In the Synod on the Family, there is a lot of discussion about mercy. As Pope Francis said a year ago, the Catholic Church is a “field hospital” for sinners. He also said, “In pastoral ministry, we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.” In this interview, he was already alluding to the wounds to the dignity of the human person and to the family which are the subject of the synod, and of which there are many. The world being what it is, all of us have friends and relatives who are living in irregular circumstances. All of us have dear acquaintances who are struggling with chastity, fidelity, and openness to life. How do we, as followers of Christ, help heal these wounds?Amputation being performed in a hospital tent, Gettysburg, July 1863
When a friend has an abusive husband, it is easy to say that the friend should get a civil divorce, and indeed, this may be necessary in order to secure the wife and her children from very real danger of physical harm, but then how do we address the new wounds which are opened in this separation? Surely we do not heal her soul by telling her the situation is normal and something to be expected. The husband shouldn’t get off that easily. Instead of trying to forget and “move on,” shouldn’t friends and family work to influence the abuser to amend his life and seek redemption? Perhaps he will never earn back the trust which he lost, but it is also not merciful to cast him out into the world to abuse others.
When a relative is in a homosexual relationship, it is easy to say that we still love the relative. As the proverb goes, “blood is thicker than water.” It would be foolish and wrong to do otherwise, but at the same time, how do we address the wounds of incontinence and infertility that by nature attend to such a relationship? Surely it is not by pretending that their situation is normal and somehow equal to the union of a man and woman in the sacrament of holy matrimony. Instead of ignoring the differences inherent in same-sex relationships, shouldn’t we have the courage and compassion to share the truth with those who are dearest to us? Perhaps they will never seek to live in chastity, but it is also not merciful to cast them out into the world as a lost cause.
When an acquaintance is struggling with infertility or childlessness, it is easy to say that modern medicine can provide alternatives, some of which are open to life and others which are not, but then how do we address the wounds of disappointment and anxiety that go along with an inability to conceive a child or the depression and profound regret that afflict the woman who has had an abortion? Surely we do not heal the soul by prescribing a cocktail of synthetic hormones to stimulate neural activity or by interfering with the miraculous processes of the reproductive system. Instead of treating a human being as a machine or a commodity, shouldn’t we have the faith that we all have a vocation to carry out if not as a biological mother or father, then perhaps as an expression of openness to life by some other means? Perhaps there is no hope of a couple ever bearing children naturally, but it is also not merciful to cast them out into the world as a science experiment.
It is merciful to say, “your feelings are normal,” to someone who suffers and despairs because of infidelity, incontinence, or infertility. It is not merciful to tell that person that they needn’t suffer because the cause of their despair is normal and that they shouldn’t feel bad about it in the first place. It cannot be merciful to call suffering false and the cause of suffering truth. In all these situations, the suffering is very real and demands our sympathy and friendship. The human condition is not a problem to be solved, but a striving for what is good and true that we all share, and in all of human history, we are always at our best and our most noble when we strive together through adversity.
As Christians, we are called to charity and sympathy for our fellow man. We all share in the failings and brokenness of our fallen nature. As workers in this field hospital of the soul, we cannot expect those who are grievously wounded to bear the full weight of Catholic teaching all at once. This also is not merciful. We must first heal the wounds of sin so that we can open our hearts to the love of God—and we must remember that true mercy flows from God, not men. When we approach the sacraments with a contrite heart and a firm resolution to amend our lives, only then do we allow ourselves to be drawn in to God’s infinite love. This is when miracles happen. This is the meaning of mercy.