Some cardinals are sulking. They complain that they had asked for a fraternal conversation with Pope Francis over Amoris Laetitia, the exciting, if controversial, papal exhortation on love, particularly married love, but have received no response. They then have had recourse to the medieval “dubita”—doubts—by which they hope to call attention to what they discern to be serious doctrinal issues. The cardinals, among whom is the ermine-clad Burke who has never forgiven Francis for having kicked him out of the supreme tribunal of the Church, tasking him to take care of the knights of the Order of Malta instead, are bristling with resentment over what they take to be a betrayal of traditional church teaching.
Once more, just what did Francis say in Amoris Laetitia? Among the many wonderful things he wrote on, he acknowledged the “difficult situations” that Catholic couples often find themselves in: divorced Catholics re-marrying, spouses abandoned by spouses and eventually linking up with others similarly situated. The Pope then acknowledges that compelling them to return to the “status ante” could even be more troublesome, disruptive and vexatious. I have never read him condoning adultery, or concubinage or bigamy. These, he insists, remain serious evils. But does one give up on those who fall? Is the Church the privileged circle of the pure and the holy or—a metaphor original to Francis—a “field hospital,” right in the midst of the battlefield into which are carried the bloody, the mangled and the grievously wounded?
Pope Francis knows that he is the guardian of doctrine, but he is also convinced that teaching doctrine is not his most important ministry. Preaching Jesus and bringing to the world his mercy—that, to him, is what it has been all about. “Merciful as the Father,” that was theme of the Jubilee Year, and that is what he calls on all bishops, priests and lay Christians to be merciful as the father. In fact, nowhere does Francis give blanket approval for communion to those in “difficult situations.” He rather asks pastors, in the exercise of priestly prudence but suffused with Christ’s charity, to discern carefully with the “wounded” Catholic whether or not, in his or her conscience, there has come about a separation from God and from Christ’s Body, the Church.
Nikolai Berdyaev, a frequently read Russian theologian, argued against a perpetual hell because, he argues, it is inconceivable that God’s love should ever fail. Amor semper vincit..love always conquers. Pope Francis of course does not deny the reality of hell. In fact, he has been rather traditional, conservative in fact, in talking about the Devil. But he is as certain about the mercy of God, and that, for him, was the most important thing that Jesus came to teach the world. Laws will keep us from clawing and tearing each other. But love and mercy alone will allow us to do truly great things and scale formidable heights in our evolution as human persons.
It is not a storm to be feared that Francis has whipped up. There is a storm only because some, in the Church, who should know better, rate canon law a more precious commodity than mercy. That, of course, is not new. To the pious Jews and rabbinic lawyers of the time, Jesus was in fragrant violation of the law many times—but what laws they were! Minutiae of conduct and quitting about what was and was not work on the Sabbath—these were the concerns of the law of the time, and these, Jesus did not consider good reason to do good on the Sabbath even if it appeared that he was breaking the law. Francis is not even going the far. He is asking the Catholic in dire moral straits to seek refuge in conscience—and urging pastors to accompany them in this labor of soul-searching. It is a storm that should should blow decaying branches off and allow fresh buds to sprout.
It is easier to put on the pretensions of righteousness by choosing the company only of the righteous and to maintain a code of inflexible conduct. Compassion and mercy—these, however, have taken greatness because they are the very attributes of God himself—and we are so unlike God, no matter the purple and crimson we wear!