because they were the elite, and they weren’t living up to it, much like West Point cadets who’d been caught skipping drills or cheating on tests. So whenever we read of Jesus denouncing the Pharisees, we ought to think of General Patton haranguing his troops: he isn’t telling them to drop their rifles and turn into Quakers, but to man up and be better warriors.
In this less pejorative sense, today’s “Pharisees” would include the faithful homeschoolers; the pro-life activists and NFP instructors; priests who fight for reverent liturgy against hostile diocesan bureaucrats; underpaid teachers at places like Thomas Aquinas College; people who run crisis pregnancy centers; politicians who doggedly fight against the encroachments of the secular government that tries to occupy all our lives; parents striving simply to pass on the Faith and pay their bills when the odds are stacked against them.
When Christ provoked the anger of the Pharisees by embracing sinners, by reaching out to tax collectors, he showed the limits of some Pharisees’ spiritual insight. In all their zeal to hold onto the law, some of these men had forgotten that at its heart lies mercy. Christ was always willing – as many Pharisees were not – to accept a broken sinner who wished to reform his life. So we might (as Pope Francis did) approach an atheist journalist and try to find with him common ground. Or we might reach out to a woman who regretted her abortion. Indeed, the prolife movement has long embraced people with much more guilt than that – from Norma McCorvey (the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade) to large-scale abortionists like Dr. Bernard Nathanson, and former clinic owners like Carol Everett. If there are rigorist pro-lifers who reject such people, in almost forty years of activism I have never heard of them.
One thing Christ never did was to saunter up to the Sadducees and speak of the “values” they had in common. Nor did they ever mistake his words of reproach for the Pharisees as aid and comfort for their corruption. Jesus did not embrace impenitent tax collectors and ask for a cut of their take, or grant permission for prostitutes to go on plying their trade. Nor did he use the fact that his kingdom was “not of this world” as a loophole so Pilate would spare him the cross.
So insofar as Pope Francis is emulating Our Lord, and risks demoralizing the most faithful believers – the Pharisees – in order to urge us to more heroic efforts, we should take his words to heart. We must be even better Pharisees; we must keep the moral law and do it mercifully, in love. When we meet people who have collaborated with the secular tyranny that rules the modern West, and found themselves broken or cast aside, we should embrace them and help them heal. But when our modern Caiaphases and Pilates take the Pope’s words and use them as recruiting slogans for the Sadduccees, it’s time to push back hard. When Obama praises the Pope or a jaded, worldly bishop uses his words to undermine preaching on moral issues, we need to remember how Jesus treated Herod. The savior who would dine with penitent prostitutes looked at the worldly king – and did not deign to speak a single word. Lord grant us such holy contempt.