Mercy is a deceptively impenetrable concept. When Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador spoke of forgiveness for the assassins targeting his priests, he premised his words to whom he knew would be a skeptical audience by saying, “Many people may laugh at this.” Nonetheless, he went on to say that, “The Church … even though she acts as a severe mother,” in her denunciations, “is always mindful of mercy.” (January 21, 1979 sermon.)
Mercy, perhaps, is the key to understanding the recent pronouncements of Pope Francis, without which his words will mystify conservatives in the Church, and give liberals within and without the Catholic world false hope of a relaxation of settled doctrines. Conservatives need to step back and recognize what the Pope is doing as a deliberate, conscious change in tack in the management of the faith. No, he is not naïve or using media without being conscious of the ramifications. Most of all: no, you do not need to “correct” or “explain” what he is saying or doing. Instead, you need to pay attention and get with the program. As for liberals, you might break off your end zone dance, take a breath, and realize that Francis is simply trying to find a more effective way of doing what previous Popes had set out to do, not to abandon their objectives. In Francis’ world, traditional marriage would prevail, birth control would be shunned, and abortion would become abhorrent, but in a more total and permanent way, because the changes would emanate from a reformed society, and not have to be constantly demanded by a weak, marginalized Church, snipping at the edges of a thoroughly secular world.
Francis has explained his philosophy, which is utterly coherent and utterly Catholic. “I believe that this is the season of mercy,” he explained during the headline grabbing news conference on the flight back from World Youth Day. His rationale was simple: the Church has a terrible image problem. The child sex abuse crisis, reports of a gay lobby, Vati-leaks, clouds over the Vatican Bank and other problems with church governance, as well as increasing rivalries within the Church, all led the Cardinals who elected Francis to demand reform from him, and he had analyzed that he had to effect a make-over before he could do anything else. “This new era we have entered, and the many problems in the Church—like the poor witness given by some priests, problems of corruption in the Church, the problem of clericalism for example—have left so many people hurt, left so much hurt,” the Pope reasoned. “The Church is a mother: she has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy,” he insisted. But this is no mere stratagem. Francis explained that, “I believe that this is a kairos: this time is a kairos of mercy.” In theology, kairos is a Greek word used to denote an appointed time in God’s purpose, a moment during which human action is demanded to fulfill God’s expectation.
Francis spoke along the same lines in his extended interview with Jesuit publications: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” Francis said in the interview. Once again: “the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.” How do you put mercy “above all?” You model the Church “as a field hospital after battle.” In such a setting, “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” When medics tackle a crisis scenario using a triage, they stage the treatment to deal with the most serious injuries first. “The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin,” the Pope explains. Stage one of the triage is mercy: “The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude.” Reforms are deferred to a time when they can be done more effectively. “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.” In his triage, Francis does not intend to omit altogether those things he has given a different tactical priority.
Just as you don’t ask amputees coming into a field hospital about their blood cholesterol levels, Francis is arguing, you don’t grill people who are weary about the Church and have lost their faith about their views on abortion, contraception and same sex marriage. Flying back from Brazil, the Pope said, “The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!” When he addressed young people, the Pope said, he preferred to concentrate on “the positive things that open up the path to young people … Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.” In the Jesuit interviews, the Pope expounded on the point: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods … it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Additionally, the Pope said, “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” In other words, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Francis does not say we have to stop talking about reproductive morality and life issues. Instead, he is saying that we have to be more effective in the way we talk about them so that we explain our views more convincingly. He goes back to the triage: “Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
When we put mercy first, we will win the culture wars. “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Defense of Life as a Tenet of Social Justice
Defense of Life as a Tenet of Social Justice