(The Return of the Prodigal Son, James Tissot)
The Bull Misericordiae Vultus, announcing a jubilee beginning with Advent 2015, has been released to mixed response. The response tends to be based on how one understands concepts like mercy and justice. With the modern tendency towards turning these terms into buzzwords, people tend to interpret the reports as if they were political rhetoric, and either approve or disapprove based on what the buzzwords mean. But we need to realize that mercy and justice have much deeper meanings in the Church, and this bull needs to be read with the understanding that the Church has for these words.
Summary of the Bull
Pope Francis published the Bull Misericordiae Vultus (“Face of Mercy” if Google Translate got it right) announcing the jubilee year of mercy. The text and the concept is a beautiful one. It seeks to tear down the barriers which keep people from turning back to God—the kind of thing where people have encountered bad experiences in the Church which leave them fearful or resentful of turning to the Church. Some might feel they cannot be saved because of fear. Others may have encountered bad experiences with members of the Church which lead them to think the experience is the norm.
The Pope recognizes that there must be more to evangelization than admonition. There must be “respect and love” and “encouraging remedies" (MV #4). The bull is a message of urging encouragement, stressing God’s love for the sinner and calling the sinner to be reconciled and healed by God. He points out Jesus’ compassion for the people who seek Him and provided for their deepest needs. He stresses how Jesus’ parables show God as a Father who never rests until He finds the lost and brings them back. Such mercy is not only for the institutional Church to deal out in the Sacraments. We are all called to show mercy to others because mercy was first shown to us by God (MV #9).
The bull speaks about how we as human beings judge only superficially, not knowing the depths of the soul that the Father can see. We are to accept the good in each person and forgive. It calls on us to rediscover the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, reminding us of God judging us based on whether we have aided those in need, whether physical or spiritual. The Pope insists on confessors being “authentic signs of the Father’s mercy” (MV #17), behaving as the father in the parable of the prodigal son—running out to meet the son despite the fact that he has squandered his inheritance, and expressing the joy of his return.
Then, in what seems to be a part overlooked in this bull, the Pope reminds people that justice and mercy are not contradictory, but “two dimensions of a single reality” (MV #20). Justice gives the individual what is rightly due, and God is the Judge. Justice, avoiding legalism, is seen as “faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will.” Our Lord sought to break down the legalistic view that divides people into the just and the sinners—seeking to reach out to all sinners, offering the salvation. We have to go beyond considering the border of goodness as “formal respect for the law.” Mercy is God reaching out to the sinner to give him a new opportunity (MV #21) to repent and believe.
Reflections on What It Calls Us to Be
The bull is very insightful and should be read as a reminder of what God is calling us to be. It certainly strikes me as a challenge for a Catholic blogger. We need to avoid being barriers to people seeking mercy, and that means we must be careful in not choosing rhetoric that leaves a person believing that God is unapproachable or that we do not want them to return to the Church. Even when our blog is based on defending the teachings of the Church unpopular in modern culture (sexual morality or social justice depending on the ideological outlook), we have to do so in a way that does not leave the reader who happens to be at odds with the Church either defiant or despairing.
It means we have to avoid putting people into “us” and “them” categories or “saints” and “sinners” categories where we put ourselves in the category of the “good" and others in the category of “you horrible people!” It means we have to be showing people how to return to Christ’s Church and live rightly, not writing angry articles about how the bishops need to throw out some person or another. That’s not to say we have to capitulate on dissent (see below), but it does mean we have to stop acting like the angry guard dog on a chain barking and growling at everything that is out of the ordinary, failing to distinguish between the hostile intruder and the person needing help.
What this Document is Not Saying
However, one thing we need to remember is that a call for mercy and not judgment on our part does not mean changing Church teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” God has called us to live in a certain way which reflects His goodness. Accepting mercy means thinking like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, saying "O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The person who seeks mercy knows they have done wrong and wants to return to a healthy relationship. The person who does not accept that they have done wrong may want to return to a healthy relationship, but he or she is refusing to seek mercy.
So, the Pope is calling on those of us in the Church who have sought and received mercy from God, to show mercy to those who are at odds with us or the Church (see Matthew 18 23-35). That doesn’t mean that we are to call evil good. It means we are to act like the father of the prodigal son and embrace the returning sinner. The Church cannot say that abortion, contraception, same-sex acts etc. are no longer sins, because God has made clear that loving Him means keeping the commandments (see John 14:15 and 1 John 5:1-6).
So the person who hopes or fears that this jubilee of mercy is going to be changing the teaching of the Church, that is simply false. This isn’t a matter of letting people do whatever the hell they want. This is a matter of shepherds going out to find the lost sheep, and rejoicing when it is found and returned. We can't be saying “Stay out until you can behave!” It is a case of saying “Please come back to God who loves you!” Some may refuse the offer of mercy, but we can’t stop seeking to lead them back. If they refuse and die in their refusal, that is for God to judge. But if we don’t seek them out and try to bring them back, we too will be judged (see Ezekiel 33:1-18).
So, this document is not saying “The Church must change her teaching” or “you must let people do what they want.” It is saying we can’t write people off as irredeemable. We have to keep trying to reach them, avoiding the judgment that says “I’ve done enough—to hell with you!” That strikes me as key here. mercy neither means “Stop saying that what I do is a sin!” nor “That’s the limit and I don’t have to reach out to you anymore!” Even the Church penalty of excommunication is not done so as to amputate a diseased limb, but as to show the person how serious the sin is in hopes of bringing them back. It’s a tool to be used like a scalpel—not a sledgehammer.
What seems most important to remember is the Pope is not calling for moral laxity. He’s calling for a change of heart, both in the sinner estranged from God and His Church, and in the person who has already been converted by His grace. To the person estranged, the Pope is calling for them to accept God’s mercy and return to Him and His Church. To those who have received God’s mercy, God is calling us to be merciful to those who wrong us and to not stand in the door to keep those we dislike away from reconciliation.