The Difficult Way of Mercy

Have we allowed ourselves to become a Church with only two gears: moral condemnation and moral approbation?

Allow me to suggest the case of an apostolic exhortation never written that may never be written. Let’s say it deals with the pastoral concerns that arise due to the increasing presence in our society of “transgender” persons—persons who have surgically transformed their bodies in attempt to change their “sex.”

Perhaps this apostolic exhortation would begin with a profound discussion of the meaning of the sexual dimension of the human body, starting with God’s creation of the human person, “both male and female he created them,” re-stating the constant teaching of the Church on the necessary complementarity between male and female in God’s plan, the nuptial meaning of the sex act and its relationship to the “gendered” parts of the human body, with an emphasis on how human freedom should be guided by the truth of the human person created in God’s image.

And let us say that the document were to state that, given these teachings, taking steps to change one’s sexual identity, especially actions involving actual surgical interventions, would be a form of “lying with one’s body,” as Pope John Paul II has written about contraception. It should therefore be considered contrary to scriptural testimony, Church teaching, human flourishing, and God’s plan for our well-being.

All of this would likely be very controversial to certain elements in American society, which would likely decry these elements of the document as “barbaric” and “retrograde,” “returning us to the Dark Ages.”

The hard way of mercy: Various challenges

But now let’s say that the author of this document were to add a section near the end in which he turned his focus from those beset with the problems and temptations that had caused them to undertake such radical transformations of their bodies and placed it on those with the responsibility for their pastoral care. And let us say that in these circumstances the author pointed out that “mercy” does not mean merely waiting for the wayward to come home; rather it means “going out” to those who are injured, and who have injured themselves, and doing what we can to “accompany” them back into the fold. 

What should a modern pastor to do? Should every transgender person be forbidden entry into a Catholic Church? Would it cause scandal, would it make other parishioners feel uncomfortable, to see a man dressed as a woman or a woman dressed as a man at Mass? Should the priest faced with such a person—who might be open to the call of the Gospel and who is one of God’s children we are called upon to care for—tell him: “Now listen here; you need to stop all this foolishness, man up, and dress right”? 

Would absolution in confession only be given on the condition that the transgender person pledges he will reverse the surgery? And would it be utterly irresponsible if we attempted to distinguish his objective condition (a transformed body) from his subjective disposition (a willingness to change his life and to take the first few haltering steps toward something better), given that this distinction has for centuries been part of the moral and pastoral teaching of the Church? 

Objectively sinful states and the challenge of moral development

John Henry Newman came to believe at a certain point in his life that what he knew as the “Roman Catholic Church” was the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” of the Creed. The Church teaches that, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter…could not be saved.” Was Newman guilty of mortal sin during the period after he had become convinced that the Catholic Church “was made necessary by Christ” and the time when he actually entered, a period he describes in his Apologia as one in which he felt it was necessary to wrap up his affairs and finish out his responsibilities to his Anglican pastorate? If he had been run over by a horse and killed during that time, would he have died in mortal sin? His objective state was not yet in full communion with the Church, although he knew he ought to be. And yet we know that his subjective desire was to be in full communion. 

“But Newman wasn’t receiving any of the sacraments,” you might say. No, he wasn’t. But that’s not the question. The question is whether there is ever a distinction to be made between an objective state and a subjective intention to move toward full communion with the Church. And clearly there is. Why do I say this? Because this disjunction between “what I am now” and “what I hope to be” is a central fact of the journey taken by every adult convert to the Catholic faith. 

The journey of conversion—and beyond

When I entered a Catholic church for the first time, invited by some college friends, I was in an objectively disordered condition. I was in mortal sin, but I didn’t know—had never even heard the phrase and wouldn’t have understood it if I had. As I was drawn more and more to the Church, I came to realize what I already knew and feared implicitly: that I was (and am) a sinner and I had (and have) some real work to do to put things right.

But fortunately it was made clear to me early on that I was still harboring some old “pagan” tendencies that needed to be jettisoned: the belief that I had to go off somewhere and “purify” myself before I could enter God’s temple. Where could I get the washing and the purgation and the grace I needed? There was no place possible for this purgation other than the Church! The healthy don’t need field hospitals; the wounded do. Thinking I had to go “fix” myself before coming to church was like thinking I could say to my doctor: “Okay, doc, let me just go stop the internal bleeding from this gunshot wound, and then I’ll be back.” 

The journey from being “not in the slightest Catholic” to “Hmm, what about Catholic?” to “I really want to become a Catholic please” to “Catholic in full communion with the Church” did not happen overnight. Nor was it a straight-line ascent up the ladder of holiness. Look at any diagram of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages over the last hundred years, and that would give you a more accurate picture of my moral and spiritual development since those first inklings: up, down, up a little, down a lot, some recovery. Overall, is the index up? In some areas, yes; in others, not so much.

My point is that those of us who have entered the Church have done so knowing that our “becoming Catholic” was (and is) a dynamic process, not a static state. St. Gregory of Nyssa suggests that, given the infinite character of God, if you’re not moving upward constantly, then you’re moving backward. But you have to start somewhere.

Eating with tax collectors and sinners

Some people may be ready for a good fire-and-brimstone speech. But for others, it would be the reverse of helpful. People who talk this way in this society aren’t likely to get a hearing. Christ sat down to eat with tax collectors and other sinners as a way of opening up a conversation with them. It didn’t always work: some repented and reformed; others hardened their hearts. But he went out into the world to call sinners back. And we killed Him for it.

What would happen if a pastor’s first words to a transgender person were: “The Catholic Church demands you stop this foolishness, get yourself to a surgeon, have him change you back, and start acting like a real man”? I can tell you what would have happened if the first words I heard from a Catholic priest had been: “You know, if you keep going on the way you are, you’re going to hell.” He would have been right, but I wouldn’t have gone back to the Catholic Church.

Priests who start out with the bad news rather than the Good News usually aren’t going to see that person again. Embracing the faith will often require us to make some serious changes, perhaps even to make what we may see as real sacrifices. Who among us isn’t in need of real change and reformation? The question a pastor must ask is how he can get the person in front of him up to that point where he or she is willing to entertain the possibility of change. 

So what are to say to the transgendered? How about those with same-sex sexual attractions? What state must they have attained, what actions should we insist they undertake, to show they are worthy of (a) entering the Church, (b) participating in the life of the Church, or (c) partaking in any of the sacraments (including confession)? Must those with “gender dysphoria” agree to psychological treatment before coming to confession so they can promise honestly that they will be able to make good efforts not to cross-dress anymore? The Catholic Church has never demanded this. How about those with same-sex sexual attractions? How much chastity must they be able to document before entering the confessional or receive anointing of the sick? 

Question: Were you with me on the apostolic letter condemning “transgenderism” right up until the point where I started talking about reaching out in mercy? At that point did you start drawing back and asking yourself: “What’s going on here? He was lying when he said he was opposed to transgenderism. The moral condemnation I understand; this squishy ‘reaching out in mercy’ stuff is what has gotten us into trouble.” Has it? Or has the problem been that we’ve allowed ourselves to become a Church with only two gears: moral condemnation and moral approbation?

Is there some third way, we might wonder, between hosting drag parties and “coming out” events on Catholic college campuses and simply turning away cross-dressers and transgender persons from the church door? Is it possible to invite transgender persons into the activities of the Church without necessarily making them Eucharistic ministers? If we take seriously the demands of the Gospel to be Christ for others, there simply has to be.

Two ways of ignoring the problem of sin

There are two ways of ignoring the problem of sin. One way is to ignore the problem is to act as if nothing is wrong. “You’re fine; just be who you are.” This response takes no courage, makes the person speaking look “caring,” and leaves the person in his or her sin.

Another way of ignoring the problem is to act as if it didn’t exist; to say, “Yes, there may be people engaging in sinful behavior in my parish, but I’ll just ignore it. I’ll wait in the confessional for sinners to come to me, and if they repent, I’ll absolve them.” This is the way many bishops and priests are dealing with our current challenges over same-sex relationships. They’re shutting their eyes to the problem and hoping it will just go away.

This is not the first time clergy have refused to face a problem head-on. Avoiding the problem was their approach to the pedophile problem; it was their approach to the crises in the Church when they knew very well that members of their congregations belonged to the Irish mob or Italian mafia, and had been involved not only in theft and prostitution, but actual murder. It is their approach today with abortion proponents such as Nancy Pelosi. What are we to say? Nancy Pelosi can approach for Communion, but a person struggling with gender dysphoria and cross-dressing cannot? The Church has allowed the real-life equivalents of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone to take Communion, but now they’ll deny it to men and women struggling with same-sex attractions?

Those who are guilty of mortal sin should not approach for Communion, you say. I agree. But what are you expecting a priest to do? How many parishioners do you suppose approach for Communion although they are guilty of watching pornography? How many have engaged in masturbation? How many have cheated on their taxes or defrauded investors? How many are guilty of lying? The list of mortal sins could go on and on. Everyone in the congregation can approach for Communion except gay people, transgender people, and couples in “irregular” marriages? This can’t be quite right. 

Our pastoral challenges go far beyond the specific question of who is receiving Communion and who isn’t. The issue is not unimportant, but it is, let me suggest, just one factor in a broader set of concerns that need to be addressed.

What if we are being challenged, not only by the Pope but by the Holy Spirit, to find ways to do more? Christ never said that ours would be an easy task. He illustrated this truth by suffering and dying on a cross for our sins. What if the author of our imagined apostolic exhortation were to insist that mercy, as Thomas Aquinas says, is the property that “befits God to the highest extent because his merciful deeds are over all his works, and he saved us not on the basis of works of justice that we have done, but according to his mercy”? What if he reminded us that mercy is hard both going out and coming back?

The way of repentance is hard, but so is the way of mercy, and this for two reasons. First, because acting with mercy is to be most like God and is thus most contrary to our natural sinfulness. And second, because the moment when we force ourselves to the hard business of embracing others in mercy is when we often have to be most honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness. We need God, and we need others. If we don’t show them we’re willing to sacrifice for them, to help them carry that cross, then what motivation will they have to pick theirs back up after falling and move forward?

Catholics believe that we are born in original sin, and that it is only by God’s grace that we can become free, by what is often a slow process of moral development over time. Step by painful step, gradually, God has led us, often carried us, if we have made any progress at all. And He has often led us and carried us by means of the blessed people He sent into our lives, people who patiently put up with all our selfish foolishness until, bit by bit, we turned toward God, began to crawl, then take a few stumbling steps, and then walk. 

Interpreting charitably with a “religious submission of mind and will”

A document such as the imaginary one I’ve been proposing would likely be rather long (somewhat like this article) if it were to cover all the topics I’ve suggested, and people might fault it for that, since we live in an Internet age in which written pieces are expected not to exceed a thousand words. And it’s likely the various formulations of difficult subjects and “hot-button” topics would be subjected to withering criticism. I’ve never written anything that I didn’t look at in print and wish I had said something differently. Nor have I written anything, no matter how faithful to official Catholic teaching, that didn’t bring me excoriation in the “comments” section as a fool, a scoundrel, or worse. So no, I don’t imagine such a document would ever be considered “letter perfect.” 

Would people be able to look beyond all that, I wonder, and see what is truly valuable in such a document in order try to understand the teaching and hear its call to both repentance and mercy? Would they be able to look beyond all the controversies and difficulties over specific wording, give the document as charitable an interpretation as possible, granting it the “religious submission of mind and will” that Catholics are called upon to show “in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra”—“in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will,” which are discerned “from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” 

Would Catholics be able to sort through a complex document of this sort and distinguish those things that are long-standing doctrinal principles from those that are tentative formulations of pastoral concerns for current situations? Would they, after prayerful reading and reflection, express whatever concerns they might have about the document in accord with the norms set forth for “licit dissent” from teachings of the authentic, non-infallible magisterium: namely, “only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church and is such as not to give scandal”?

Reading charitably: With the joy of love or the anger of challenged pride?

These would be difficult questions—questions that thoughtful and faithful Catholics would be called upon to wrestle with, pray about, and argue over charitably with each other, guided by the great heritage handed down to us by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. They are the sort of questions we now are, or should be, asking about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. For an exhortation such as the one I’ve described above would be, in many respects, very much like Francis’ current one. It would be a “sign of contradiction,” as Christ was, both to those who insisted on absolute personal autonomy and those who insisted on rigorous application of absolute moral norms.

There will undoubtedly be some who will read Amoris Laetitia and say, contrary to the whole tenor and substance of the document, that Pope Francis has “opened the door” to Communion for divorced Catholics; that he has “changed” Church teaching or acted contrary to canon law. He has not. (Look for the term “indissolubility.”) You can know this for sure because if he had intended to make the radical changes people are insinuating were made, he wouldn’t have done so in an apostolic exhortation. He would have put out an encyclical or a papal bull. Apostolic exhortations are not unimportant— they have authority—but they don’t bear the doctrinal weight that more formal documents do. 

Some people have complained: “Why can’t the Pope just speak plainly. Why is his meaning so convoluted?” I won’t defend every formulation or choice of words in the document, but perhaps he is speaking relatively plainly, and it only seems unclear because we keep insisting that something more must be going on than what’s apparent on the surface. Hasn’t he really signaled that he is changing Church discipline? Nowhere in the document does he say that, and the burden of proof should be on those who wish to interpret the document that way.

I challenge you to read the first seven chapters of Amoris Laetitia and leave aside, for the time being, Chapter 8. I’m not saying Chapter 8 isn’t important; I’m simply asking that you read and re-read the first seven chapters first and reflect on what you’ve read there. And then, in light of those chapters, ask yourself whether the Pope has changed or compromised the Church’s teaching on marriage. Then, in two months or so, after you’ve read and re-read chapters 1 through 7, you might, if you feel called to do so, make your way through Chapter 8, line by line. 

Sure, there are plenty of bureaucratic issues that need to be resolved. They’re not unimportant. But I am content to let the experts deal with the categories. I am perfectly happy to leave decisions about what constitutes proper grounds for an annulment to canon lawyers trained in such matters. I have seen plenty of comments from ungifted amateurs insisting they know “what the Church says.” These comments are not only often enough wrong, they are, more to the point, spectacularly unhelpful. We don’t need arm-chair canon lawyers telling couples with marital issues what they can and can’t do, any more than we need arm-chair doctors telling people with cancer whether they should or shouldn’t have surgery.

There will of course be those who will say the Pope has changed Church teaching because they don’t really care what the Pope says or what the Church teaches. Their only concern is to use certain of his words to further their own agenda. None of those Catholic university administrators who said two years ago that they were “following Pope Francis” by putting less emphasis (or no emphasis) on abortion or contraception and were making themselves “more open” to gay marriage and “alternative families” are now retracting those statements in light of Pope Francis’s very clear condemnations of them in Amoris Laetitia.

Mercy: Answering Christ’s call, heeding Christ’s warning

At the present moment, however, I’m more concerned with what culturally “conservative” Catholics will say and do, largely because I am one. It’s easy enough to vilify the other side; but are we willing to turn that critical eye around on ourselves? Are faithful Catholics willing to interpret this apostolic exhortation charitably and in accord with the document’s overall intention? Will we be willing, then, to do the hard work it challenges us to do? 

Will bishops, for example, strive to do a better job and expend more resources on Pre-Cana programs and tribunals? Or will pre-Cana continue to be the notoriously bad, pro-forma exercises many Catholics have come to know and dread? I know someone who says—only somewhat tongue-in-cheek—that if 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, then 50 percent of the people sitting in Pre-Cana probably shouldn’t be getting married. I’m not saying I agree with those numbers, but the serious point behind the comment is that, if so many marriages are failing, the kind of two-day quickie marriage preparation we’re currently asking couples to participate in clearly isn’t doing the job. 

Are bishops going to undertake the hard steps needed to help couples considering marriage avoid a spiritually and emotionally devastating set of mistakes? Good ones have. Or will they continue to take the easy route of simply passing along the problem to their understaffed marriage tribunals for them to take the heat, and to their priests in the local parishes to figure out how to deal with the “irregularities” caused by these bad marriages?

Like some, I have concerns about some of the specific wording in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. And yet, I’ll need more time to read, reflect, and pray. In the meantime, what about the challenge the Pope has posed for us to go out to others who are in painful situations rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to us? We are called upon to live as members of Christ’s Body, seeking more fully to make ourselves into the image and likeness of God. And if, as St. Thomas says, mercy is God’s primary act, then we must go out of ourselves to extend mercy. How we do that in various situations will take wisdom—the sort of wisdom we don’t characteristically develop in a society of autonomous individuals. 

And it precisely because we have allowed ourselves to become a society of autonomous individuals that we depend more and more upon the law to bring order in society rather than building fellowship and community from the ground up, by serving as a leaven in society through the exercise of the virtues, both intellectual and moral; through countless conversations with others with whom we disagree; and by living the Gospel message fully and truly so that our light will shine before men. When the Gospel is a matter only of words and rules, it has no power to transform. Or at least that’s what St. Paul thought.

Is no one else concerned about Paul’s warnings about the law: about its tendency to tear down and destroy, and about its failure to bring life? Is no one else concerned about Christ’s harsh condemnations of the self-righteous and complacent scholars of the law? 

In these endless conversations about the precise interpretation of the canons and who should or should not be received at Christ’s table, I’ve heard comparatively little about how we can find ways of talking to our fellow Catholics, of calling each other to account for our failures while still maintaining a spirit of charity.

Does no one else hear the warning echoing repeatedly in their ears: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them”?

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."