On one of the Catholic news sites out there, I was involved in a debate with another reader about the issue of divorce and remarriage. This individual argued that the Church, in confirming that remarriage after divorce (as opposed to receiving an annulment first) is morally wrong, was ignoring the words of Our Lord concerning the parable of the lost sheep. In other words, this individual was asserting that to show mercy to the divorced and remarried, the Church had to stop teaching their actions were sinful and needed to admit them to Communion.
This kind of thinking confuses mercy with tolerating a lack of restraint, and misses the point of what mercy is. It seeks to assuage the conscience of the sinner by telling him or her that their actions are not even sins at all. The Church is accused of being merciless because she will not change herself when people demand that she stop saying things are sins. The reason she will not is because she cannot contradict God’s commands without being faithless to God. When God commands that we do X or avoid Y, the Church cannot permit us to avoid doing X or permit us to do Y. As Our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
For the person who seeks to know, love and serve God, we have an obligation to seek out what is right and live in accordance with it. When we find a commandment difficult, and we don’t understand why it is commanded, we are shown our task: To seek to understand why it is commanded, not to ignore it as too hard. The problem is we are used to having our way and seeking ways to justify our behavior before man, assuming that God will not punish those who choose to do what He forbade.
The mercy which God shows us can be demonstrated this way. God does not exact instantaneous punishment on us for doing what is evil. Instead He warns us of the dangers of sin, encourages turning back to Him, giving us the grace to respond. If we do respond (for grace is a gift we can refuse), He welcomes us back with open arms. If we refuse to respond, He continues to call us. Our Lord's mercy is not to tell people "It is OK to sin" or to say that what was once a sin is no longer one. It is to call people back from sin and to heal the relationship with them.But the person who refuses to heal that relationship is actually refusing the mercy Our Lord offers. The Church cannot change that reality and she cannot pretend to change that reality without being faithless to God.
So why does God command us to be merciful and to forgive? The answer is that He forbids us to behave in such a way that refuses to give mercy to the penitent and refuses to be God’s means of reaching out to the sinner. He forbids us from considering any person irredeemable. Nor can we refuse to forgive the person who has wronged us or refuse to make amends with the person we have wronged. Our task is to seek the redemption of the sinner or the person who wrongs us, not their damnation. God’s laws are made to show us how to live. Ultimately, if we reject these laws, we will face His judgment. We do have until the moment of our death to repent, but none of us know the day nor the hour of our death, so now is the time of respond to His mercy, and now is the time to be vessels of His mercy.
On the other and, when being vessels of mercy, we of course need to remember that we ourselves are in need of mercy. That means showing love and compassion for our fellow sinners who may sin in different ways than we do. We need to remember that we fall every day and are in need of Our Lord’s grace and forgiveness. That should shape how we approach others. Belittling or mocking others will probably drive them away. Nobody wants to be treated in that way, and we should ask if our attempts at humor might actually be counterproductive.
To offer a personal example, consider this account of a joke told by a Protestant minister at an interfaith meeting:
“I read a story some time ago about a man who visited the Pope. He looked around and observed the splendor and wealth of the Vatican. The Pope noticed his amazement and said laughingly, ‘We cannot say anymore that we have no silver and no gold.’ And the man answered, ‘Neither can you say, “Rise up and walk!”’” There was laughter from some in the audience, and I hoped it would break the tension.
Andrew, Brother; Al Janssen (2004-09-01). Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire (p. 215). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
My response to reading this part of the book was a mental middle finger and cost him some of the respect I previously had for him. Such attempts at humor are going to turn off the people who are the butt of the joke. If one wants to offer a fraternal rebuke over what they see as wrongdoing, things like sarcasm and perceived mockery are going to drive people away. Obviously, Brother Andrew was not intending to be offensive to Catholics (though I think his writings display some casual prejudice in that area). But his tone was counterproductive to some he might have otherwise convinced in a good cause.
Now of course the offended person has to practice forgiveness as Our Lord commanded. When someone behaves badly, we have to move beyond it and seek the truth. But people are human beings with feelings that can be hurt and fears that need to be considered. So in this case, I had to work past a bad joke that implied that the Church was worldly and no longer carrying out her mission to consider the merits of his book, but his book would have been more effective if he had omitted the wisecrack.
In a similar way, we have to consider how we present our message as God’s tools to present His mercy. Do we show compassion for their fears and sufferings, even if we must say “No” to the desire to treat sin as morally acceptable? Or do we bear false witness by leading people to think “Christians are jerks”?
Unfortunately, despite the tone we take, some will just take offense simply by the fact that we say X is a sin. Americans really tend to fall for the “Either-Or” fallacy, where if we don’t support one view, we are assumed to support the opposite. So, for example, if we oppose “same sex marriage,” we are accused of supporting all of the wrongs done to persons with a same sex attraction. Or of we oppose divorce and remarriage, we are accused of wanting to trap people in an unhappy, abusive, (insert negative description here) marriage. So if we stand for the Christian definition of marriage, we are accused of “hating homosexuals” and “not caring” about the suffering of people in broken marriages.
Obviously when we defend the teaching of Our Lord as passed on by the Church, we can’t help it if one takes offense at the teaching. But we have to be sure that the way we present that teaching is not a stumbling block.
Moreover, we have to avoid being avenging angels. We’re not like the Greek “Furies” who pursued the wrongdoers with vengeance all their lives with the intent to punish. We have to make clear that our concern is one of love and wellbeing as opposed to “vanquish the heathen!” Pope Francis used the image of the Church as field hospital—we’re here to save those people who have been wounded by sin, not throw them out the door because they’re not healed.
However, just as in medicine, saving the wounded does not mean telling the man with diabetes to continue doing the things that led to the disease, saving the spiritually wounded does not mean telling the sinner to continue to sin. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, but He still told her “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11).
So it’s a balancing act. We cannot give sanction to sin, and we cannot act like jerks when reaching out to the sinner. Some may refuse to accept the mercy God offers because that mercy tells them that what they want is killing them, but we still have to love them, even when they hate us and remember that ultimately God will judge both them and us.