The Qualities—and Limitations—of Mercy

Cardinal Péter Erdö of Hungary, as the relator for the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the Family, opened this historic discussion in Rome on Oct. 6 with a presentation that seemed intended to lower expectations on the eventual outcome of the synod in 2015 while holding out a few strands of hope to those who seek alteration in church disciplines—particularly regarding the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics. The cardinal described families as “not only the object of evangelization but also the primary agent of proclaiming the good news of Christ in the world.”

Cardinal Erdö said, “The challenge for this synod is to try to bring back to today’s world, which in some way resembles that of the early days of the Church, the attractiveness of the Christian message about marriage and the family, highlighting the joy which they give, but, at the same time, respond, in a true and charitable way (cf. Eph 4:15), to the many problems which have a special impact on the family today and emphasizing that true moral freedom does not consists in doing what one feels or living only by one’s feelings but is realized only in acquiring the true good.”

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Though he did not specify what practice or moral he had in mind, Cardinal Erdö suggested that in assisting modern families the “positive message” of 1968’s Humanae vitae should be “re-proposed” and “re-read as Pope Paul VI indicated” in 1968, when “he specified that the moral norm cited in the document needs to be considered in light of the ‘law of gradualness,’ … keeping in mind that each person is a historical being, who ‘... knows, loves and accomplishes moral good in stages of growth.’”

Joining Pope Francis and Cardinal Walter Kasper's recent emphasis on the qualities of mercy, he said, “The Church must have recourse to the medicine of mercy rather than to oppose error with the weapons of rigidity." But Cardinal Erdö hastened to detail the limitations of that mercy in his presentation.

Mercy, he pointed out, "does not do away with truth nor relativize it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths," nor does mercy "do away with the demands of justice."

"Consequently, mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from the demands of the marriage bond. They will continue to exist even when human love is weakened or has ceased. This means that, in the case of a (consummated) sacramental marriage, after a divorce, a second marriage recognized by the Church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive."

The cardinal writes, "The obligations arising from marriage must not be forgotten, but seen as the demands of the gift [of the marriage bond] which the gift itself makes possible."

Worrying that “particular care needs to be given to education in love and sexuality” to Catholic young people,” he cautioned that “trivializing, superficialities and forms of ‘tolerance’ which hide a basic indifference and inability to be attentive, need to be avoided.”

On the subject of gay and lesbian Catholics, he would only say, “Two clear aspects emerge from the [working document] on homosexuality. First, there is a broad consensus that people with a homosexual orientation should not be discriminated against, as reiterated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church(2357-2359). Secondly, it is quite clear that the majority of the baptized—and all episcopal conferences—do not expect that these relationships be equated with marriage between a man and a woman, nor is there a consensus among a vast majority of Catholics on the ideology of gender theories.”

The cardinal frequently mentioned the church’s clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage—and the broad acceptance of that teaching among Catholics worldwide. “What is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues,” he told the synod participants, “but the practical ones—nevertheless inseparable from the truths of the faith.” He explained that the church retained a responsibility to the pastoral and spiritual care of divorced and remarried Catholics and held out a possible remedy for their sacramental constraints.

According to Cardinal Erdö, the synod working document, based on a questionnaire that was broadly shared among the people of God around the world, suggests a broad consensus within the church for “simplifying marriage cases from the pastoral point of view (cf. 98-102) and recounts increasing instances of a divorce mentality in the valid celebration of the Sacrament.”

He added, “With this in mind, it does not seem hazardous…to believe that many marriages celebrated in the Church may be invalid. To ensure an effective and streamlined process in the possibility of invalidity of the bond, many feel that the procedure needs review.”

In his presentation to the synod, Cardinal Erdö said the church needed to do more, not only in preparing engaged couples for marriage, but after the wedding as these couples proceed to build families together, sometimes in the face of cultural or economic conditions inhospitable to that effort.

“We are not dealing with only problems involving individual behavior, but the structures of sin hostile to the family, in a world of inequality and social injustice, of consumerism, on the one hand, and poverty, on the other," he said. "Rapid cultural change in every sphere is distorting families, which are the basic unit of society, and putting into question the traditional family culture and oftentimes destroying it. On the other hand, the family is fast becoming the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology.” He added, “A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization.”

He listed the many cultural and internal threats to family—pornography, poor communication; drug, gambling or alcohol abuse—but also worried over bigger threats over which most families have little control. “Especially where poverty is widespread,” the cardinal said, “women and children in particular suffer from violence and abuse” and “increasing job insecurity is a nightmare for many families.

“Migration often creates large imbalances in the family, such as those experienced by people who move from their own country—oftentimes because of war and poverty—or by those receiving them in their own country.” He added, “The concrete support of the Church for these families is unable to be done without a pro-active commitment through appropriate policies by governments and public agencies responsible for the protection and promotion of the common good.”

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John Fitzgerald
3 years 2 months ago
It is important to remember that, globally, poverty and its associated problems are more critical issues for families than some of the issues most prominent in the US. That being said, certainly in the "West" the competence of the celibate hierarchy to speak on the meaning and reality of love and sex between a man and a woman is widely rejected and simply ignored. Furthermore, I suspect that this is true globally. If the Synod just repackages existing teachings in this broad area in more friendly language it will have a disastrous impact. I am an older Catholic and in my lifetime Humanae Vitae and the sex abuse scandal have done more to distance the laity from the institutional church than anything else. This is not because people just want to do whatever they like. The sex scandal violates our whole sense of love, trust, and justice. H V is completely at odds with most (not all) of our experience of marital love and life.
Vince Killoran
3 years 2 months ago
You're exactly right. But are they brave enough to do this?
Helen Smith
3 years 2 months ago
The wisdom of Portia thanks to Shakespeare> The quality of mercy is not strained (forced, constrained). It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes The thronèd monarch better than his crown (miter). His scepter shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings, But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.

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