On June 7th, the Holy Father Pope Francis delivered a catechesis on the Our Father during his General Audience. The center of his message was that far from being a God distant and unconcerned with man, God is intimately close to man and cares deeply about his affairs. He longs for man’s salvation with divine paternity; this is why Christians call God “Father”, and the pope called us to reflect on what a revolutionary concept it is to understand God as a Father.
In the course of these reflections, Francis made the following statement, which has raised many eyebrows:
The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God cannot stay without us: He will never be a God “without man”; it is He Who cannot stay without us, and this is a great mystery! God cannot be God without man: the great mystery is this! (General Audience, June 7th, 2017)
Protestants and certain Catholics alike have come out with accusations of heresy or blasphemy against the pope on account of these statements. The accusation is that Pope Francis is teaching that God some how requires man – that the divine substance stands in need of humanity in order for it to be complete, for God to be God. If this were true, this would make God’s omnipotence dependent upon man, the Creator dependent upon the creature, and entirely invert the relationship between God and man.
Such would be a very problematic position indeed!
I have been critical of Francis’ speech in the past, both in his manner and content; I even wrote an ebook chronicling a series of theological concerns arising from his encyclical Laudato Si. I am certainly no papolater; I’m not one of those people who feels the necessity to offer a knee-jerk defense of every word that comes out of the pope’s mouth, least of all in a very low-level, non-biding, non-authoritative pronouncement like a General Audience.
That being said, I do not think what Francis said here was blasphemous or heretical. Sloppy? Yes. Poorly worded? Definitely. Heresy? I don’t think so.
First, we must remember that there are two ways to consider God. We may speak of the “theological Trinity” (sometimes called the “immanent Trinity”) or the “economic Trinity.” When we speak of the theological Trinity, we are speaking in terms of what God is in and of Himself without reference to His creation – to the mysterious inner life of God Himself. When we speak about the economic Trinity, we are speaking about God with reference to the economy of creation – God in relation to creation. The theological Trinity speaks of who God is, the economic Trinity what God does in relation to the world.
When we are speaking about the salvation of the human race, we are speaking of the economic Trinity. Understood in and of Himself, God does not “need” man or anything other than Himself. He is perfectly self-sufficient and blessed in His own nature. He is all-powerful and all-knowing and needs nothing whatsoever. As Acts 17:25 says, God stands in need of nothing. Creation needs Him; He does not need creation. God is perfectly self-sufficient.
But God did not remain solitary. He freely created mankind, and in creating man out of love, He bound Himself to the fate of man, in the sense that He continues to seek man and provide for man’s welfare, even when man rejects Him. From beginning to end, God is initiator of man’s salvation. He is the one who calls man to communion, who sent His Son to die, and who constantly prepares man’s heart to receive Him via grace. God is the initiator of man’s salvation in every sense.
Thus, though God does not “need” man in an absolute sense, within the economy of salvation He cannot stop seeking man. God is faithful and has promised to provide for man’s redemption. He cannot fail to seek man anymore than He could lie or betray His word.
The source of this is not any necessity that binds God’s will, but the free choice of God Himself, who created man out of love and continually seeks after Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums this up well when it says:
Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (CCC 50).
Francis says the Gospel of Christ reveals that God cannot stay without us. Though God communicated to man in many ways throughout salvation history, His definitive revelation to man comes through Jesus Christ. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). The people of the Old Testament knew that God was loving, but the depth of His great love are revealed by the mission of the Son and His atoning death on the cross.
This love is perfected in the Incarnation and Crucifixion. God does not need man, but at the Incarnation He forever united Himself to human nature in Mary’s womb. The Incarnation is the permanent union of the divine nature with human nature. Thus, since the Incarnation, Francis is right to say God will never be a God without man. Christ will never not be a God-Man. The Incarnation permanently bonds God to human nature and forever orients all God’s saving acts in the world towards mankind. In the economy of salvation, the acts of God are always ordered towards man’s beatitude. “God cannot stay without us”, yes, in the sense that God can no more abandon mankind than He can undo the Incarnation. The Incarnation was a total and irrevocable commitment of God to mankind.
Again, the Catechism says, ”
Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him” (CCC 30).
Is it then true that “God cannot be God without man”? Not if we take this to refer absolutely, to the theological Trinity; of course, the divine nature needs nothing to be complete. But the whole focus of the pope’s homily was God inasmuch as He is a Father to His people; in other words, the economic Trinity, God within the economy of human salvation. And within the economy of salvation, God has permanently and irrevocably committed Himself to the calling, redemption, and glorification of mankind. As long as creation endures, God cannot un-orient Himself from mankind. For God to be what He claims to be, He cannot be without man. He cannot abandon man. He has promised He would not. “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Thus, I think those who find Francis’ words here heretical are not sufficiently grasping the concept of God’s permanent orientation towards man within the economy of salvation. Some are citing verses like Daniel 4:35 and Acts 17:24-25 as evidence that Francis has taught heresy. The passage from Daniel merely notes that God is all-powerful and can exercise His will unhindered; the passage from Acts 17 states that God does not need anything. Neither of these undermine the pope’s words; if God is all-powerful, as Daniel teaches, then He can voluntarily bind Himself to His creation through all His salvific acts, especially the Incarnation; and since God does not need anything according to His divine nature, as Acts 17 teaches, then the fact that God is so faithful in His relentless pursuit of man is even more marvelous.
God does “need” to do certain things that He has voluntarily bound Himself to. It’s like asking does God ” need” to forgive the original sin of a person coming to baptism under the right conditions? Considered absolutely, no, but considered in terms of God’s salvific works, in terms of what He Himself promised to accomplish through baptism, then yes, God does “need” to remit original sin through baptism – otherwise we would have no confidence in the efficacy of the sacraments. But it must be stressed that this “necessity” is not any kind of compulsion that moves God from without, but rather it flows from God’s faithfulness to His own promises. The only thing that binds God is His own word.