The Gospel for Sunday 24 September, containing the parable of the workers in the vineyard, was well-timed because of the approaching synod in Rome. The parable recounts the indignation of those who had worked all day in the vineyard: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” That sense of indignation is, it seems to me, at the heart of the complaints against the synod and against Pope Francis more generally. Even more than the parable of the prodigal, in which the prodigal at least confesses his sins, here there is no such complicating confession. The vineyard owner is simply, unapologetically, exquisitely unjust. And it is Pope Francis’ unique gift that he mimics the injustice of the vineyard owner. It drives his critics batty.
The dynamic began early in the pontificate, when the pope was asked a hypothetical question about a monsignor who was gay, and the pope replied, “Who am I to judge?” He did not say, “The church’s teaching about human sexuality is bogus.” Nothing in this pontificate indicates that Pope Francis intends to overturn the church’s moral teachings, on his own or via the synod. He has, instead, asked us to place our moral teachings in context, to recognize that the proclamation of God’s grace and mercy is at the heart of the Gospel, that the church’s moral teachings are important, but not the key thing, not the distinctive thing about our faith.
Humility is what is missing from the critics of the Holy Father. They all sound like they possess the truth the way they might possess title to a house or a cigarette lighter. It is theirs. They own the truth. Francis sounds like the truth conveyed in the parable of the workers in the vineyard possesses him. It is why so many of us love him. It is why so many detest him.
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With thanks to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Michael Sean Winters.