No The Pope is Not a Heretic

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.

What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.

The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.

The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.

Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?

As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?

The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.

Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.

Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.

The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.

We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 7: 7

When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,

“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”

John 7: 10, 11

I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.

Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”

Luke 6: 36,37

Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?

Is The Pope a Heretic?

There are all sorts of accusations circulating in the Catholic Church. Some have claimed that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy. Can this be true?

Check out my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish or, if that’s not possible, you can get the full text here next week (17th May 2019).

Mercy Works – Full text

Pope Francis

Pope Francis


Last month I wrote about my pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. I recounted the experiences of passing through the Holy Door in various basilicas. So where do I go now? I’ve gone into those great churches, prayed and gone to confession, is that it? Can I now say, “I’ve done the Holy Year of Mercy!” and move on? Somehow I don’t think so.

I’ve turned back to Pope Francis himself for advice on the direction to take. On the cover of his book, “The name of God is Mercy” there is a quote.

“The Church is not in the world to condemn, but to make possible an encounter with the visceral love that is God’s mercy. For this to occur we must go out. Go out from the churches and the parishes, go out to find people where they suffer, where they hope.”

It might seem a bit strange at first that the Pope tells us to get out of the churches after years of trying to get people into church. Look again at what he said; Go out FROM the churches. We are not being encouraged to leave the churches but to take the gospel from the church out to the world.

That raises the question, how are we to take the Gospel into the world? Should we be shouting through a megaphone or handing out leaflets on the streets? Pope Francis in his book examines the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy and asks us to examine how we can use these.

Let’s take a look at these and see if they give us a way of promoting Gospel values in today’s world. First we have to feed the hungry. We all know that millions of people are going without enough food and that even in this modern age people are dying of starvation. We have long known of those who are starving as a result of famine in Africa and beyond. The rise of foodbanks in our own country shows that there are many families who are going hungry in the midst of plenty here today.

The second work is to give drink to the thirsty. We all know that water is essential for life. Here in Scotland we take drinkable water for granted. A few years ago I visited some small islands in the seas around the Philippines. On one island I was talking to the mothers of the schoolchildren who were in our feeding program. They told me that only one of the fifteen villages on the island had a water supply. They had to take their big plastic cans on their canoe and paddle round the island to fill the can. Then they had to paddle back again. When I told them that houses in Scotland have a tap to give drinking water at any time of the day they were astonished. There are lots of people out there who need our help to get clean water.

We also have to clothe the naked. There are not so many naked people wandering around Scotland (you would never last a winter) but there are many who need fresh clothes. They may be homeless or they might be finding it hard to manage. There are charities around who can help people out with clothes donated by people like you. You wouldn’t believe how many children in Africa sport football tops from a whole range of British teams. When these clothes come via Mary’s Meals the message is not lost on the recipients.

The fourth corporal work of mercy is to shelter the traveller. How would that work in practice? In a small community the traveller would be obvious, standing out from the familiar faces. In a big city it is not so easy to recognise the traveller as everyone seems to be on the move. How does this work fit into our modern lives? One of the big issues today is that of the refugees flooding into Europe from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The numbers of refugees, their dramatic means of getting into Europe and the underlying threat of terrorist action has put most of Europe in a state of unease to say the least.

Nevertheless we are impelled to help those in danger, even if they may have put themselves into that danger. Migrants in leaky boats are being plucked from the sea. Hungry, cold refugees are given shelter and food in Italy and Greece. What is our response to this? Are we petitioning our government to do more to help or are we demanding that they stop the flow of refugees? This is not a simple question but nobody told you that living a Christian life was going to be easy. We may not agree with accepting refugees but we have a Christian duty to help those in peril.

The fifth Corporal Work of Mercy is to comfort the sick. I’m sure most of us have gone to see someone who is ill at home or is experiencing a stay in hospital. Apart from bringing a bunch of grapes and a couple of magazines we bring something of the outside world into their sick quarters. We become a link with what’s going on outside and help them to feel they are still part of it.

Some Eucharistic Ministers regularly visit the sick and bring them communion, linking them in that mystical and poorly understood way with the rest of the Church through Christ. Theirs is a special ministry we are not all involved in. We can all be involved in helping the sick in the mission countries by our charitable donations to the missions.

The sixth work of mercy is to visit the imprisoned. This is not something that most of us would relish the opportunity to take on. Who wants to make their way to some remote spot to visit a criminal? Why would anyone want to comfort someone convicted of some heinous crime? I have only ever visited two prisons. I visited Shotts prison when researching an article for this paper. I was visiting the chaplains and had the opportunity to talk to some of the prisoners there. These were all young men who found themselves serving long sentences for crimes they had probably not given much thought to before committing them. They all seemed to be pleasant young men who had made a series of big mistakes.

The other prison I visited was in Nigeria in the company of the local priest who went there to celebrate mass. If I tell you that the first prisoner I saw was a naked man staked out on a concrete slab in the boiling sun you will understand that this was no “cushy number”. The young men I joined for mass were likeable fellows who were grateful for my company. There was not a hardened criminal among them. There was one older man who was well dressed. He had shot his nephew in cold blood and showed no remorse. He is the only real criminal I have ever met.

If prisons are to be successful in correcting the behaviour of the inmates perhaps more of us need to be visiting the poor souls locked in there.

The last work of mercy is to bury the dead. I have been to more funerals than I would like. I think there is something special about a funeral mass with a congregation praying for the repose of the soul of the deceased. Perhaps it’s the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that makes me feel that this is a service that offers great hope rather than a final laying to rest. Don’t be put off attending funerals; you are joining in spirit with someone who is in the presence of Christ.

I hope I have given you plenty to think about. I’ve certainly begun to take a closer look at myself in the process.

My April Column – Mercy in Marriage? – Full Text

My latest column in the Scottish Catholic Observer was published last week. The full text is below. It’s on the theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and looks at the Holy Father, Pope Francis’ thoughtd on marriage.


My wife recently insisted I install the Pope App on my tablet. She has been using it for a while now. I was a bit sceptical at first but soon realised this was a direct line to the Holy Father’s thoughts. I thought I’d find out a bit more about his thinking on mercy. This morning I opened the app and there was a record of his comments in the general audience this week.

Pope Francis was talking about sinners. “Ah, what will he say about them?”, I thought. His message was that we are all sinners. There is no ‘them’. It is all about ‘us’. He spoke about Jesus’ attitude to sinners. In short Jesus is all about sinners, all about ‘us’. That made me have a closer look at how Jesus treated sinners he met. The incident that came to mind was the story about the woman taken in adultery.

The religious leaders came to Jesus who was teaching in the temple. The brought along a woman they said had been caught in the act of committing adultery. They quoted the Law of Moses which said she should be stoned to death and asked Jesus his opinion. This was not the first time they had tried to trap Jesus. They obviously didn’t understand who they were up against.

Jesus started writing on the ground with his finger. They persisted with their question and Jesus replied that the man who has not sinned should throw the first stone and continued to write. They began to walk away, starting with the eldest, till they were all gone.

Now I can see the wisdom of his answer, but I am puzzled about what he was writing on the ground and why. I did some research on this. One commentator drew a distinction between writing in a book and writing in the dust. He suggested that if your name was written in the book it meant salvation but writing the name in the dust meant quite the opposite. Could it be that Jesus was writing the names of the accusers in the dust to warn them about their own fate?

I’m not sure that theory is right. Given that they saw Jesus as an imposter and a fraud, his writing their names wouldn’t have much effect. I think that his writing had such an effect because Jesus wrote things that nobody else knew. I think that Jesus exposed all of them as sinners and that came as a shock. They were the authorities, the people who thought of themselves as holy, not sinners. Jesus was showing them that they were not better than the woman, just sinners.

We can be very illogical when we make judgements. The Jews brought the woman caught in adultery but did not bring the man. Adultery is something that takes two people to commit. They saw the woman as the sinner but not the man. How often do we see sin in others but not in ourselves? Some sins are more visible than others. The big issue in the Church at the moment is that of divorced and remarried Catholics. Divorce and remarriage is very public. Catholics in that situation are often made to feel excluded from the Church while the rest of us can continue to sin and still be accepted.


Now this is a very strange coincidence. Just as I’ve written this a message has popped up on my screen telling me that His Holiness has just published his thoughts on marriage. His document, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love) was dated 19th March, Saint Joseph’s day, but has only just been published because of the time taken to translate it into different languages. Isn’t it strange that it was dated on the feast of the saint faced with a marriage difficulty but carried on, in love to take Mary as his wife? I need to stop and have a read at what Pope Francis has to say.

There were many voices predicting that Pope Francis would announce a change in Catholic teaching on marriage, recognising divorce and remarriage. They have been proven wrong. His Holiness has not proposed any change in the laws of the Church. What he has proposed is a change in us. It’s not the Church’s teaching that’s the problem, it’s how we see those teachings. Pope Francis points out that none of us knows what problems others face in their private lives. The Church holds up the ideal for us to aspire to. How many of us really understand what the sacrament of matrimony is really about?

Many people think the sacrament is the wedding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sacrament is the married life the couple live. That should help us to understand why the Church takes marriage so seriously; it’s not just an agreement between two people it is a sacrament and that involves God. If the couple do not understand that when they get married then they are not properly prepared. Rather than just quoting ‘Till death do us part’ and expecting people to get on with it we should be more understanding and supportive of those in difficult situations.

I think it is important to remember that the laws of the Church are intended to help us and never to put us in harm. We are presented with an ideal to work towards. We ourselves are not ideal creatures. We have a nature that is not easy to understand. I saw a quote from C.S. Lewis the other day that stopped me in my tracks. It is this;

You do not have a soul.

You are a soul. You have a body.

The first sentence stopped me. I have always been taught that I had an immortal soul. The next part clarifies it. We are essentially spirit. That’s the real us. We have a body to enable us to live on this earth and that body has its needs and desires that can be different from our spirit self. The body’s needs can take control. You can’t kill yourself by holding your breath. Your body will switch you off, you faint and the body starts you breathing again.

These conflicts in our natures can cause people to do things they would never plan to do. How many mild women have murdered their abusing husband when driven over the edge? That’s an extreme example. The Holy Father is encouraging us to stop judging people. We have to remember that the Church’s role is to bring people to Christ, not exclude them.

I have not read the whole of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ it is 264 pages long, but I did read the summary. Both of these documents are available online. I have made a link to them in my webpage and I would encourage you to have a read at the summary if not the full document. The link to my page is at the end of this article. Have a read; you will be uplifted and encouraged. There is hope for us all in Francis’ words.

Joseph McGrath

My August Column – A Guide on Our Journey of Faith

A Guide on Our Journey of Faith

In this series of articles we are walking on our journey of Faith. We are taking the opportunity of the Year of Faith to examine the roots of our faith and look at how we can develop and grow it. The Journey of Faith is not a simple straight road. There are many bends and forks in the road. Sometimes we can go off the path and find ourselves lost. It is then that we see the value of having a good guide.

At this point on our journey I thought it might be a good idea to find a guide. Fortunately, our guide arrived in the person of the Holy Father. Pope Francis travelled to Brazil for World Youth Day to bring his message and guidance to the young people of the world. His words are freely available to guide us on our journey.

Now, there may be some readers out there who are thinking that I am no longer a youth. They may say that the Holy Father’s words are not for me. I disagree on two grounds. First I have to point out that we are called to eternal life and that even those who have reached the age of one hundred are mere infants in the scope of eternity. We are all children. Secondly, having looked at what Pope Francis said, I can see that he actually addressed the whole Church with a focus on the youth.

So, what was his message? It was simple, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” We have heard that before. Jesus said that to the apostles, but the message was not just for the twelve, it was to all of us. We have been given the gift of faith and to make it grow within us we must give it away to others. Trying to keep it for ourselves, hidden away from the world will cause it to wither. We are urged to bring our faith out into the streets.

Now the image of standing on street corners with a megaphone, broadcasting to the shoppers and passers-by fills me with horror. I can’t imagine anything worse. Telling everyone how to live and what to believe, correcting the errors in their lives on Main Street, telling the world that they are wrong, just seems ineffective.

The Pope is encouraging us to become missionaries in our lives in a proactive way, showing how to live rather than telling others. His words in Rio were;

“Go and make disciples of all nations”. With these words, Jesus is speaking to each one of us, saying: “It was wonderful to take part in World Youth Day, to live the faith together with young people from the four corners of the earth, but now you must go, now you must pass on this experience to others.” Jesus is calling you to be a disciple with a mission! Today, in the light of the word of God that we have heard, what is the Lord saying to us? What is the Lord saying to us? Three simple ideas: Go, do not be afraid, and serve.

Now I was not in Rio and did not have that experience to pass on but the message is not to be avoided. If my faith is to grow then I must share it. The Holy Father said;

Faith is a flame that grows stronger the more it is shared and passed on, so that everyone may know, love and confess Jesus Christ, the Lord of life and history (cf. Rom 10:9).

Careful, though! Jesus did not say: “go, if you would like to, if you have the time”, but he said: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Sharing the experience of faith, bearing witness to the faith, proclaiming the Gospel: this is a command that the Lord entrusts to the whole Church, and that includes you;

How are we to bear witness to the faith? In his talks to the pilgrims and others Pope Francis continually uses the word “Solidarity”. He urges us to look outwards to the poor, the sick and the excluded. In his visit to St. Francis Of Assisi Of The Providence Of God Hospital he said;

As Jesus says to us: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

The Holy Father is calling us back to the very basics of the Church, to the examples Christ gave us. We are called to rebuild the Church. As individuals we can become set in our ways and the same is true of the Church. We can become bogged down in the minutia of daily life and miss the big picture. Then it is easy to wander off the path. He talked of the Church as a building made of stones, living stones and the part we play.

each one of us is a living stone, a small part of the edifice; when the rain comes, if this piece is missing, there are leaks and water comes in. Don’t build a little chapel which holds only a small group of persons. Jesus asks us to make his living Church so large that it can hold all of humanity, that it can be a home for everyone!

This is no invitation to join a small faith-sharing group. This is a challenge to grasp the faith and follow where it leads. We are challenged to take on the injustice in the world and expose it for what it is. We are expected to identify what is wrong in our world, and in our Church and make changes. This is not a ‘happy clappy’ church we are being invited to. We are called to work for the coming of the Kingdom.

When I really was a youth the priest brought the sacraments to us and we received them. We were passive. The reality of the Church is that we are called to be active. Some of us may find that exciting. Other might be frightened off. How can we do this on our own? Well, as the Holy Father reminded the pilgrims in Rio, we are not on our own.

“Do not be afraid!” When we go to proclaim Christ, it is he himself who goes before us and guides us. When he sent his disciples on mission, he promised: “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20). And this is also true for us! Jesus never leaves anyone alone! He always accompanies us .

I stop and think about this challenge. It seems immense. I don’t even know where to begin. Pope Francis was there before me. To the pilgrims at his Mass on the beach at Copacabana he said;

Some people once asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta what needed to change in the Church, and which wall should they start with? They asked her, where is the starting point? And she replied, you and I are the starting point!

There was so much more in the Holy Fathers talks in Rio. I have tried to convey something of what he said that will guide us in our journey but it is worth reading all of what he said. The whole text is available on the internet, on the Vatican website. You will find a link to it here.

So, you and I are the starting point. Let’s get out there and grow the faith.

Joseph McGrath

My Latest Column Out Today

My latest column on this year’s theme of Journey of Faith is published today (Friday 23rd August 2013) in the Scottish Catholic Observer. In this issue I look at some of the things Pope Francis I said about Faith on his recent visit to World Youth Day in Rio.

Have a look and tell me what you think. If you miss this issue the full text will appear here next week.