles, fancy ritual clothing, and big feasts. They load up common people with unnecessary laws and heavy burdens but don’t lift a finger to help them. They are spiritually blind, self-indulgent, and self-referential. It seems that Jesus’ primary concern was that they defended and promoted a dead religion instead of a living God—at least deadly aspects of a religion.
From the Sanhedrin then to the Magisterium now, from apologetics in the first century to the twenty-first, from Pharisees in Jesus’ time to liturgical police in our time, I pray that we will, at last, understand Christ’s message that revealed how foolish they are. His message is that ecclesiastics ought not separate themselves from God’s people. God’s people are the general population of sinners who are seeking to become saints. Ecclesiastics are self-proclaimed saints who degrade those they view to be sinners. Ecclesiastics assemble at Vatican dicasteries, diocesan chanceries, or church sacristies—places where canonical and ritual laws rule supreme. Many churchmen and women, instead of meeting people where they are as Jesus did, cower behind canon law, catechism directives, fundamentalist interpretations of The Bible and legalistic explications of the Roman Missal.
Pope Francis, in imitation of Christ, wants us to keep these things in their proper place. As his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, pointed out: “Rome represented everything that Bergoglia (Francis before he was elected supreme pontiff) believed to be wrong with the Church: luxury, ostentation, hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and self-referencing.” What he saw in ecclesiastics was essentially what Jesus saw in Pharisees. He is spending his pontificate helping us to gaze upon common sinners with the merciful eyes of Jesus and to challenge modern-day Pharisees to recognize their own foolishness.
When ecclesiastics finally see people of God from those kind of eyes, we can begin to repair the church of its maladies.