Comfort & Consolation

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” We know these words from the Book of Isaiah. We recognize them as the words with which Handel’s Messiah” opens. We know the Advent tune that takes them as the chorus. The promise God articulates through Isaiah is, we Christians believe, redeemed in the birth of Jesus Christ.

As mentioned yesterday, we know that when He walked the earth, Jesus brought comfort to the afflicted, to those who were poor or marginalized, to the sinners and the prostitutes. To the comfortable, he brought affliction, challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees with all their learning and piety, calling them hypocrites and blind guides. In parable after parable, He showed us that God’s mercy is greater than human conceptions of justice and propriety, that God’s love runs ahead of all of our sins except the one sin, pride, which by definition, refuses to acknowledge our absolute need for God’s mercy.

Last week, at The Catholic Thing, Fr. Gerald Murray penned an article criticizing recent comments by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio in which the cardinal voiced support for the argument put forth by Cardinal Walter Kasper regarding re-admission of some divorced and re-married Catholics to communion. Murray’s arguments are not novel, nor do I find them persuasive, although I understand that many do so find them. He is focused on an important fact, the objective reality of a sacrament, marriage, and the claims of the moral law pertaining to that reality. The focus is important, but not exhaustive and few theologians and fewer canonists have laid a glove on the core of +Kasper’s argument: If, through a baptism of tears, the penance of those who denied Christ during persecutions in the early centuries of the Church, could gain re-admission to the sacraments, surely a similar penitential practice can achieve a similar second baptism by tears, for those Catholics who have divorced and re-married. Fr. Murray basically charges that the two cardinals are creating an exception to the rule, which is closer to the key issue than most critics – can there be exceptions to generally applicable rules?  - but that is an issue for another day.

What caught my attention was something Fr. Murray writes at the very end of his article:

What does this approach reveal? That for some Churchmen, the primary mission of the Church is to provide consolation. Uncomfortable doctrines and derivative Church discipline must be cast aside. But the Gospel call to conversion often involves upsetting a sinner in the hope that he will see that it is not God’s law that wounds us, but our sins. True consolation lies in rediscovering the joy of living in God’s grace by rejecting sin. Therein lies the path to both peace of soul now, and salvation in the world to come.

Consolation is a key concept in Jesuit ministerial theology. Regular readers will recall the review I posted of the book Saint Cicero & the Jesuits by Robert Maryks. (You can find that two part review here and here.) Maryks attributed the birth of probabilism in Jesuit theology to the order’s acquaintance with Cicero as they began running schools. And, St. Ignatius’ emphasis on providing consolation in the sacrament of penance is seen as laying the groundwork for probabilism. But, as I noted at the time, while Maryks’ theory is persuasive, there is likely another dog that did not bark in the history of the early Jesuits. Following the methodology of the Spiritual Exercises, they would have tried to imagine themselves walking with the Lord Jesus in different situations and would have encountered Him bringing consolation to all who sought it.

Fr. Murray pits ministerial consolation against “uncomfortable doctrines” and “derivative Church discipline,” in the quote above. But, I do not think that is what Pope Francis is after. I think, for too long, say, the past 35 years or so, pastoral theology was considered as a subset of moral theology or, worse, as a subset of canonical enforcement. I would not go so far as to say that Pope Francis wishes moral theology to become a subset of pastoral theology, but I do think he wants to restore the balance. Which brings us back to +Kasper’s proposal. It makes no sense unless you consider +Kasper’s far more sweeping indictment of the relative lack of theological attention to mercy as an attribute of God in theology through the centuries. He grants the importance of metaphysical analysis, of the kind that leads us to conclude certain things about the objective reality of the sacraments, but he points out that such metaphysical analysis is imported into the tradition, it is not part of the Gospels, not part of the original kerygma. This is key. Not to put words in Cardinal Kasper’s mouth, and allowing for the fact that he is a precise and careful theologian and I am a blogger, we could say that Kasper wants our metaphysical distinctions to serve the announcement of God’s mercy, not the other way round. Fr. Murray has it the other way round.

So, Fr. Murray, and others who dismiss the +Kasper proposal must ask themselves: Are they wrestling with Cardinal Kasper or are they wrestling with Isaiah? And with Jesus?  

N.B. I shall be driving to Connecticut to spend Christmas with my dad the rest of the day. So, no more posts today. 



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