The infighting in the Church tends to overlook something important. Some stress doctrine. Some stress mercy. People from both tend to stress it as if any acknowledgment of the other side means denying what they think is most important. As a result, some hold to the idea that doctrine must be defended to the extent that comes across like the Pharisees in John 8:1-11. Others stress mercy and love to the extent that they come across like treating God’s teaching as a mere guideline, or even acting as if teachings they dislike were manmade and in opposition to God. Both positions miss the point. The fact is, God has created both the moral law and the call to love and mercy. To focus only on one is failing to obey God.
Since God designed the universe according to His goodness, how we live will either be in accord with His will or against His will. Since God commanded us to live in accord with His will (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 10:16), we cannot disobey His commandments and claim we are being faithful to Our Lord. On the other hand, since Our Lord commanded mercy, love, and forgiveness, we cannot treat those who are sinners as if they deserve contempt until such a time that they return to our standard of righteousness.
The term “Pharisee” is unfortunately associated with one type of believer—the religious conservative who focusses on minutiae while ignoring the bigger picture. That’s unfortunate because it leads people to think, “As long as I am not a religious conservative, i cannot be a Pharisee.” That would be a mistake. Our Lord denounced the Pharisees because they put their manmade interpretation of how to be holy above God’s commands, often evading God’s commands. This can be done in all sorts of ways. The obvious example is the Catholic who focuses on one type of the Mass and thinks it makes him holy, even though he ignores other commands. But it is also possible to focus on social justice teachings and the failings of others while ignoring one’s own failings. When we begin thinking that as long as we are not as bad as them we are right in the eyes of God, we are playing the Pharisee—regardless of whether we are a radical traditionalist, Spirit of Vatican II Catholic or somewhere in between.
Unfortunately, it is easy to focus on the sins of others, rather than to seek out knowledge on how we should love and serve God according to His will. The word “His” is important here. It’s easy for everyone to decide for themselves that God wants what we want, and thus sanctify our actions as either good or “something God doesn’t care about.” That’s an attitude of “If I were God I’d be ok with….” But we’re not God. So we can’t argue that what we don’t care about is something God doesn’t care about.
The thing I think people miss is that both obedience and mercy are important. Our Lord wants us to keep His commandments (John 14;15, Matthew 7:21-23) and teach them to others (Matthew 28:19). So the “God doesn’t really care about X” Catholics are wrong to downplay the moral teachings of the Church. But, on the other hand, God also told us to treat the sinner with love and mercy—to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-35) and that we will be judged as we judge others (Matthew 7:2). In other words, we are forbidden a merciless approach to those who do wrong. These are not contradictions. Our Lord stressed love and mercy, but He also was the one who warned us of Hell, stressing the need for repentance (Matthew 4:17).
The danger is we are tempted to think, our own sins don’t matter but those of people we despise matter a great deal. So, one Catholic condemns other Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion Catholic, but treats their own neglect of Catholic social teaching as trivial or not even a sin at all. Another Catholic condemns racism and ignoring social justice but treats sins against sexual morality as trivial or not even a sin at all. Both praise themselves and denounce the other, but both are failing to do God’s will and both will be judged if they fail to repent when they do wrong. There is no, “I do good with X, so God will overlook Y.”
All of us must remember that the Christian life isn’t a choice between moral teaching and mercy. Rather we are called to constantly evaluate where we stand in relationship with God, showing love and mercy to bring people back to a right relationship with Him, instead of leading them to despair or rebellion.