Last Monday night, I began writing my rebuttal to a post at First Things which, among other things, alleged that the synod was essentially rigged, a charge also made by Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register. The next morning, lo and behold, the Holy Father made a rare intervention in the synod, denouncing a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” and I posted my finished blog rebutting the conspiracy theorists. To be clear: Pope Francis and I are not in cahoots! But, it is very disturbing to see so many people resisting the pope’s efforts to invite the Church to consider a simple question: What does it mean to be a Church faithful to God’s mercy? And, more specifically, what does that mean in the context of the family? With the pope taking on the conspiracy theorists, one could anticipate a change in tactics by the resisters
Last night, I tuned in to EWTN’s “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo.” (Borrowing a recently uttered phrase by the statesman Donald Trump, I assure the readers “I am not a masochist!” but I have to see what is being said.) Robert Royal made the correct observation that the situations of families, and especially many of their problems, in the wealthy West are not the same as those in the Global South. I wish the Church would warm to the idea that pastoral practice can differ, does differ, and must differ, from one culture to the next, especially in an institution as culturally embedded as marriage and family life, and that the authorities in Rome should give wider latitude to local bishops and episcopal conferences in determining pastoral practice.
The rest of the program, however, was an exercise in resistance, not to the pope really, but to the Lord Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, in which the Master asks, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” Mr. Royal made clear that the synod should not focus so much on “secondary issues” like the divorced and remarried or gays and lesbians, but should focus on supporting Catholic families. He was echoing Archbishop Charles’ Chaput’s intervention, in which he emphasized the need for “perseverance” and did not once mention the word “mercy.”
I do not entirely disagree that a proper focus of the synod, perhaps even the major focus, should be on supporting families. But, the bishops are there because they are shepherds and the parable of the lost sheep is clear: It is the shepherd’s job to leave the ninety-nine and go off in search of the one who is lost. Of course, in the context of the Church’s teaching about marriage, today the shepherd must leave the 50 sheep and go off in search of the other fifty, for fully half of Catholic marriages in the West end in divorce. That alone should question the viability of the Royal-+Chaput approach: It is not working!
But, the parable of the lost sheep is not about pastoral strategy really, is it? It is about how God views each and every person as so inestimably precious, and wants, wants desperately, to bring them into His fold. What have the moralists and the culture warriors done recently to really make the divorced and remarried or the gay and lesbian Catholics feel that they are precious? When push comes to shove, and the choice is to embrace them even at the risk of the “clarity” of our moral teaching, or to ramp up that clarity, draw distinctions rather than build bridges, we know where they come down. They seem terrified that if they let their guard down against “secularism,” they will lose what they have. They are timid, and afraid, like the man who buried his treasure in the parable of the talents.
In his magisterial biography of Edmund Burke, Conor Cruise O’Brien notes that when young Burke went to Trinity College, he started a debating club and a newspaper. “Both were moralistic, preoccupied with improvement in taste and knowledge, earnest, determined, talented, a bit priggish, with the air of a rising middle class about them,” he writes. Listening to EWTN last night, and reading +Chaput’s intervention, and his comments at the press briefing, this passage of O’Brien’s biography came to mind.
The parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke is situated between two other parables, the lost coin and the lost son, better known as the Prodigal. In each of these, with ever great emphasis, Jesus is trying to teach His disciples about God’s mercy. It has been noted before, by me and by others, that +Chaput and others who seem to resist the implications of God’s mercy for the Church’s pastoral practice sound like no one so much as the older son in that parable. They have been loyal and faithful, and wonder how anyone could even think of treating the wayward one as their equal, nay, with even greater celebration than the stalwart like themselves. Yet, for all their talk about the explicit words of Jesus regarding divorce and remarriage (“it was not so in the beginning”), they tend to overlook these other explicit words of Jesus regarding mercy.
I would submit that the Parable of the Prodigal is not only in the Gospel, it is the heart of the Gospel. It is about God’s love overflowing His justice, issuing in mercy, all because God the Father, somewhat improbably, just loves us human beings more than we can imagine. It is up to the synod fathers to determine how to reconcile Jesus’ explicit words on marriage with His explicit words on mercy. (I will point out: If the Church is to re-orient its moral teaching to a pre-lapsarian “it was not so in the beginning” vision, the +Chaput and EWTN and Weigel et al. can kiss good-bye to the right to private property, which is a right conferred only in consequence of the Fall!) This is, as the Holy Father suggested, no effort to find compromise so much as it is an exercise in recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth is always inadequate, always needs refreshment, always needs to find new and better ways to connect the many truths contained in Revelation. Whether or not the Catholic Church should take such-and-such stance regarding the divorced and remarried or gays and lesbians, or any other issue to come before them, I hope the synod fathers, the shepherds, will find ways to give the Catholic people the same sense of wonder and awe and gratitude that we experience when we hear those four words: A man had two sons.