Pope Francis in his pastoral theology of mercy and inclusion is moving the church away from an ecclesiastical vision of "smaller but purer" to a church that embraces the wounded and frail, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy told a group of Catholics gathered at the headquarters of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael on Jan. 22. His presentation was part of a monthly lecture series the sisters are offering.
"Mercy is the fulcrum of Francis' theology," the bishop said. The pope is asking the church to look through a pastoral lens that replaces harsh judgment about rule-keeping with a compassion that recognizes the failures of all of us, he said. "We are all wounded people. God comes to us most powerfully in that woundedness."
Using the image of the church as a field hospital where the wounded are gathered, McElroy said the church's mission is to bring love, mercy and healing. Too often, he said, the church has focused first on people living rightly instead of being the place where people encounter forgiveness and support as they struggle to live virtuous lives.
"To be judgmental is a cardinal sin for religion," he said. "It is easy for the church to get lost in the rules, but pastoral theology trumps rules."
As the final document of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family declared, "People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life," he said. This means, for example, re-examining whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Why can a murderer confess and be allowed to receive Communion while a divorced Catholic in a faithful second marriage cannot? McElroy asked.
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"I've always favored the Greek Orthodox position" in which a person can receive the sacrament of marriage only once, but a divorced person who is remarried in a civil ceremony is welcome to receive Communion, he said. "The church cannot begin with exclusion."
Rather, in exploring such pastoral situations, start with the reality of a person's life, McElroy said. That is what Francis is saying in his inductive method of pastoral theology, he added. To illustrate his point, he referred to Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes regarding responsible parenthood in which couples "find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased." McElroy pointed to Francis' recent "don't be like rabbits" comment as an example of putting a church teaching into common parlance.
This does not mean, the bishop emphasized, that the church's prohibition of artificial contraception is to be lifted or that abortion is ever justified. Instead, he said, the church is calling on couples to act responsibly in determining the size of their family.
McElroy lamented what he called a "bifurcation" in the U.S. into two primary camps: anti-abortion or anti-poverty, often reflected in the positions of the Republican and Democratic parties. "Church teaching spans all of this," he said.
For many years, U.S. church leaders have put emphasis on pro-life issues, which remain "core" because of the prominence of a "culture of death," McElroy said. But "global poverty is such a scourge in the world that it cannot be relegated to a lower focus." That is Francis' message, he said. The structural evil of economic inequality must become front and center to prevent the millions of death each year from hunger and malnutrition. "This is a slaughter of people that cannot be tolerated."
Next month's lecture at the Dominican Sisters center will feature John Haught, theology professor at Georgetown University, on "The Contemporary Significance of Teilhard de Chardin."
[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast Correspondent. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]