I admit it. Early on in life I was a self-absorbed Promethian neo-Pelagian idiot living a life without salvation (ζῶν ἀσώτως) as Luke 15:13 has it, taking advantage of the gifts given to us by our Heavenly Father and going off with to party with, well, you know, those living a life without salvation just like me. I’ve crucified the Son of the Living God with my sins. That’s what I’ve done. One might fill in the blanks with what that means in all the particularities, but probably, in that case, with all one’s own sins projected onto me, kind of like the elder brother’s mentions of prostitutes – πορνῶν. And, by the way, I don’t care who we are – pope, bishop, priest or laity – we’ve all crucified the Son of the Living God with our sins, original sin and whatever other kind of living life without salvation that we’ve all accomplished. Among other things, I’ve been known to confess impatience, pride, arrogance, being judgmental of others in the sense of putting them down only so as stand on top of them… Not good, that.
In more recent decades of my life, I’ve been coming to know Jesus’ great love, even if just the tiniest smidgen of what His wounds mean, His love for me. And that’s everything. The Promethean neo-Pelagian self-absorbed mind games come to an end with Jesus’ love cutting through those mind games of self-referential, self-congratulation, He grabbing me by both shoulders and shaking me gently, getting me to look up into His eyes, thankful, awestruck that He takes me seriously. I mean, how could He? I’ve sent Him in my callous aloofness to His death. And yet, there He is. Here He is, with me. Now. Strongly. I have nothing to brag about. It’s all Him. It’s all about Him.
I have greatly appreciated the priests who have taken me by the hand with great patience and brought me to Jesus, not condemning me, though judging in confession that what I did was in fact in need of absolution. That’s not the judgement of condemnation; that’s the judgement of salvation. I must say that they (1) accepted my repentance, (2) received my confession of sin, (3) judged my contrition to be appropriate, (4) judged my firm purpose of amendment to be adequate, (5) gave me a penance to do so as to put into action in whatever way the humble thanksgiving into which the grace of the sacrament brings us, (6) pronounced the absolution and (7) sent me off to receive Holy Communion. Did they know that they might see me again with similar sins, despite all my protestations of repentance, contrition and firm purpose of amendment? Yes. That’s still true today. It doesn’t mean that my protestations of repentance, contrition and firm purpose of amendment were insincere. No, not that. But we can sin again. But we trust that Jesus will grab our hearts and souls and minds in such a way that the strength of our own inadequacy will fade into insignificance before the strength of His love for us: just look at those wounds of His… for me… for you… This is an event of love, not a process of a mind-game, that is, even if there is a fall. But, let’s see how this works with the prodigal son. There are two ways of looking at this the conversion of the prodigal.
(1) Repentance minus atrition, contrition, amendment
The prodigal comes back with repentance without out any atrition, contrition, or even purpose of amendment. This comes from copyists’ error in a wide variety of otherwise even very excellent manuscripts throughout the early centuries in which the planed confession of the prodigal while out with the pigs is the confession he gives verbatim before his father. When he “comes to himself”, he does precisely that, for he himself has no wherewithal for conversion, just more selfishness. His plan is to get the bread of his father’s servants by admitting that he sinned before heaven and his father and no longer deserves to be called the father’s son. Even though he is taken in by his father as a son, this doesn’t change the attitude of the prodigal, who is simply happy to have the bread. He has worked his way into his own salvation, worked his own way into heaven, disregarding the love of his father for himself. He doesn’t care. He is utterly unimpressed with the love of his father. It has no effect on him whatsoever. “Just go ahead and treat me like the servants,” he says. This, it seems to me, is what Pope Francis wants to promote among confessors, having them be like the father in this scenario, providing absolution for someone who is repentant without any atrition, contrition or any kind of purpose of amendment. Indeed, in this scenario, the prodigal could easily take off again. See: Torture chamber confessionals nixed. Pope Francis: contrition, amendment? Instead: I think, therefore I am saved. As an example, see: Amoris laetitia 351 Unrepentant, active prostitutes, absolution,Communion?
(2) Repentance with atrition turned contrition & amendment
I have demonstrated at great length elsewhere, that is, with a quite exhaustive treatment of copyists’ behavior with all known manuscripts reporting this section of Luke, that is, also in view of the actual physical copying and location of the words and letters of the planned and then (partially) given confessions in the papyri and codices (a tell-all sine qua non for this exercise)… demonstrated that the confession given before the father does NOT entirely repeat the planned confession of the prodigal when he was out with the pigs: he does NOT say, “Treat me like one of your hired servants.” His attrition when out with the pigs amounts to an analogy to fearing the loss of heaven and gaining the pains of hell when he realizes that he is starving to death but could be eating from the good will of his father. He is not sorry for having hurt his father. He is merely stating the facts of the sin and its consequences. This is good enough for him to go back. It is the judgement of the Church that this is enough for a sinner to go to confession in expectation of receiving an absolution. There is a true respect for the goodness of the father, even if this not up to level of being sorry for having offended the father’s love. The purpose of amendment is evident at least in his wanting to stay with the servants in the desire to eat the bread of his father. That this is different from the scenario above (1), is seen with the fact that he does not have an attitude that will resist the actions of his father which will bring him to full contrition. Unbeknownst to himself, he is open to having a sorrow for having hurt his father such that he will be happy to be once again the son of his father. In this scenario (2), when he goes back, his father demonstrates the love of a father for a son such that the prodigal cannot go on with the coldest part of his planned confession, that is, regarding the request to be treated like the servants. He realizes he is a son and does not want to re-offend against the love of his father. This is where the father finds him, as the father says. The son is overwhelmed with the love of his father. This is consonant with the other two parables in chapter 15 of Luke: the coin and the sheep did nothing to be found. Neither did the prodigal. The love of the father is everything in bringing the son to contrition and purpose of amendment. This is an event, not a mind-game, a provision of grace, not a mind-game, a finding of the son, not a mind game, a drawing one into the love of God, not a mind game.
Here’s the deal. The Holy Father has all along been condemning Promethean neo-Pelagian self-absorbed, self-referential, self-congratulations. All of that came from some copyists’ errors in manuscripts as outlined in (1) above, commentary about which gave rise to Pelagianism. In the wake of all that, Saint Augustine developed a theology of grace taken up by Saint Thomas Aquinas. After Aquinas developed Augustine’s theology of grace, it was in turn taken up in the Council of Trent. The work of the saints and the councils is consonant with the proper transcription of the prodigal son parable (2). Pope Francis has somehow analogously followed the work-your-own-way-into-an-absolution-and-Communion interpretation. The ironies and the epic sweep of history in all this is mind-boggling.
All the same, the Lord Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. Amen. Or are we so hateful of the prodigal’s true conversion that we condemn the father as does the elder brother?
2 responses to “Amoris laetitia: Prodigal son’s father”
Thanks, Fr. No. 2 rings true. God is so good, so patient and yes, all merciful. True repentance, to the extent we are capable of, is necessary. We cannot take forgiveness (mercy) lightly because of the cost. We will deserve true justice if we expect mercy without repentance or trying to change our ways.
Much to ponder here. Thank you for helping us explore the nuances of this story. I think those of us who are parents – ‘feel’ this story and can grasp it so much better than when we were merely youngsters hearing a Sunday gospel. .