Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

A church called to love perfectly

February 15, 2023

Among the many points of convergence between the late Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is their emphasis on the power of grace, which is God’s love for his people. From different perspectives, both popes insist that this love is totally unconditional, mysterious, transformative and gratuitous. 

Pope Francis warns against the cold and hard gnostic logic that attempts to domesticate the mystery of God’s grace or even the mystery of our lives by pretending to have all the answers: “When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road … (for God) is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence” (“Gaudete et Exultate,” 41).

So a pastoral approach that preemptively excludes someone from the life of the church and her ministry is a serious matter and must be challenged. We cannot claim to say “where God is not … because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties.”

Francis goes on to write: “Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control” (“Gaudete et Exultate,” 41).

In writing this, Pope Francis builds on an important insight about the uniqueness of God’s love, which Pope Benedict identified in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.” Surely, the late pope observes, the love God has for his people can rightly be described as a passionate love, which the word “eros” expresses. Yet, that love, he reminds us “is also totally agape,” a love that moves beyond the selfish interests and “becomes concern and care for the other … becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”

Thus God’s love for his people is rightly called “agape,” not only “because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives.”

Benedict cites the prophet Hosea in making this point. “Israel has committed ‘adultery’ and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst’ (Hos 11:8-9).” Notice that God forgives before anything else and before what justice would demand.

Then, Benedict seems to double down on this and writes something quite astonishing to the point that he was criticized by some theologians at the time: “God’s passionate love for his people … a forgiving love … is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.”

Unfortunately, some in the church struggle to understand the insights of these magisterial teachings. There are voices that insist the church must exclude sinners from fuller participation in the life of the church until they have reformed, out of respect for God’s justice. Yet, Pope Benedict would remind them that God’s love is so great and mysterious that it turns God against himself and turns his love against his justice.

And Pope Francis would warn them against domesticating the mystery of the grace of God by pretending to limit it by their cold and harsh logic. For treating God’s grace, no matter the moment or circumstance it may come, as if it were a reward for what we have done, robs it of any sense of mystery.

This weekend, the Word of God calls the church to a conversion that is in keeping with the teachings of these two successors of Peter, a conversion to take up a pastoral approach that includes rather than excludes, a conversion to be holy as God is holy, to love perfectly, as God loves perfectly, by turning against ourselves and toward forgiving love.