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Pastoral Mercy Requires Sound Doctrinal Judgment

April 18, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


It’s been a whirlwind week for Catholics with news of an apostolic exhortation, some business with the Chilean bishops, a gathering of cardinals in Rome, and a surprisingly orthodox interpretation of Catholic teaching on homosexual acts from none other than James Martin, SJ, in the pages of America magazine no less.
Yes, that Fr. Martin. Yes, that America magazine.
Interestingly enough, Martin discusses with surprising firmness the Catholic Church’s teaching on the homosexual act as intrinsically disordered. His words, or more accurately, the words chosen by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Moreover, Martin goes to great lengths to explain the difference between the doctrine of the Church and the pastoral mission of the Church, explaining to the reader that his approach was a weighty bet on the pastoral.
Whether any of the readers of Building a Bridge are open to the possibility of confessing the doctrinal truths of the Church is a point we raised in these pages…but it strikes one as the crux of the conversation as to whether charity requires the additional step of bringing those with sin to Christ, rather than merely accepting us in the condition of sin.
One has to openly wonder whether or not Martin was urged to print such a column, especially coming on the heels of Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad).
[Editor’s Note: Please also see Robert Royal’s commentary on the exhortation, p. 5A of this week’s issue, reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing.]
What is remarkable about the exhortation is not just the style, written much more in the manner of a pastor to a parishioner rather than a Pontiff issuing diktats from on high. Rather, Francis places a tremendous emphasis on individual holiness being the only path to social holiness — lines borrowed directly from Evangelii Gaudium, but refined in a personal pastoral sense.
In this sense, Francis cautions against two heresies that have gobbled up the attentions of the modern world: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Gnosticism is an old wineskin that predates Christianity, one that effectively argues that knowledge alone will redeem souls. Pelagianism is an ugly kid sister to Gnosticism, one that argues that rules alone will redeem souls.
Both are enemies of the faith. But what is fascinating about how Francis employs both is that they are very nearly responses to Christian realism. To one side, the Gnostic becomes an empiricist and egotist. On the other, the Pelagian becomes wrapped in a form of physicalism — or rather, where nature is bound by rules and by their understanding, we can control human nature itself.
For those familiar with the work of the great Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson, the moral right of the human person to stand apart from and judge nature rather than submit to either empirical or physicalist tendencies is the single great task of Catholic philosophy today. In an era governed by appetites and Big Data, one can easily see how right Gilson was, and what Francis may be trying to capture in essence.
Rather than focusing on “my truth” or “the rules” — Francis opts for a Christian center that produces fruit, or more accurately, the fruits of the Holy Spirit as found in the Beatitudes. More than this, these Beatitudes can be fulfilled in the acts of everyday life. To contemplatives, to those in married life, to those religious — Francis asks them to be a Christian where they are and in the moment.
If there is to be a single inflection point in any of this, it is Francis’ radical bet on mercy that perhaps raises more than a few eyebrows. Not because mercy is a thing to be disdained, but that for Francis, mercy is something that should be freely extended without predications.
In an interesting quote in n. 106, Francis quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as stating that charity covers a multitude of faults. Yes, charity does this. Yet charity commands a unique link between the pastoral and the doctrinal, for while Francis worries about a Church that becomes a museum for saints rather than a hospital for sinners, others are much more rightly worried that the Church stands in danger of refusing to treat the spiritually sick.
If we are indeed “strangers in a strange land” as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., counsels, and if Francis is indeed correct that we have a moral obligation to welcome the sinner, do we not also have a moral obligation to extend charity — not mere mercy — to these very same souls?

Cardinal Burke

To wit, just days before Francis’ apostolic exhortation was publicly released, a gathering of cardinals and Catholic laity headed up by Raymond Cardinal Burke occurred in Rome to discuss precisely this question of charity as a corrective and healing act as it pertains to giving the Eucharist to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Burke was not alone. In the artificial tension created between the pastoral and the doctrinal, Burke makes it very clear that Christ compels us to choose the moral and just not solely because He wishes us to be holy, but precisely because Christ has a prior claim to our holiness that no earthly contaminant can adjust or remove.
More was added. Should a Pope allow such a betrayal of the Magisterium to persist, then it is the duty and responsibility of the College of Cardinals to do so actively. Strong words indeed, given that the questions in the dubia remain unanswered and unattended.

Bishop Barros

This perhaps leads to the most bewildering item of last week. For all of Pope Francis’ attempts to create a more personalized faith that attacks the very heart of the postmodern era, it will remain a deep and indelible mark on his papacy that Chilean bishop Juan Barros Madrid ever rose to his post, given accusations that he had covered up for and defended his longtime friend Fr. Fernando Karadima. In 2011, Karadima was found guilty by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sexually abusing several minors during the 1980s and 1990s.
So grave is the crisis that not only is Pope Francis individually bringing the victims to Rome in order to apologize in person, but the entire 32 member Chilean Bishops Conference is being summoned to the Vatican in mid-May to discuss the scandal.
Considering that Pope Francis himself exhibited such vehemence in the defense of Barros — calling his accusers calumniators, no less — one can perceive a delicate strand here stitching together the whole.
With Francis explaining his radical bet on mercy, perhaps there is a hidden hope that this suffices as an explanation for his defense of Barros? Perhaps this space between pastoral mercy and doctrinal truths admit enough gray area to turn scandal into explanation? Perhaps others who saw earlier copies of the apostolic exhortation rushed to the barricades to re-explain themselves before the exhortation could be translated?
Either way, cards are being laid on the table, and for the moment it appears as if Francis’ handlers are holding a weaker hand than they previously surmised.
Pastoral work requires judgment, and without judgment there is no mercy. Yet without charity, there is no healing, and it is no charity to tell as sick person (or a sick world) that they are well. After all, it is no set of rules or knowledge ultimately that leads us to these conclusions, but a real and substantive faith.
Or simply put, “fidelity, fidelity, fidelity,” as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to say.

+ + +

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to:

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