This past Fall some cardinals have challenged Pope Francis to clarify what appears to them, and undoubtedly to others, some confusion over his formulations which could be seen to contradict all previous teaching by the Church on moral questions, most notably whether people separated or divorced and currently in a new marital situation might be admitted to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion.
Whatever discussion and confusion may have already existed seems to have been exacerbated by the open publication in November by these cardinals of the text they had previously sent privately to Pope Francis and to which he did not respond. The open discussions from any and all points of view have since proliferated all over the web and social media.
Are all those engaging in these quasi public discussions stating that all of us are to be permitted only one way of treating these questions, that is, by theological discourse, allowing us to utter only clear and categorical statements about morality, such as are to be found in university classrooms?
Are then such categorical dogmatic statements to be the only approach to human beings, regardless of the venue or situation, such as was the practice of the Pharisees in Jesus' day? The logical outcome is that we take upon ourselves the prerogative of God the only true judge and we push this dogmatic discourse to its logical conclusion and pass judgment on each and every human being in any and all possible human life situations, said judgment to be summarily declared on the sole basis of such dogmatic definitions? Then we would no longer recognize God as the only just judge by taking judgment on ourselves, as did the Pharisees who felt quite perfectly justified in carrying out the prescriptions of the Torah in stoning anyone found in any situation of objectively grave sin.
Theoretical or theological discourses on moral issues are one thing, but the treatment of real human beings in the course of daily living is quite another.
If we are not to go the way of the Pharisees, who were quite content to condemn anyone who "stepped out of line" - showing no sign of compassion or of any feeling whatsoever besides the smug satisfaction of "nailing the sinner" - but instead are to follow Jesus' example and teaching; how are we then to understand his ready association with commonly recognized "public sinners"?
His practice of not passing judgment on anyone had as its only exception to contradict the Pharisees when they were on the point of executing the accused while challenging his authority. Jesus did say to that one woman and to a few others "go and sin no more" but He did not make a practice of going around passing judgment of even simply saying "go and sin no more" to everyone. Rather, he left people to their own devices, free will, and conscience to come to righteousness in natural course, asking only that people follow the great commandment of love. About judgement He said "judge not lest you be judged".
I don't necessarily agree with what the bishops of Malta have done, but then again I am not familiar with what pastoral challenges they are trying to address. What I do wonder about is what is this "itch" that people increasingly seem to have to day for wanting nothing but categorical definitions and, in extension, the clear condemnation of all those who don't appear to abide by or fit those definitions? Are people so afraid of employing their own conscience that they need to rely primarily on the universal application of clear dogmatic declarations?
I seem to recall that this is what constituted medieval society: clear definitions of right and wrong, summary judgment of anyone accused of not fitting in, and rapid execution or other punishment of those found guilty. In such a society it was highly possible for people to be externally observant of morality while within they cultivated all manner of evil, and for others to be caught in flagrant error while harboring within them an otherwise innocent and loving spirit and life. This was not much different from the Pharisaical outlook of Jesus' day.
Even in the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, as it is to be found in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18, when the Lord reveals his own approach and attitude that it is not until the final moment that a soul reveals its true and inherent malice or justice. God does not judge by appearances or by external circumstances - are we have such an appetite to do - but He rather looks at the heart.
The Scriptures are clear about God's justice and clear denunciation of evil and sin, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Scriptures are replete with God's declarations of patience and mercy towards sinners; lest any be lost. But then again we humans tolerate with great difficulty any semblance of ambiguity and much prefer to drag people to the guillotine. I recall that since the French Revolution the criminal code in France holds guilty anyone accused by simple virtue of their being accused, putting the burden of proof on the accused to demonstrate their innocence. If unable to do so, however innocent they may be, they are submitted to the full rigor of the law.
The new trend in the Catholic Church seems to be to want to bring this French legalism into the life and practice of the Church. I shudder at the thought of it.
We can always rely on our Church and its magisterium to teach with clarity what Jesus taught, but we also look to her to teach and to practice the mercy that Jesus introduced and for which He was killed. We are inclined to forget how difficult it was the first time for Jesus to introduce mercy in a society which could only tolerate legalism. Not much has changed it seems, and as the opposition to Pope Francis demonstrates, it is just as difficult now as then to try to introduce God's own attitude of mercy with justice or justice with mercy in our own day.
We thankfully still grasp the difference between dogma and revelation, between acts of magisterium and the Sacred Scriptures, between words of the Church and the Word of God. It is only right and reasonable to agree on this point. Jesus' teaching was and is clear.
What cannot be so clear is how we bring one person at a time to hear and grasp Jesus' teaching and then apply it to their own lived situation in the free exercise of their own will and conscience as opposed to us, or whoever is in dialogue with them, coming down hard on them with a categorical definition of sin and declaration that they are in that sin now.
Are we to talk to people as judge, jury, and executioner, or are we to walk with them as fellow sinners on the journey towards holiness and do what we can so that they can begin to perceive the light that is shining on the face of Jesus and freely choose to walk, to take steps, towards that light?
When we talk with others, this personal discourse takes place in a matter of minutes or perhaps extended over some days or weeks. God's dealings with each of us stretch out over our lifetimes. Who are we to force people to digest compressed in a short time what we ourselves have experienced as God's patience and learned as God's truth over our lifetime?
This then is no longer public discourse but the new evangelization. Part of this universal effort is about the need for the Church to present to the world both a clear rendering for today of what Jesus always teaches, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a clear statement for today of what Jesus brought as a practical and personal introduction to the mercy of God, which He incarnates.
The discourses of truth and mercy are clearly very different while being complementary and both necessary because they are essential parts of the one reality of the life given to us by God to live as his children and not as orphans or pagans or the damned. We cannot squeeze one discourse into the methods or timing of the other without doing irreparable harm to real, live, breathing human beings, sinners all; as are we ourselves.
It seems that the difficult coexistence of these two discourses is a primary cause of the ambivalence, tension, and even in some cases hysteria which we observe happening in this worldwide discourse over human sexuality, marriage, and family which has been going on since before Venerable Pope Paul VI released his Encyclical "Humanae Vitae" - "The transmission of human life...."