William Kilpatrick is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His books include Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press), What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Press), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad.
In a recent article I made the case that the main thrust of the Francis papacy is to deemphasize sin. Whatever he might say about a moral issue such as abortion, same-sex marriage, or adultery, Francis has consistently given his support and praise to those on the permissive side of the issue.
By contrast, his harshest criticisms have always been reserved for traditional Catholics who worry about moral decay in the Church and society. Francis frequently attacks these “rigid fundamentalists” as the modern-day counterparts of the pharisees.
Judging by Francis’s actions, one might think that the Church was just emerging from a long dark night of narrow-minded puritanism—a real life Handmaid’s Tale. But the opposite is true.
Starting in the early sixties, Church leaders increasingly took their moral cues from secular sources—particularly from psychologists. Middle-school religious studies texts were peppered with the theories of humanistic psychologists. In California, an entire order of 600 nuns left the Church in search of self-fulfillment. With the coming of the self-esteem movement, feelings of guilt were replaced with feelings of OK-ness. Almost overnight the long lines outside the confessional booths disappeared. Newly enlightened Catholics couldn’t think of any sins to confess. The new gospel was all about self-acceptance and self-love.
Many couldn’t think of any reason to attend Mass, either. The Son of Man came to save sinners; but since the label “sinner” no longer applied to those who had learned to esteem themselves, thousands upon thousands simply stopped going to church.
This doesn’t mean that they lost their faith entirely. Many simply re-adjusted their faith to bring it into conformity with the changing times. One Catholic writer recounts that until her mid-twenties, “I saw God as a permissive parent who was too ‘loving’ to enforce His own boundaries.”
This slide into permissiveness was slowed during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; however, the Church, at least in the West, continued to lose members. The Church’s teaching authority was further undermined by the revelation of widespread sex-abuse by priests. Many Catholics were shocked and scandalized by the revelations; and many others undoubtedly used the scandals as an opportunity to minimize their own sins which must have seemed minor in comparison to those of the predatory priests.
In short, consciousness of sin was already at a low ebb at the point when Francis became pope. Confessional lines were still almost non-existent, and the communion lines were always full—suggesting that most Catholics were quite comfortable with the state of their souls. Moreover, outspoken advocates of abortion such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden could still pass for “good Catholics.”
So, at the very moment when the Church was reeling from the effects of moral laxity, along comes Francis with the message that sin is no big deal. Although this message has been conveyed more by deed than by word, the message has been hard to miss. A list of Francis’s appointments to high office makes Biden’s peculiar appointees look like saints by comparison.
All of this seems quite deliberate on the part of Francis. But what possible motive could he have for lowering the consciousness of sin among Catholics when it was already dangerously low?
One possibility is that Francis is essentially a humanist who has little regard for Catholicism. According to this thesis, he wants to remake the Church along humanist lines—a transformation that would require a lessening of the sense of sin. I’ve discussed this thesis in several past articles. See here and here.
But there is another thesis which deserves consideration—one which allows for the possibility that Francis remains a sincere Christian believer who desires the salvation of all souls. According to this thesis, however, Francis believes that the salvation of all can best be accomplished not through repentance of sin, but through ignorance of sin.
In April, 2021, Catholic author and editor, John Zmirak wrote a three-part series entitled “Pope Francis tries to Rehabilitate Judas.” The series focused on Francis’s preoccupation with redeeming “the good name of the apostle who betrayed Jesus…”
Zmirak notes that:
A recent edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, marked Holy Week 2021 by running a cover article questioning whether Judas was damned. It suggested instead that Judas was sincerely repentant, and in fact played a positive role in the drama of salvation.
Moreover, the article featured a painting that shows a naked Jesus bending over the body of Judas and ministering to it. Francis reportedly loved the painting and hung a reproduction of it on the wall behind his desk.
Zmirak mentions other instances in which Francis had expressed great sympathy for Judas, but he suggests that the key to understanding Francis’s defense of Judas is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges—the most celebrated writer in Pope Francis’s native Argentina.
The story, “Three Versions of Judas,” concerns a Swedish theologian named Nils Runeberg who convinces himself that Judas, not Jesus, was mankind’s real savior. Zmirak puts it this way:
He (Judas) suffered anguish, faced rejection, took on himself the worst sin imaginable—betrayal of God Himself… what’s more, Jesus had only sacrificed his life, then risen from the grave triumphantly to reign in Heaven. Judas, by contrast, had willingly sacrificed his very soul –knowingly consigned himself to Hell for all eternity, the better to save mankind.
Zmirak remarks that “Runeberg concluded that [the real savior] was… Judas, who suffered not just for three hours but for all eternity for his sins, and for our own.” But there’s a catch. Zmirak is confident that the story is meant as a satire on a certain kind of Christian; but he thinks that Francis (who named Borges as one of his favorite authors) probably read the story in school and may have missed Borges satirical intent.
In any event, the Borges story inspired Zmirak to write a story of his own—”a graphic novel imagining a Vatican leader who decided that he, rather than Judas, could do a better job saving souls than Jesus had.”
How could he accomplish this? Zmirak answers: “By using Church authority to muddle the moral law, so that all would sin out of ignorance instead of malice. Thus, he could ‘force’ God to save them. He embraced his role as Antichrist confident that his own sufferings in Hell would move the Father to enshrine him, instead of Jesus…as Savior of man.”
Surprisingly, Zmirak’s The Grand Inquisitor was written in 1994—19 years before Francis was elected pope. Yet its thesis helps to explain a great deal about Francis. Francis has indeed “muddled the moral law.” And he’s muddled it to the point where serious sins are no longer perceived as serious. If one is so inclined, one can even find some Scriptural warrant for this muddling. One of the most comforting passages in Scripture is uttered by Christ as he is being crucified: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34).
Francis may have reasoned that you can’t be held responsible for a sin if you don’t know it’s a sin. And this could explain why Francis so consistently downplays the seriousness of sin. It sometimes seems as though he looks upon his flock as innocent children who must be kept innocent through ignorance. All of us can then use the excuse we frequently hear from children— “I didn’t know it was wrong.”
But what about Francis himself? If this scenario is correct, then he, like Judas, has betrayed Christ and the Church and thereby merits condemnation. Perhaps this explains why Francis is so obsessed with rehabilitating Judas. Perhaps he identifies with the Judas in Borges story, and sees himself as one who risks his own salvation in order to save mankind.
This, of course, is highly speculative. Only God knows what Francis intends.
Still, the thesis is intriguing; and it’s made more intriguing by the fact that Zmirak proposed it nineteen years before Francis was elected Pope.
What is also intriguing is a recent purported message from the Virgin Mary to a Brazilian mystic named Pedro Regis. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to such private revelations because they are so difficult to authenticate. But this one piqued my interest. On June 29th Regis claims to have received a message from Our Lady of Anguera which includes the following: “Dear children, the road to holiness is full of obstacles, but ye are not alone. Courage! My Jesus walks with you. Peter is not Peter; Peter will not be Peter.”
That, of course, may simply reflect Regis’s personal opinion of “Peter” (Pope Francis). On the other hand, on August 29, 2008—five years before the election of Francis—Regis reported the following message:
“Dear sons and daughters, bend your knees in prayer for the Church of my Jesus. The one who could have been Peter will become Judas. He will open the door for the enemy and will make men and women of faith suffer.”
Again, Catholics are free to doubts the authenticity of such private revelations. 0n the other hand, they are also free to speculate how and why so many Catholics have acquired such a relaxed attitude toward sin in recent years that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi can pass for “good Catholics.”