Year in review: Mercy shaped the life of the church in 2016

Pope Francis and other clergymen hear confessions from young people April 23 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during a Year of Mercy event for teens. (CNS/EPA/Angelo Carconi)

Pope Francis and other clergymen hear confessions from young people April 23 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during a Year of Mercy event for teens. (CNS/EPA/Angelo Carconi)

by Michael Sean Winters

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Part 2 of a three-part series looking back on the events of 2016. Find Part 1 here.

In the life of the church, 2016 mostly coincided with the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which officially began in late 2015 and concluded on the feast of Christ the King last month. When I first heard that the Holy Father intended to call a Jubilee Year of Mercy, I confess I did not realize what a big event this would be. Yet, it shaped every aspect of the life of the Catholic church in 2016.

Pope Francis had the idea to not only open the holy doors in the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome, but asked every diocese in the world to designate a special door at the cathedral, and other significant places, through which pilgrims could pass. Bishops around the globe delivered pastoral letters about mercy, and made it the topic of presbyteral convocations, and published essays on the subject of mercy in their diocesan papers.

In the course of the year, I do not think it was possible for someone who goes to Mass even once a month to have missed some mention of mercy. It was an enormous success.

Francis had powerful assistance from St. Luke, the evangelist, whose Gospel was read throughout the year. Luke's Gospel has often been called "the Gospel of mercy" and it includes the three great parables of mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost, or prodigal, son. These parables, especially the last, are a hermeneutical key for understanding Francis' pontificate: He knows that only by recovering a truly evangelical spirit, with the Gospel of mercy at its heart, can the church find new life.

Mercy framed the pope's apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, issued in March, the fruit of two synods on the family that met in the previous two years. I wrote about the document at the time it was issued and began my reflection with a particular quote from the text:

At times we find it hard to make room for God's unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its con­crete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.

I cannot think of three sentences that better encapsulate the thrust of the document and, indeed, of Francis' entire pontificate. The issue goes much deeper than any discussion about whether or not the divorced and remarried can discern a path to the Eucharist, although it includes that. The issue involves more than the church's theology of marriage and of the Eucharist.

It is an effort to slay a perennial temptation in the life of the church, the temptation to pride and its theological cousins Pelagianism and Jansenism. Grace is freely given to those who beg for mercy and who extend mercy; it cannot be earned as the Pelagians thought. Nor is grace a prize for the perfect as both the Pelagians and the Jansenists believed. Nor is grace reserved for those whose concern for sexual purity, their own but especially others' purity, is the key point of Christian discipleship, as the Jansenists held.

The subsequent debate over Amoris Laetitia is unlike anything we have ever seen. Just last week, Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta, in an interview at Catholic World Report said that he was not accusing Francis of heresy, but he did allow, "If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It's automatic. And so, that could happen." Nice.

What Burke has never grasped is that the debate is not about a relaxation of discipline or doctrine, but about how two doctrines of the church, the indissolubility of marriage and the absolute mercy of God, come together in the life of the church.

Relatedly, it is about reintegrating the central role of conscience in determining a person's moral choices. Conscience is not whim. It is not an easy out. It is the voice of God speaking within the person's life. As Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego explained at his diocesan synod convoked to discuss Amoris Laetitia, "Rationalization is the enemy of conscience."

Two weeks ago, I penned a three-part series discussing the broader context of the debate over Amoris Laetitia and the opposition to Pope Francis more generally. You can read that series here, here and here. In essence, there were some theologians and prelates and commentators who thought the reception of the Second Vatican Council was done, and they had defined all that required clarification. They were wrong. The council is still being received and the opposition to Francis is, among some, rooted in opposition to the council, and in others, based on particular emphases in the conciliar texts to the neglect of others. Francis is reintegrating important teachings from Vatican II, such as a revivified synodality, a fuller appreciation of the role of conscience, and a renewed focus on the social doctrine of the church. That is all he is doing.

It is worth noting that a disproportionate amount of the opposition to Francis is found in the United States. Prominent conservative American Catholics have claimed they wanted a more evangelical church, one that embraced "the truth of the Gospel" and proclaimed that truth unapologetically. George Weigel wrote a book titled Evangelical Catholicism.

The heart of the Gospel, God's mercy, was not on the conservatives' agenda, however. They have been wrapped up in defining "clear boundaries" and "nonnegotiable" public policy items. Thus was born "the culture wars."

I am sure that most culture warriors have a genuine concern for the unborn, or that they believe gay people are harming themselves by acting on their orientation, or that contraception is a sin. But they seem more concerned not to be infected by the ambient culture's relaxed mores, to preserve a pristine moral state, especially when it comes to sex. They aspired to the moral equivalent of a gated community. They embraced their countercultural ethos and were not shy about letting people know that this embrace ranked them among the elect.

There was one central theme of the Gospel to which the conservatives never warmed: They would never, ever challenge the dominant consumer capitalist ethic per se. Morals were always an add-on to the market and its ways.

"A poor church, for the poor." This is what Pope Francis said he wanted early in his pontificate and, by word and deed, he has shown the way. In justice, Catholics are called to confront and ameliorate the socioeconomic fact of poverty. And we should not spiritualize poverty. But it is a fact that the poor are closest to God's heart in large part because they rarely worship the false idol of "success" that defines so much of the ambient culture.

Humility is a kind of poverty to which all Christians must aspire and, in this materialistic age, a genuine renunciation of material wealth is a sign of authenticity. Recapturing a genuine zeal for the Gospel must entail shedding the upper-middle-class concerns that have so dominated much of the polarizing discourse within the church in the U.S. in the past few decades.

Indeed, the polarizing debates, the culture wars, are dying a natural death. In a book published this year, Polarization in the US Catholic Church, sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame wrote about the degree to which, and the reasons why, millennial Catholics are allergic to the culture wars. He observed:

Millennials are also generally sick of culture wars. Anything that smacks of culture warring does not interest them. If something feels culture wars-y, for the most part, they turn off. Most are tired of conflict and just wish everyone could get along. Part of this, I think, stems from a legitimate weariness of interminable adult fighting. Another part of it grows out of strong forms of relativism about knowledge and morality, which they have deeply imbibed. Most Millennials believe that each person can decide for themselves what they think, which is fine, but that nobody has the right to be judgmental in criticizing what anyone else thinks. Most views that people might hold are thought to be legitimate "for them." And if differences of views among people create problems, then everyone should just back away, keep their beliefs quietly to themselves, and just get along pragmatically.

Smith's analysis rings true and it is a little more than half-depressing: Apathy and relativism are not fertile ground for preaching the Gospel. But has the Gospel been preached? Or is your typical millennial to be forgiven for not recognizing that the Gospel is announced as good news to the poor, given the concerns that have so dominated the culture-war debates?

The church is not a debating society. It is a communion of persons, organized hierarchically, and charged with continuing the ministry of the Lord Jesus, indeed serving as his body in history. And, this year, Francis made three Americans cardinals, adding to the highest ranks of the hierarchy men who share his vision of a poor church for the poor.

In Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago, Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis (and soon to be in Newark, N.J.), and Kevin Farrell, now posted to lead a dicastery in Rome, the Holy Father found three men who are less concerned with erecting "clear boundaries" and defining "nonnegotiables" than they are with witnessing to the Gospel in its fullness, avoiding that "worst watering down of the Gospel" that sets so many conditions on God's mercy, and characterized by a ministry that does not present the teachings of the church as a ready-made checklist waiting to be affirmed, so much as they engage people with the question: "How is God active in your life already?"

 The question levels the playing field and prevents evangelization from turning into proselytism and manipulation. With men like this joining the College of Cardinals, the church in the U.S. is turning a page.

Tomorrow, I will conclude the year-end review by looking at the estuary where religion and politics meet.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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