Confidence, Generosity, and Docility

Millions of pixels have been spread throughout the Internet, as bloggers, columnists, advocates, journalists, and cranks have speculated, fretted, and warned about the ongoing Synod of Bishops in Rome. Called to give advice to the Holy Father about the pastoral care of the family, the Synod has become something of a Rorschach test.  Catholic media has covered it as a political event like a session of Congress.  Pretty much every agenda and conspiracy theory has been projected onto the proceedings, and pretty much everybody, from the most obscure bishop to the Holy Father, has been the subject of long-distance psychoanalysis and mind-reading.  Dire apocalyptic predictions, fear-mongering and wishful thinking have all been on abundant display.

It’s all quite confusing and frustrating — the Synod, like any deliberative process, is certain to be messy and to expect anything else is unrealistic and naive.  Trying to judge final results in the middle of the event is generally a waste if time. As a result, I have resolved to read nothing of the drama aside from official statements of the Synod or the Pope.  I have, however, drawn a few lessons from all the sturm und drang.

The first lesson is that too often we lack confidence in the indefectibility of the Church.  We live in an era that is justifiably suspicious of all institutions.  The Church is not immune, and often deserves it.   She is, after all, run by fallible, sinful people.  But we have it on good authority (Mt. 16:18-19) that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church from any error on a matter essential to salvation, even until the end of time.  And that promise holds, regardless of who happens to hold ecclesiastical office.

In times of stress, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a very important point:  while human institutions will inevitably fail (ask the Byzantine emperors about that one), the Church’s divine character guarantees not just  survival, but ultimate triumph.

So a little confidence is in order.

The second lesson is that too often we are far too stingy in our understanding of God’s mercy.  The Synod is contemplating all sorts of pastoral approaches to people who are living in irregular or immoral circumstances.  In those situations, many of us think that the Church should lay a very heavy stress on sinners obeying Jesus’ own words in Mark 1:15 (“repent, and believe in the gospel”).  There’s no point in going further unless a person has rejected their sins and is living as God intends.  After all, shouldn’t the sinner bear the burden of making themselves worthy of God’s mercy?

Fortunately, the Church is much more generous than I am.  In fact, she goes very, very far beyond ordinary human standards in dispensing God’s mercy — she is almost scandalously liberal.  The Confessionals are open all the time no matter how grave the sin, the Eucharist by itself washes us clean of our venial sins, and just consider the astonishing open-handedness of the indulgences.  She takes very seriously Jesus’ admonition that her job is to forgive, over and over and over again (Mt. 18:21-22).

So I need to remember a very important point: Jesus didn’t die for me because I deserve his mercy — he died for me because I need it.  This generosity is worth bearing in mind when we talk about how far the Church should go in showing mercy to those who are stuck in their sins.

The last lesson is that too often we have forgotten the proper reaction of a Catholic to the teaching authority of the Church.  We live in an individualistic age, where we are the judge and measure of all things.  Nothing is accepted on authority, everything has to pass muster in my own court of final appeal. That’s an interesting approach, when it comes to matters of faith — if you’re a Protestant.  They believe in the authority of private judgment on matter spiritual and dogmatic, and do not consider themselves bound to accept any external authority.

But we’re not Protestants, we’re Catholics, and our response should be along the lines set forth by St. Ignatius Loyola in his famous Rules for Thinking with the Church:

We must put aside all judgment of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.

In short, our response to the teachings of our Church — not the abstract concept of a Church, but our actual bishops and our actual pope — has to be centered on the virtue of docility.

We will all have to wait and see what is the ultimate outcome of the Synod, and what the Holy Father decides.  But in the meantime, I’m thinking a lot about confidence, generosity, and docility.

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