From confusing interim reports to troubling cardinalatial quotes, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family provided us with a truckload of interest and intrigue over the last two weeks. And after all the discussion and debate about polygamy and divorce and homosexual unions, after all the rancor and politicking and surprises and such, we are left with the realization that this was but a warm-up to the General Synod that is to take place a year from now, and that the apostolic exhortation, the Pope’s post-game wrap-up of the synod, will be released around a year after that.
So, since there’s a long road ahead and these issues aren’t going anywhere, we have time to reflect. I’d like to reflect on two words that have repeatedly bobbed to the surface in these debates, like fish trying to catch flies on the surface of a lake: mercy and justice. These terms, I fear, have been the victims of mistaken identity.
These terms are coming up in their relation to the treatment of certain categories of people who are engaged in sinful acts. Such people are presently denied Holy Communion–and by “denied” we usually mean “it is taught that they ought not receive,” as I doubt there are very few confrontations in the Communion line or refusals by clergy to distribute the Eucharist to these folks–because the Church teaches that, if people who are in a state of mortal sin should not receive the Eucharist, and these people (as most of us find ourselves to be at one time or another) are in a state of mortal sin, then these people should not receive the Eucharist.
This position of the Church is being called by some one as “justice without mercy”; some claim that instead we ought to temper this justice with a “mercy” that would allow certain people in certain situations under certain circumstances to receive Holy Communion. “How could the Church be so cold and callous as to deny Her sacraments to her poor children who only seek the nourishment of their Mater Ecclesia?” they lament, wringing their hands and furrowing their brows. “Ought we not have mercy on them and feed them from our spiritual table?”
Here is the hollow space at the heart of this argument: the term “mercy” does not apply in this case. To bring it in to the discussion is a category mistake. People are using the terms “mercy” and “justice,” but their usage suggests that the terms they really mean are “punishment” and “leniency.” They seem to think the Church is punishing those in sin by denying them the Eucharist, and they consider that punishment cruel and unusual. Can we not be lenient, and forgiving, and loving, and invite them in to the feast?
Punishment and leniency are not at issue. What is at issue here is a question of truth, and the consequences of certain truths. The following are truths, which even most of those in the “mercy” camp have not denied.
It is true that someone who knowingly and freely engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and does not repent of it is in a state of mortal sin. It is true that receiving the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin is spiritually harmful, for offering the Eucharist to someone in mortal sin is like offering a glass of water to a drowning man: certainly he needs it to live, but right now it will only exacerbate the problem.. Thus, it is true that those who have engaged in such activity unrepentant and receive the Eucharist are only inflicting further spiritual damage on themselves.
When the Church urges people in a state of mortal sin not to receive Holy Communion, the Church is not being cold and callous. It is not exacting a punishment. It is acknowledging the truth of things and imploring others to act accordingly, for their own good. The Church, in doing this, is acting mercifully, with justice, out of love.
Ironically, those who have agitated for “balancing justice with mercy” will gain neither as a result. Using such loaded terms in a misleading way does not do good for anyone. Those who do so, whether intentionally or not, are putting souls at risk. Words have consequences. Speak carefully.