“We Will Be Judged by Love”—and Other Insights of Jorge Bergoglio

The Good Samaritan, by Jacopo Bassano (1562-3).

We are still trying to figure out the thought of Pope Francis. Examining several insights in his collection of writings and talks, entitled, Only Love Can Save Us, will help. Embedded in letters, homilies, and talks he wrote between 2005 and early 2013, I will state these insights and develop them. I’ll briefly consider three insights. One, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) and in his discourse about the final judgment (Mt 25:31-46), we are told that we will be judged by love. What does that mean? What is the “logic of love,” that is, as Balthasar puts it in Love Alone Is Credible, “the presuppositions or consequences implied in our encounter with our neighbor when illuminated by the light of judgment?” Two, the theological virtue of charity, agape, says Bergoglio, “saves us from having to relativize truth in order to be inclusive.” The question is, how can the Christian faith be inclusive, but not relativistic? Three, doctrinal development should be homogeneous and organic with divine revelation, rather than heterogeneous. How, then, does the Church develop and preserve the Christian faith over the course of time, according to Bergoglio?

First, what, then, are the presuppositions or consequences of loving our neighbor, of being, as Bergoglio puts it, “artisans of charity, of love, and of reconciliation?” We are enjoined by the teaching of the New Testament: “Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). Yes, adds St. John, “all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever,” are called to “love in truth” (2 Jn 1:1-2). Love and truth go hand-in-hand; otherwise, love degenerates into “being sheer sentimentality or mere impulse.” Pope Francis here alludes to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2009 Encyclical Letter, Caritas in Veritate (no. 3), on the interdependency of truth and love. According to Benedict, “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity.” Otherwise, Benedict explained:

Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal, yet public, dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.

Pope Francis clearly agrees. In his own Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei (2013), he too writes on the inseparability of truth and love:

Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved, and, thus, to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth, can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit. If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable.

Returning now to Only Love Can Save Us, Francis then added, “Love is a sublime, irreplaceable, and fundamental task that we need to propose in this day and age to a dehumanized society.” More precisely, love is a supernatural virtue, one of the three theological virtues (faith and hope being the others), which animates and inspires, what Bergoglio calls above, the fundamental task of loving our neighbor. Let me say a few words about this theological virtue called charity, agape.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that charity is a theological virtue that is supernatural in origin, a gift of God’s grace, “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (§1822). Let’s call this the central commandment of love. “In all its simplicity,” says Bergoglio, this commandment—“steady, humble, unassuming, but firm in conviction and in commitment to others—can save us.” But it is also something by which we will be judged. How so?

Charity, then, rooted in faith in Christ, is the love that comes from him, proceeds from the Holy Spirit, and takes root in my interior life, my heart (Rom 5:5). Only that divine love that is charity, a love coming from God, who first loves us by pouring himself out for us in the cross of Christ, can open the heart to the love of all men, desiring for all men the same divine good, the same eternal life. Thus, given that my actions toward my neighbor are animated and inspired by love and are ordered to love, we can understand why “the love of Christ compels us (to love our neighbor), because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore, all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who, for their sake, died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15).

The theological virtue of charity is the fundamental principle of all Christian ethics because it is the form of the virtues, such as, “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness.” Divine charity—continues St. Paul—“binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14) …; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice” (CCC, §1827). We are now in a position to answer the question implied in Bergoglio’s claim that we will be judged by love. What does that mean?

Briefly, it means that, in any encounter with one’s fellow man, we shall be judged by God by the measure of absolute love that he has made known in Christ. As Bergoglio rightly sees, in light of the “immeasurable gift of the Redemption,” realizing “that everything has been given to us by the free initiative of God,” then this gift “cannot fail to lead us to thanksgiving, and then to passing on its fruits in love” (as Bergoglio says in the collection, Encountering Christ). That gift is God’s absolute love, and it is the measure by which we shall be judged. In other words, as Balthasar puts it in Love Alone Is Credible, “if we live in loving faith, our ethical standard is, in the end, taken from our hands and placed in the (absolute) love of God.” Since Christian action towards my neighbor is, Balthasar adds, “above all, a secondary reaction to the primary action of God (in Christ) toward man,” our standard of judgment is absolute love, rather than the mere fact that we have our humanity in common, that we live in community, and, hence, are mutually responsible for each other, and so forth.

No, the measure of God’s absolute love is his immeasurable forgiveness, and, therefore, “there are no limits to human kindness.” Explains Balthasar: “All the boundaries are erased: For, since God forgave me, when I was still his enemy (Rom 5:10), I must forgive my fellow creatures, when they are still my enemies; and since God’s gifts to me—extending to the point of losing himself (Mt 27:46)—were ‘uncalculated,’ I must now forgo reckoning the balance between giving and a tangible reward (Mt 6:1-4; 6:19-34).” Most important, therefore, is that “God’s measure must become my measure, according to which I shall be judged—this is not ‘mere justice,’ but (rather) the logic of absolute love; once again, it is the absolute nature of what has been done to us (in Christ), and what we must do in return (to my neighbor), that is ‘fearful.’” Fearful here surely alludes to St. Paul, who enjoins us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Fearful, in a word, because we are sinners. And yet, because we are partakers of God’s grace, adds St. Paul, “We are sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

The second insight of Bergoglio is found in his distinguishing the concept of inclusion from that of relativism; in short, he is not talking of inclusion without qualification. He says that relativism means “anything goes.” Relativism operates under the presupposition of respect for differences, respect for all, in short, so that diversity, and, hence, all differences should be celebrated. This raises the question of what limits there might be to celebrating differences. Should all differences be celebrated and all things be allowed, regardless of the content of the beliefs? Bergoglio is critical of relativism because it “wishes to avoid being burdened by all the inconveniences required of a mature courage to uphold values and principles.” In other words, relativism “is immature, complacent, and cowardly.” How so? Well, it is the sign of an immature mind that lacks the intellectual virtue characteristic of the one who is pursuant of the truth, to ask critical questions in order to judge truly. Most important, as Christians, we are called to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22).

There is another reason why Bergoglio rejects relativism. He says, “Relativism is, curiously, absolutist and totalitarian.” It may start out with the adage of respect for all, promoting the value of diversity, but it soon ends up “not allowing for any differing opinion.” Thus, adds Bergoglio, “In no way does it differ from an attitude of ‘shut up’ or ‘don’t get involved.’” Anyone who has followed the advance of homosexualism in the culture, on the legal and cultural grounds that difference—sexual diversity, in this case—should be celebrated, cannot have failed to notice that it does not allow for any differing view of homosexual practice and same sex marriage. People have lost their jobs, their businesses, and the freedom to exercise religious liberty by putting into practice their convictions when holding to a judgment that homosexual practice and, hence, same sex marriage is morally wrong. Thus, says Bergoglio, “relativism, under the guise of respect for differences, is homogenized into transgression and demagoguery.”

In particular, I would add, relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid, and that all truth is relative to individuals, and has nothing to do with objective reality. The concept of inclusion is sometimes used to suggest that truth, of its very nature, is inclusive of all viewpoints. Suppose, then, that we hold that all beliefs are not inclusive. What does it mean to hold exclusive beliefs? Says English philosopher Roger Trigg, “Exclusive beliefs are normally seen as those which assert truth in such a way that those who do not share them must be regarded as mistaken.” Now, Bergoglio doesn’t engage in a philosophical defense of exclusive or absolute beliefs. He clearly holds to the notion of exclusive beliefs—“In the Saving Power of Christ’s Cross Alone Is Our Hope!”—but he is more interested in the question of relating to people, rather than merely judging their beliefs. Helpful here is the distinction drawn in Gaudium et spes: “between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person, even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions” (no. 28). Working with this distinction between judging beliefs and relating to persons, we can see why Bergoglio argues for a concept of inclusion that pertains to relating to persons, rather than attending to philosophical criticisms of relativism. Therefore, he says, “including people, each with their own face and name, does not imply that we need relativized values or justify anti-values.” The Christian stance toward his neighbor can then be inclusive in three ways.

Bergoglio underscores the claim that love neither discriminates nor relativizes because it is (1) merciful, (2) open to friendship, and (3) creative. It not only relates to a person qua person, and, so, it doesn’t discriminate, but it also doesn’t succumb to the temptation that we need to relativize truth in order to be inclusive. A brief word about each of these is due.

God is rich in mercy (Eph 2:4). He forgave me of my sins out of love for me in Christ, even while I was dead through my trespasses (Eph 2:5), even while I was still his enemy (Rom 5:10). Thus, in light of God’s prior and inconceivable forgiveness, that is, says Balthasar, as I noted above, “because God has given to me without counting the costs, to the point of wholly losing himself (Mt 27:46), the standard that God lays down becomes the standard by which I myself am measured, according to which I shall be judged. This is not a principle of ‘mere justice,’ but the logic of absolute love.” In this light, we can easily understand the wideness of God’s mercy, why mercy is inclusive, grounded in divine redemption, and, thus, neither discriminating nor relativizing—all men are sinners and are under the power of sin (see Rom 3:9-18). But “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

In this light, says Bergoglio, “Mercy creates even greater closeness—the closeness that comes from seeing faces—and, since it truly wishes to help, it seeks the truth that hurts the most—that of sin—but with the aim of finding its proper remedy (italics added).” The proper remedy of sin, according to Bergoglio, is “to recognize that we are sinners.” “We need to open our hearts (to the saving power of Christ’s cross) so that (the Father) can enter with his mercy and forgiveness (cf. 1 John 1:9).” In short, mercy without truth—the truth that we are sinners and under the judgment of God—is empty because it does not lead the person “ever closer to God,” adds Bergoglio (Evangelii gaudium, no. 172), in whom we attain true freedom.” Yes, we love sinners by extending to them the mercy of God, not so that they would stay as they are, but rather so they would change for the better.

But how shall they know that they are called by the Gospel to repentance and amendment of life, if they have not heard that call (cf. Rom 10:14-17)? Thus, when proclaiming the Father’s mercy in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit towards others, it must be clear to them that our action is rooted in God’s prior act of mercy shown to us in, and through, the finished work of Christ. In this connection, says Bergoglio, “we correct others and help them to grow (in true freedom) on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (Mt 18:15).” Of course, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, we must “not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with truth” (13:6). The truth being that we in the Church are all sinners who are saved by grace: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received in faith” (Rom 3:23-25). We hate the sin while loving the sinner.

Moreover, “Love neither discriminates nor relativizes because it is open to friendship.” Here, too, in the friendship of charity there is acceptance of each other as we are. But there is also that aspect of friendship in which we “tell each other the truth.” Being social in nature, we accompany others and align ourselves with them, working next to them, respecting our similarities and differences. Last, love is creative and, so, neither discriminates nor relativizes. It is creative in that “Gratuitous love is a leaven that stimulates and enhances everything that is good, transforming evil into good, problems into opportunities.” In sum, the grace of God’s love is creative because it transforms fallen reality from within, properly ordering it to its divinely appointed ends, so that human beings may flourish by being made new in Christ. “To re-establish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on the earth” (Eph 1:10).

Let’s turn now to Bergoglio’s third insight. What is his response to the question as to how we can allow for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity? In a work coauthored with Rabbi Skorka, On Heaven and Earth, Bergoglio responds to this question. “In the third and fourth centuries, the revealed truths of faith were theologically formulated and transmitted as our nonnegotiable inheritance.” He is quick to add, however:

That does not mean that throughout history, through study and investigation, other insights were not discovered about these truths: such as, what Christ is like, or how to configure the Church, or how, and what should be, true Christian conduct, or what are the commandments. All of these are enriched by these new explanations. There are things that are debatable, but—I repeat—this inheritance is not negotiable. The content of a religious faith (fides quae creditor) is capable of being deepened through human thought, but when that deepening is at odds with the inheritance, it is a heresy.

Yet, Pope Francis has always resisted doctrinal rigidity, immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression. He explains: “At any rate, religions refine certain expressions (of the truth) with time, even though it is a slow process because of the sacred bond that we have with the received inheritance (of revelation).” Let’s be clear that Bergoglio is affirming here a growth of human understanding, its refinement, maturation, and development of the dogmas of the Christian religion. Notwithstanding, truth itself is unchangeable, but “we grow in the understanding of the truth” (as he says in his August 2013 interview, “A Big Heart Open to God”). In that interview, Pope Francis cites a passage from the Commonitórium primum of the fifth century monk, St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): “Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age” (this passage seems to be a favorite of Bergoglio/Francis because it is also cited in On Heaven and Earth). He continues: “St. Vincent of Lérins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time, and so also, human consciousness deepens. … So we grow in the understanding of the truth. … Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” Notice that Francis does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only the formulations, namely, “the forms for expressing truth … in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching.”

Bergoglio’s point here is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences, which was invoked by Pope John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. The pope made this distinction between truth and its formulations in a famous statement at the beginning of this Council: “The deposit of the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sentential), is another.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius (Denzinger 3020), and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.”

Vincent’s final point here is supported by a distinction he insists on, between progress and change, the import of which is not lost on Francis, who, like Vincent, compares the transmission of faith with the biological development of man. Vincent writes: “But it (progress of religion) must be such as may be truly a progress of the faith, not a change; for when each several thing is improved in itself, that is progress; but when a thing is turned out of one thing into another, that is change.” In other words, the import here of this distinction is that (as Thomas Guarino notes): “‘development’ can never mean a substantial transformation, a change in the very essence of a Church teaching. The theologian of Lérins (and Francis) very carefully balances growth and preservation.”

So, we can say with justification that Pope Francis is truly a man of the Council. In particular, he stands with John XXIII who framed the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity in light of the Lérinian thesis, which was received and affirmed by Vatican I, namely, that doctrine must progress according to the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), allowing for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity.

Finally, we cannot fail to note that, in Only Love Can Save Us, Bergoglio aligned himself with Pope Benedict XVI over the conflict of hermeneutics of Vatican II. In his 2005 Christmas address before the Roman Curia, Benedict distinguishes between “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” versus a “‘hermeneutic of reform.’” Bergoglio refers to these competing hermeneutical approaches and continues by explaining the latter hermeneutic with the words of Benedict. A hermeneutic of reform means “of renewal in the continuity of the one-subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” Francis reiterates his commitment to a hermeneutic of reform, of continuity, and renewal in his Letter to the Special Envoy, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, on the 450th anniversary of the close of the Council of Trent. He writes:

Graciously hearing the very same Holy Ghost, the Holy Church of our age, even now, continues to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent. As a matter of fact, the “hermeneutic of renewal” (interpretatio renovationis) which Our Predecessor, Benedict XVI, explained in 2005 before the Roman Curia, refers not only to the Tridentine Council, but also to the Vatican Council. The mode of interpretation, certainly, places one honorable characteristic of the Church in a brighter light that is given by the Same Lord (Benedict XVI): “She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

Quite simply, Pope Francis is committed, as the above paragraph makes abundantly clear, to the living and dynamic work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church’s task of listening to the Word of God, preserving the Christian faith scrupulously, and authentically developing it.

Eduardo Echeverria About Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his STL from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of many publications, most recently Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018), and Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2019).


    AND ENLISTED THERE.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)