For Francis, the Church’s doctrine is subordinated to the primary value of mercy

If you, like I do, suffer from Amoris defetiscenia, you might be clicking past pieces you see about the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.  I confess that I have to fight the temptation to tune out and just ignore the document and its coverage.  Alas, I cannot.  I must constrain myself to read more.

That said, pop over to LifeSite for a peek at an entry by Monica Miller.  HERE  She doesn’t  offer anything that is startlingly new, but she provides a succinct review of the difficulties within the document. Quite helpful is her swift review of the sore spots in the deeply troubling Chapter 8. Then she offers an opinion about what makes Pope Francis’ pontificate tick.

Amoris Laetitia: the key to the Francis pontificate

[… I’ll cut to the end…]

The ultimate key to understanding Francis comes at the end of AL, Article 311:

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. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”

Given what Francis has indicated in previous paragraphs, it is reasonable to understand him here to mean that the canonical requirement that those who have divorced and remarried should not be admitted to the Eucharist until they have received an annulment is a “condition on mercy” that waters down the Gospel. Such a “theological conception” challenges the omnipotence of God.

To understand what drives the Francis pontificate, is to appreciate his personal spiritual doctrine: the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church are subordinated to the primary value of mercy — and to insist on the practice of the demands of the Gospel (the rules) as a requirement for ecclesial membership opposes this primary value. Rather than mercy and the demands of the Gospel existing in a Christian paradox, for Francis they exist in conflict. Mercy is such a value for him that Francis states “the name of God is mercy.” I would argue that God’s name is not “mercy.” God’s name is “love.” It is love, and not mercy that is the essence of God out of which he exercises mercy toward sinners.

This emphasis on mercy first, the ethical requirements of discipleship second, explains why Francis consistently refers to moral absolutes in AL as the “ideal” with the emphasis placed on understanding the mitigating circumstances that prevent many from reaching that “ideal.” By placing mercy first in the hierarchy of spiritual values, and by subordinating to it the call to discipleship—a call which Christ himself taught involved the carrying of the cross, there is the possibility that the call to follow Christ will be muted and taken less seriously than Our Lord would wish. One may fairly conclude that in the spirituality of Francis, mercy trumps justice, love trumps truth—but without concluding that justice and truth are of no consequence.

The emphasis on mercy also explains Francis’ ecclesiology in his repeated description of the Church as “a field hospital for the wounded.” The field is mostly likely the battlefield of life itself, and in the midst of this broken, battered world, persons can come to the Church and be healed—the Church being that emergency room of welcome where wounds of personal sin and alienation are bound up. This idea of the Church is true, but only partially so. [Let us not forget that not everyone who goes to a “field hospital” lives and not everyone comes out with all their parts.  Also, they don’t have time to lie in a “field hospital”.] The metaphor gives the impression that Christians are not expected to perform acts of service, but to only receive acts of service—while we simply lay in hospital beds of mercy. There is no sense here that merciful healing leads to heroic fidelity to the Gospel which includes carrying heavy crosses.

Mercy is not simply important to Francis. The key to his pontificate is his insistence that mercy is the spiritual imperative of the Gospel that compels him to see as less imperative to the Christian life an insistence on the objective practice of the Gospel—a dynamic that certainly deserves deeper analysis. Let me conclude by saying that mercy is not the fullness of justice—as if to say that justice is subordinated to it. Rather, the fullness of justice is the new man recreated in the image of Christ through the grace he won for all on the Cross, a justice God wills all to possess.

And the beat goes on.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Just followed the link and read the whole thing. I must say it’s a fantastic explanation of the perspective from which the Holy Father wrote Amoris Laetitia. If you understand that perspective (is that a hermeneutic?) then the rest of the document all makes sense. Even if you don’t agree with the document or its goals, at least you can understand where it all comes from.

  2. “And the young man went away sorrowing; for he was very rich”. Did Our Lord withhold mercy from him?

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. anilwang says:

    The problem is, what Pope Francis offers is not mercy but indulgence. C. S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity, “We want not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven, a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?'”.

    The problem is, letting people slip into Hell is not mercy, it is negligence at best and worthy of Hell at worst ( Ezekiel 3:16-4:17 ).

    I think what Pope Francis doesn’t understand is that God’s primary attribute isn’t his mercy, or even his love, it’s that he is One (divine simplicity). So God’s Love is his Justice, which is his Truth, which is his Mercy, which is his Wrath. The cross perfectly summarizes this unity and is the most concise catechism I know. If you try to pull apart one at the expense of the others, the entire fabric of Catholicism dissolved and all we have is a patchwork of different beliefs which you can choose from with no integrated overarching story.

    We do not put conditions on mercy, but for mercy to be real it has to correspond to the nature of God and we do not have the right or ability to dictate who God is or how we can pick and chose which parts of Tradition we want to throw out and which parts of our own practices we want to elevate. That’s what the Pharisees did and it drew the strongest condemnation from Jesus.

  4. pjsandstrom says:

    I suspect that what forms the ‘perspective’ or ‘cast of mind’ of Pope Francis in most of his writings and speeches (homilies and other occasions too) — especially on the question of “Divine Mercy,” and its application as superior to practically all other considerations is to be found in his basic formation as a Jesuit — the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

  5. Scott Woltze says:

    Now that’s what I call “serene theology”.

  6. kiwiinamerica says:

    AL is in conflict with Familiaris Consortio. That is the bottom line. Various commentators have pointed this out clearly and unambiguously. This is a rupture.

    The only question now is; where do we go from here?

    The possibilities:

    1) The CDF intervenes.

    Unlikely, since it certainly saw AL prior to publication and gave it the thumbs up.

    2) A coalition of cardinals pens a rebuttal to AL and points out its errors. Perhaps the same group which penned a letter to the Pope prior to the 2015 Synod on the Family.

    Unlikely, since a group of cardinals publicly opposing a pope would be tantamount to schism.

    3) A Pope emeritus decides enough is enough and pens a rebuttal to AL and invites faithful cardinals to depose +Francis.

    Unlikely, since he already threw in the towel.

    4) Business as usual. +Francis continues to sow confusion and ridicule those who insist on the continuity of Catholic tradition as “rigid”, “harsh” and “Pharisees”.

    Highly probable. The faithful cardinals just want to run out the clock on this pontificate and hope that the next conclave brings better things.

  7. PhilipNeri says:

    Mercy IS doctrine. And presumption is a sin.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  8. gracie says:

    Back in the day the nuns (who seemed to know a thing or two about the faith) taught that God is all just and all merciful. He’s both. At the same time. This is a paradox for humans who feel that for someone to be all merciful he has to reduce the justice owed to another and for someone to be all just he has to reduce the mercy he shows to another. As the pagans of yore did, we impute our human reasoning to God – we make Him in our image in order to make sense of Him. But God’s reasoning is as far above our own as we are above the ground we walk on. His Divine Mind is perfectly capable of being both all just and all merciful toward a human *at the same time*. We really can’t understand that, proving we’re not God. But we can meditate on it and ask God to show us how we can be a little bit more like Him in this matter.

  9. greenlight says:

    “Rather than mercy and the demands of the Gospel existing in a Christian paradox, for Francis they exist in conflict.” Bingo. That says it all right there.

  10. slainewe says:

    To greenlight:

    Agreed, and replaced by the Orwellian paradox of:

    “Mercy and Justice are equal; but sometimes Mercy is more equal than Justice.”

  11. Benedict Joseph says:

    For some time I’ve been of the opinion that, at best, Pope Francis holds his perspective with undue affect rather than an emotionally balanced, intellectually grounded assent to the Magisterium of the Church. Being an individual of conscience, who has indeed devoted his life to the Church – and during rocky times to be sure – he and other men and women of his generation who knew as young adults pre-Vatican II pastoral practice, embraced uncritically the wave of notions that swelled up in the wake of the hijacked Council.
    It appears that many of them, born in the thirties and early forties, many who entered religious life during the boom of the fifties, were likely afflicted by scrupulousness – a spiritual malady not so familiar to those born after the Council. Their painful neurotic obsessive compulsive preoccupation with personal sin found its terminus in the “spirit” of Vatican II. That same “spirit” has become their new obsession because it represents their release from the neurotic cycle which subsumed their emotional and spiritual lives.
    Could this not account for what might be regarded as a whining endless obsession with mercy? Be assured, this writer could not put one foot before another without a mindfulness of God’s mercy for me, but it does not constitute a substitution for reverence for Divine Justice and indeed all the Divine Attributes. In my theological studies years ago a theologian once described heresy as a truth taken out its context to fuel another agenda. The theologian in question, a peritus at the Vatican Council, was a very enthusiastic proponent of liturgical “reform” and indeed of all the “spirit” of the Council.
    Pope John Paul, the Pope of Divine Mercy, had no problem recognizing the Mercy of Almighty God as a jewel in a setting of all the Divine Attributes and all the truths of the Faith. This is certainly not apparent during the current pontificate and that is a four alarm clarion call for the greatest vigilance.

  12. ChrisR says:

    I had to work on the documents promulgating the jubilee a while back. This is what I noticed:
    Misericordiae Vultus no 12: “The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God (…)”
    VS Lumen Gentium echoing the great commission at no 5: “(…)the Church (…)receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom.
    The change (departure?) is significant.

  13. Cosmos says:

    “Let me conclude by saying that mercy is not the fullness of justice—as if to say that justice is subordinated to it. Rather, the fullness of justice is the new man recreated in the image of Christ through the grace he won for all on the Cross, a justice God wills all to possess.”

    I thought that the article was good until the last sentence. The whole issue she proposes is that Francis is using the term “mercy” inappropriately in a manner that leads to confusion. Then she defines justice in a manner that would surely get her an “A” in theology class, but doesn’t seem particularly helpful in the context.

    It seems to me that God, as he spoke through Revelation and the Tradition, clearly gives of Himself in a manner that surpasses mere justice and can only be described as abundantly merciful and generous. However, God asks us to take certain steps to claim that mercy: He asks us to repent and believe (while providing the grace to do so). But Francis seems to imply that the Church’s teaching on this matter (i.e., the need for repentance and amendment) is itself an unmerciful impediment to receiving God’s mercy. Thus, the tension is not so-much between mercy and justice (although you could frame it that way), but between God’s revelation of His mercy though scripture and the Church, and Francis’ conception of how an uber-merciful would/should act. It’s like Francis is offering a MORE merciful God than Catholicism traditionally has.

    IMO, the core of the problem is that Pope Francis doesn’t seem to feel the need to reconcile his conception of mercy with Divine Revelation or Church Tradition. Kind of like the theologians don’t feel compelled to reconcile universal salvation with the Scripture and traditional teachings that contradict it.

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    This does raise the fascinating question of how different people might understand the concept of mercy. There almost seem to be two aspects of mercy that are being pitted against each other in recent times: emotions and reason – both are incorporated into mercy at the human level. There is a really good series (51 of them) of printed lectures on mercy by Fr. Robert Stackpole, STD. Lectures 18, 19, 22, and 23 discuss mercy in the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    He makes the point, in lecture 18:

    “St. Thomas argues that the human virtue of mercy necessarily will be both affective [emotional response to someone else’s suffering – comments and bolding, TMC] and effective [working to relieve the suffering]. However, to be the authentic virtue of “mercy,” it must manifest two additional characteristics. First, it must be rooted in “right reason”—that is, in the truth about the sufferings of others, and what is in fact the objective “good” for the other whom we seek to help. Secondly, the virtue of mercy is proven in effective action for the good of others, as circumstances permit. If we merely “sympathize” with the plight of another and “share their pain” without making the best of the opportunities we have to help them, then virtue of mercy does not abide in us in any significant degree.

    Emotions are supposed to be subordinate to right reason, at least that’s the classical take, but with the call for greater “compassion,” on “irregular,” situations of the divorced and re-married, there might be the result of reason taking a backseat to emotions. “I feel you,” is an expression that has entered the current slang stratum to mean not that one sympathizes with another, but that one empathizes with another. Now, empathy – getting lost in another’s emotions, can lead one to a non-objective state. This is one reason why telepaths, in most good science fiction stories, spend years learning to discipline themselves so that they can stay objective when bombarded by other people’s feelings and thought. While priests are not telepaths, neither should they be empaths, unless they have learned to discipline themselves so that they can stay objective. Otherwise, they become puppets to the emotions of others and true mercy is replaced with mesmerism.

    I cannot think of a single situation of the divorced and re-married where their antecedent conscience of the sin of adultery should not have been piqued prior to the contemplation of re-marriage, such that their consequent conscience after the re-marriage is not deformed by rationalization. Let me clarify. Pope Francis does not present a single concrete example, anywhere (to my knowledge – someone correct me) where the Catholic couple in an DRM (without an annulment) situation did not know that adultery was a sin prior to their re-marriage and that they were entering a probably sinful relationship, on the face of it. In every case of a DRM (without annulment) situation that I can think of (can others think of some counter-examples?) there is no basis for a finding of right reason leading to reception of Communion being- only emotionalism. Unlike habits and the force of compulsions – no one can be under a habit or a compulsion to re-marry, so the idea that:

    “The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors…”

    simply does not apply to the matter of re-marriage, since if they weren’t emotionally mature enough to get married the first time, how the heck can one even grant that they are, suddenly, more emotionally mature for the second time – indeed, they would have to be presumed, because of the sin involved, to be even less emotionally mature to get re-married the second time – unless they sought an annulment, which, if granted, might attest to their now greater maturity.

    I suspect that many of the people who seek to remarry without an annulment (at least in the West, where annulments can more easily be obtained) were poorly formed to begin with and, guess what, almost all of them were re-married outside of the Church. Does Pope Francis mention this fact in AL (perhaps, but not with any extended treatment of the problem). Mercy isn’t needed so much after the fact, but before the fact. Instructing the ignorant is a Spiritual Work of Mercy, not rationalizing the ignorance after the fact. Pope Francis seems to think that because of AL priests will gain some sudden depth of wisdom that will allow them to, “discern,” re-marriage situations, but I suggest that his efforts, in the long run, would be better directed towards making sure that people contemplating marriage in the Catholic church are really Catholics in something other than name, only, before they get married the first time. Where are the educational initiatives? Where are the calls for “Worship Community,” involvement in the couple’s lives prior to the wedding? His efforts are at the back end of mercy. Clearly, the Church would be better served at the front end. Tighten up those pre-Cana programs. Let the couples know what they will have to suffer before they make their commitment to marry. Give them good Catholic catechesis.

    That might never happen, because, I suspect, if the vast majority of the modern liberal Church really understood what life in Christ really means and how badly it had been watered down in the last fifty years, there would be rioting in the streets.

    The Chicken

  15. tcreek says:

    The Resurrection Difference
    by Fr. George W. Rutler – Crisis, 4-26-16

    Some withering comments on parts of Amoris Laetitia:

    . . . The boldness of Christians in the fresh light of the Resurrection was no more evident than in their practice of marriage as sacred and indissoluble. . . the Christian doctrine of marriage was not just an ideal: it was what Christ had taught as the constitutive norm for his Bride the Church.

    Consider how the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia quotes Aquinas in treating of mercy. . .
    To neglect that virile Christian admonition, to melt prophecy into sentimentality, to cherry pick the Summa, is like treating the word “not” as an interpolation in some of the Ten Commandments. The first Christians radiated the Resurrection in their contention even before emperors that there is no love without justice, and that the imperium was mistaken about both.

  16. Mike says:

    Oomph. I’m pretty sure my two favorite Jesuits up to and including the present day are Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez. Nuff said.

  17. Mario Bird says:

    “In his book, Cdl. Kasper wrote that ‘mercy is God’s defining attribute, and the constitution of God’s essence, His Holy Essence.’

    Well, the Cdl. is wrong. There is a distinction between divine attributes in general, and pure perfections. Only pure perfections can be essential to God. Mercy is not a pure perfection because mercy always needs someone in need of mercy; someone who has, because of some sin, or imperfection, or fallenness, needs mercy. And in the Trinity of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – there can be no sin or imperfection requiring mercy.”

    –Bp. Rene Gracida

    @ 11:00

  18. tioedong says:

    I was reading the Blog of our retired Philippine bishop Cruz, who worked on the marriage tribunal, who has several posts interpreting the Pope’s letter.
    And in between posts explaining love and mercy for all, he has a post on….anti social personality disorder.

    One is reminded of Niebuhr’s essay about the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: Reminding his fellow liberals that evil does exist… and reminding us of Jesus’ words that the Children of Light are naive when it comes to their ability to grasp the depth of “self interest” by others who we less sophisticated types would call evil people. Or as he puts it: those with a sentimental view of good can’t figure out that those with a cynical view of good and evil can and do manipulate them.

  19. Filipino Catholic says:

    Question: does St. Paul have any successors in this day and age, who can withstand the Successor of St. Peter to his face, “quia reprehensibilis erat”? One of them would be very much welcome in this matter.

  20. jst5000 says:

    Pope Francis sees God as the CEO of a successful company with the most generous benefits package in existence. He insists that all employees be paid whether they show up for work or not – even if they quit and go to work for the competitor!

    Further, those in “management” who try to maintain order for the good of the company (and, ultimately, for the employees) are cruel to insist that employees actual show up and tend to their duties. And forget those who have to work twice as hard to make up for the slackers. Therefore, the actual success of the company is subordinate to the demands (i.e. “happiness”) of the employees (actually, just the worst of the employees) without regard for the ultimate damage caused by corporate failure. Of course, our CEO has infinite private funds to sustain the business from final termination, but that doesn’t mean that large-scale layoffs and suffering will be prevented. How are we to presume when and how those funds will be utilized? We perilously take them for granted .

    This view of “mercy” is easily understood when one considers how many now have this view of the all-powerful State where the virtues of the “lowest-common denominator” are hailed and those who strive for achievement are scorned. The motivated alone are the ones to whom “justice” should be administered (think- “doctors of the rules”, “rigid”, “neurotics”) for thinking they are better than and working to suppress those who “need mercy”.

  21. dowd says:

    Thanks Fr. Z. Pope Francis may very well be correct if two things were true:
    1. If he knew the mind of God.
    2. And that he knew that God intended to save all of us.
    Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions can be known. In the mean time we only know what Christ and the Church’s doctrine have taught us and it is not what Pope Francis is implying in A.L.

    Further, all of this discussion brings to mind the age old argument between the Dominicans and the Jesuits on the superiority of Love over Truth. The Dominicans said truth was primary; the Jesuits love. Pope Francis appears to be following the Jesuit tradition. Unfortunate for him the Dominicans had the right answer I believe. Christ said the He was the Way, the Truth and the Life which what is meant by His Love. If Pope Francis is correct Christ has to be wrong. Pope Francis advocates the wide road to salvation; Christ the narrow. Let’s stick with Christ.

  22. surritter says:

    I’ll put this as kindly as I can. Pope Francis just isn’t a thinker — in the scholastic, theological sense. He’s great on emotion and kindness (thus the idea of mercy at all expense), but without a solid foundation in other key subjects his document robs God of other truths. This of course leaves the rest of us flailing until a more intellectual pontiff is elected.

  23. cl00bie says:

    And when you leave the “field hospital”, you have to go into “spiritual therapy” to become truly strong and well again. Sometimes this “spiritual therapy” hurts. It hurts like h3ll! But you cannot become strong without doing it. And to not require this “spiritual therapy” is no act of mercy.

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