Friday, October 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod, Justice and Mercy

As the extraordinary synod on the family presses forward this week, one theme has emerged as clearly predominant: that of the balancing of justice and mercy. From the writing of bloggers, journalists, and priests to comments given by numerous bishops who are actually participating in the synod, it has taken center stage as the great conundrum of the gathering.

God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at one and the same time, so it is repeated again and again, but we are only human and so have a much more difficult time trying to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage while being merciful to those who have failed to live up to them.  Because the Church's current practice of denying Communion to such persons is seen as emphasizing justice, those posing the question suggest we have a good grasp on justice. Incorporating mercy into the picture is said to be a much more difficult task because it seems to oppose justice.

But there is in fact absolutely no difficulty or challenge to this question.  None whatsoever.

In fact, the question suggests that many do not seem to understand justice as well as they think. In justice, God recognizes sin and holds people accountable for it.  What he does not do is unwaveringly hold a sin against a person who has turned from it.  Unfortunately, this is most often our human approach. A person who kills another is forever known as a "murderer," even if he should regret his crime and never commit the evil again. During the priestly sex abuse scandals, some priests confessed to years' old sins, declared that they had repented and not perpetrated in decades, and resigned as active ministers to go live alone in a spirit of penance. Protesters followed them to their new homes to ensure that they would never be free of hearing condemnation. Countless other examples, both as serious and less important, could easily be pulled from the life of any one of us.  Fortunately, his ways are not our ways, and so in God justice means that while sin is indeed addressed, it is not held stubbornly against a person without end - even in the tiniest of ways.

In mercy, God forgives those who have recognized sin and decided to turn from it freely and without exception. He requires no atonement before he will forgive (Jesus has already made the atonement in any case), he does not wait for the sinner to be perfect, and he even reaches out to those in sin to offer them forgiveness before they ask for it or even realize that they need it. However, he does not ignore or neglect ongoing sin.  On the contrary, he does everything that he can to lead us out of that sin and away from the darkness that it brings.  

So we see that just because God holds people accountable for sin, it doesn't mean he eternally and unwaveringly does so to those who try to sin no more. In fact, virtually nobody involved with the synod would question this fact - even the most left wing bishop or even a Unitarian would readily agree with the notion.  That question so ubiquitous in discussion of this synod is concerned with squaring this truth with mercy.  However, in exactly the same way that God's justice is concerned with whether a person ceases to sin, just because God forgives sins it doesn't mean that he doesn't hold people accountable for ongoing and persistent sin.  The concept is precisely the same: both God's mercy and his justice by their very nature take into account what a person is doing now regardless of what a person may have done in the past.

When we look at it from his perspective,  we begin to see that justice and mercy are in no way opposed, but complement and, if we may put it as such, have an a symbiotic relationship to one another. They make one another possible. Because in justice God holds us accountable for sin, his mercy can meaningfully pardon that sin.  Because in mercy God moves on from past sins of the repentant, his justice can be concerned with the reality of a person's present state rather than a past which does not define the person.  This is precisely why many of the saints and great theologians declared that in God justice and mercy are not separate;  they have often been described as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in Aquinas' theology God is perfectly simple, meaning he has no "parts" but all of his characteristics are identifiable with one another. His love IS his truth, his truth IS his mercy, his mercy IS his justice. It fits pretty well with the Scripture's teaching that God is love and that God is truth and that God is life, etc, doesn't it?

To bring this down to that great attention-grabbing issue of the synod, what does this mean for divorced and remarried Catholics?  It means that the Church can very easily know how to be both just and merciful in these tragic situations. Invite those in marriages which contradict Jesus' teachings to try to live by those teachings. Do not allow a person's past sins to define him but look to his ongoing choice to sin or to strive after Christ. Indeed, one of the most common complaints from married and divorced Catholics has been that they feel as though they are defined by one mistake in the past.  Calling these people to live in continence with "second spouses" would, if done with a good explanation, help them to feel and understand that the Church does not care what they did then and that an effort to reject grave sin now is what matters. This would be perfectly just and merciful, as God is.  Of course, other than what truly is a dire need for more outreach and education for those in irregular marriages, this is largely how the Church currently practices.

I would suggest, then, that the real question is not how to balance justice with mercy - or even doctrine with pastoral care when we realize that in these conversations "pastoral" usually means "merciful" and "doctrine" is usually what people have meant when they have said "justice." Rather, the question is that age old question of how to bear the Cross that discipleship in Christ brings. To live in accord with Christ's teachings on marriage will bring suffering to the divorced and remarried - great suffering.  On a human level, this is something none of us wants to put on another person.  It is also true that telling remarried couples that their marriages are invalid makes them feel excluded and hurt. These cases even tug on the heartstrings of those who minister to these people, as not a few bishops have explicitly lamented over this past week of the synod.  The reason we find this all so difficult is not that the question of mercy and justice is complicated.  No, it is because the question is so simple that we know our answer to it must be to lay crosses onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters whom we love.

There is great suffering here, and helping to shepherd and support and accompany people through it must be a key topic - the key topic - of discussion at the synod. I hope and pray that the bishops realize this and can improve the Church's efforts in this. We must all become Simon of Cyrenes in helping to bear the crosses of our once fallen brothers and sisters - but crosses which they must bear and which lead to redemption.  It would be the most important thing they could hope to do these few weeks!

Yet the profound difficulty of this question must not be confused with the very simple question of how mercy and justice relate. The great preacher and likely eventual blessed and saint Fulton Sheen famously said that any theology which attempts to skip Good Friday to get to the Resurrection, that is, any theology which rejects suffering in favor of an easier resolution, is a sign of Satan's work.  Let us pray that the synod fathers may realize that they must not step a foot down that road.

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