There is only one mention of empathy in Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on the family: “A mother who watches over her child with tenderness and compassion helps him or her…to grow in self-esteem and, in turn, to develop a capacity for intimacy and empathy” (No. 175). The idea, however, is found in other passages throughout “The Joy of Love.” Pope Francis writes, for example, that in communication with another person, “we have to put ourselves in their shoes and try to peer into their hearts, to perceive their deepest concerns and to take them as a point of departure for further dialogue” (No. 138).
Indeed, I would suggest that empathy, although mentioned only once, underlies the entire document and is a key to its implementation. It is not farfetched to imagine that the pope’s many gestures of compassion—the affection he shows to people at general audiences, his visits to prisons and refugee camps—are driven by empathy, by an ability to enter into and resonate with the joys and sorrows of others, especially the poor and marginalized. Likewise, this same empathy could explain his decision to place the challenging situations of families today at the center of the church’s conversations and the two recent synods.
Certainly his pastoral service in Buenos Aires allowed Pope Francis to experience and empathize with the vast array of marital and family situations that are discussed in the exhortation itself. But the cultivation of empathy has another profound and irreplaceable source found over and over again in Christians who embark on visible or even hidden journeys of generous service of others. It is contemplation of Christ crucified. Entering into the sufferings of Christ schools the human spirit in sensitivity to the sufferings of others.
In his public ministry Jesus demonstrated empathy, either indirectly or directly. For example, when he tells the parable of the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep, does he do so simply with the detachment of a teacher, or does he enter into the frantic and anxious mind and heart of the shepherd? Does he not make his own the urgency of the shepherd’s search and thereby express the urgency of his mission to gather to the Father even those who are most lost in the community of Israel? Or when he is told of the death of John the Baptist and withdraws “to a deserted place by himself” (Mt. 14:13), is he not filled with empathy for John’s suffering, recognizing in it his own destiny?
In the exhortation Pope Francis is encouraging the church to embrace empathy as the necessary source of compassion and mercy. His frequent call for more effective ministries to couples and families on the parish level makes it especially incumbent upon priests and other pastoral ministers to embark on the way of empathy. For priests this has to begin with their seminary formation. But empathy is not learned as an academic discipline. That is why the pope calls for an interdisciplinary formation “in the areas of engagement and marriage” and urges the participation of families and especially women in priestly formation (No. 203).
Empathy, as the pope’s own frequent references to novelists and poets demonstrate, is also learned through literature and the arts. Empathy is cultivated through imagination. The lack of exposure to the humanities in much of higher education today has to be a serious concern for the church and especially seminaries.
The pope’s exhortation caused some controversy by seeming to leave open the door for certain divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. He writes (No. 305):
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin...a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
The footnote adds, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments” (No. 351). This, critics of the document assert, is a threat to the church’s doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. This opening, however, is in accord with a centuries-old tradition of applying doctrines with a pastoral sensitivity born of empathy. The Greek Orthodox tradition of allowing admission to the Eucharist after divorce and remarriage was not an invention of theologians in an academic setting but an on-the-ground response to the life experiences of Christians caught in irremediable situations.
A helpful example of applying doctrine with pastoral sensitivity is the principle of integrity in confession. The Council of Trent placed an anathema on those who would affirm that “it is not necessary by divine law to confess each and all mortal sins…as also the circumstances that change the species of a sin.” It is by divine law, the council teaches, that the penitent must confess all mortal sins. Over the centuries, however, moral theologians and canonists have recognized with pastoral realism that this principle cannot always be observed. They have described situations of physical and moral impossibility restricting the ability of a penitent to confess all mortal sins. Examples of physical impossibility would be soldiers rushing into battle or persons with the beginnings of dementia. The most common example of moral impossibility would be a person who suffers from scrupulosity, in which case the confessor would insist on only a generic confession of sin. A principle declared by the Council of Trent to be of divine law is applied with pastoral sensitivity.
Widening the Circle
In the exhortation, Pope Francis, following the final report of the 2015 synod, quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in recognizing that “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” (No. 302; catechism No. 1735). This, too, is a pastoral realism born of empathy. Many Christians are hindered from achieving an ever more faithful following of Christ because of the factors mentioned above. Some struggle; others give up. But all must be treated with empathy.
There has been criticism that the pope and some bishops are no longer upholding the demands of the Gospel in the ardent pursuit of virtue, especially chastity. It is an unfair criticism, especially in light of the pope’s relentless demands for authentic Christian living in his preaching. But pastoral realism acknowledges the limitations of Christians. In the Office of Readings for Dec. 12, there is a text from St. Jane Frances de Chantal, whose feast day it is, about the martyrdom of love that her sisters must embrace. But, she adds, “Our Lord does not intend this martyrdom for those who are weak in love and perseverance. Such people he lets continue on their mediocre way, so that they will not be lost to him; he never does violence to our free will.” This is empathy.
Every person has empathy toward those who are closest. The challenge is to rise from having empathy for a few to having empathy for many. Our distracted society often does not allow the time for the cultivation of reflection and imagination so that we can put ourselves into the shoes of others distant or different from ourselves, especially those who suffer most. And perhaps we are protecting our hearts and minds as well. Empathy will move us to compassion, and compassion will move us to conversion of thought and deed. Empathy makes us vulnerable. But it must be the way of the church today—and most especially of its ministers.