Pope Francis Tries to Rehabilitate Judas, Part I
My own Catholic world is being roiled at the moment by Pope Francis’ latest effort to mark himself off as more “enlightened” than any of his predecessors, going all the way back to St. Peter. He’s trying to redeem the good name of the apostle who betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin, then ran off and hanged himself.
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 he was sincerely repentant, and in fact played a positive role in the drama of salvation. Tradition in Action reports:
The editor – probably obeying an order of Pope Francis – chose to post on its front page the reproduction of a picture, above and below first row, that presents a naked Jesus bending over and tenderly ministering to a dead Judas.
Monda explains that the author of this painting is a French Catholic who became impressed by Francis’ words praising the Traitor in his book When You Pray, Say Our Father. The artist imagines that after Jesus was crucified, He would have returned to life immediately, gone to the fig tree and taken down Judas’ body and ministered to it. Morsa also reports that Francis loved this painting so much that he has placed it on the wall behind his desk along with another representing Judas.
The inside pages of the Vatican paper feature a sermon by Fr. Primo Mazzolari saying that he believes Judas was forgiven by Our Lord; a brief comment by Card. Carlo Maria Martini on Mazzolari’s sermon, saying that each of us can have a Judas inside himself; a text by Giovanni Papini arguing that Judas must have had an ulterior motive to betray Christ because 30 silver coins did not have that great a worth; and a text by Giuseppe Berto impersonating Judas who affirms that Jesus owes His glorification to him.
The Pope of “Saint” Judas
As Marian Horvat of Tradition in Action previously reported:
On three different occasions, Francis has praised Judas publicly, suggesting that the apostle who betrayed Our Lord Jesus Christ is a misunderstood personality and “the end of his story” possibly is not Hell. …
The most recent attempt to rehabilitate Judas is in the book Padre Nostro, an interview Francis granted to Don Marco Posso. An excerpt … reveals Francis’ denial of the traditional Catholic teaching that Judas was condemned. Of the three persons involved in Christ’s Passion – St. Peter, the good thief and Judas – Pope Bergoglio affirms that “the case that moves me most is Judas’ shame.”
He goes through the story, presenting Judas as “a difficult character to understand”: first, he sincerely repents; second, the “righteous ones” – the priests – reject him; third, since he “can’t find a way out of his situation,” he is overcome with a “guilt that suffocates him.” A sympathetic portrayal of the traitor Judas, who, according to the Pope, is himself betrayed by the lack of mercy of the “righteous ones,” the priests … .
From Bad Art History to Heresy
Horvat then analyzes a piece of “evidence” the pope cites to prove his case. He points to a decoration in a medieval church (the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalen in Vézelay, France). It contains a sculpture of someone carrying off Judas’ body on his shoulders after his suicide. Pope Francis claims that the workman hauling Judas is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. (For images please visit Horvat’s piece.)
Horvat writes: “Francis confesses that he loves that particular sculpture and his falsified interpretation so much that he has a photograph of it behind his desk at the Vatican to help him meditate on the great mercy of God.” Then she blows apart the pope’s bizarre personal theory that the figure carrying Judas is Jesus. She notes that virtually every medieval picture of Jesus as an adult shows Him bearded. The stony-faced laborer reluctantly carrying Judas’ body is clean-shaven. Furthermore, the sculpture
is obviously presenting Judas as the traitor and a symbol of horror and offering it for public disdain: His tongue hangs grotesquely out of his mouth and his eyes pop out madly as he hangs from the noose he fashioned for himself in despair.
An Ancient Heresy, Resurrected
Horvat theorizes that Pope Francis has gotten drunk on his own notion of “mercy.” She attributes Francis’ reckless theorizing about the fate of Judas to Francis’ reading of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Swiss priest developed a theory that suggests we are permitted, even required as Christians, to hope that Hell is empty. That not one human soul has ever been eternally damned, or ever will be. In the end, when Jesus triumphs over evil and remakes the world, He will gather to Himself every human soul ever created. Including Judas.
This theory was condemned as a heresy by the early Church. Balthasar gets around that by insisting that he does not teach it as doctrine, but offers it as something we may hope for. That’s merely a loophole, though. No theologian spends dozens of learned pages defending mere wishful thinking.
“More Christian™ Than Jesus”
Pope Francis has previously downgraded the words of Jesus Himself. In addressing divorce and remarriage, Francis went so far as to call those who cling to Jesus’ own teaching “Doctors of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees), while making wiggle room for the practice (divorce and remarriage) of the actual, historical Pharisees.
Now it seems that Francis wishes to “memory hole” this verse: “The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matt. 26: 24)
Assuming he believes in the afterlife — an open question, I’ve argued here at The Stream — what could Francis honestly make of these words of Jesus Himself? Was Jesus just blowing smoke, or venting bitterness? If He was divine, He wasn’t. He was speaking to His apostles as a group for the last time before His death. The context was the Last Supper, the very first Eucharist, at which Catholics believe the apostles were made both priests and bishops. Jesus prepared himself, that Holy Thursday night, for the Agony in the Garden, and all the events of His passion. And on that night, Jesus spoke those terrible words about Judas. If Judas was headed for Heaven, despite his sins, what could they possibly mean?
Francis believes he can answer, and prove himself “More Christian™ Than Jesus.” Those words didn’t mean that Judas would be damned. They meant something … else, much warmer and fuzzier and multicultural. Just nothing that we can possibly make sense of, since what other fate but damnation would make it “better for that man if he had not been born”?
If we follow Balthasar and Francis, that fate belongs to no man. So when Jesus assured the Good Thief on the cross that “this day you will be with me in Paradise,” He could just as easily have turned to the other side and told the other thief: “No worries, you will be too. Absolutely everyone will be.” Likewise the rich man who neglected the beggar Lazarus eventually would indeed receive forgiveness and be saved. Our Lord just never bothered to tell us that part of the story. That’s Francis’ job.
Darker Than You Think
Horvat believes that Pope Francis has allowed himself to get caught up in Balthasar’s unbiblical and sentimental crusade on behalf of “mercy,” which mirrors a heresy attributed to the Church Father Origen.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”