As Rome’s Synod of Bishops on the Family closes its second week in a swarm of media attention and some very different interpretations, it might be a good time to remember one simple point.
The point is this. The Church can be truthful without being merciful. But she can’t be merciful without being truthful. Our task as bishops at the synod this month, and frankly what God asks from every Christian all the time, is to speak the truth with patience, humility and love. Truth without compassion wounds and repels; mercy without truth is a comfortable form of lying. Thus, as a proof of our love, we still do need to speak the truth. Then we need to live it in our service to our families, to society and to the Church.
Romano Guardini – one the great Catholic theologians of the last century and a major influence on the mind of Pope Francis — wrote beautifully that mercy is the higher virtue than justice, and that “before one can be just, one must learn to love.” Yet he also wrote:
“True illness of the mind and spirit sets in when a man no longer cherishes truth … when in the depths of his soul, truth ceases to be to him the primary, the most important concern.”
If being a Christian is simply about belonging to an organization, then membership can be as easy as we want to make it. But if being a Christian is about belonging to Jesus Christ, then the words of Jesus can’t be softened or ignored, because what he demands from us is a love that embodies the same total self-gift that he makes to us. We can’t negotiate for a part of Jesus. We can only have him when we give him everything. If we offer him only a part of ourselves, we get nothing — no truth, and no Jesus.
We all feel the dilemma of good people who are divorced and civilly remarried but wish the solace of Communion, and others who deal with same-sex attraction. No one can dismiss the hardships these persons sometimes face. But it’s the Gospel that needs to guide us in our reasoning.
The central issue is, do we and they want Jesus Christ on his terms or on ours? If we can’t in principle accept the possibility of discomfort, suffering and even martyrdom, then we’re not disciples. We can’t rewrite or overlook what Jesus requires in order to follow him. Jesus saw the sincerity and goodness in the rich young man (Mk 10:17-22), but he nonetheless told the truth about what following him involved.
The issue of truth is not ultimately about a code of conduct or a set of creedal affirmations, though these things are clearly important. Truth in a Christian life is about a relationship with Jesus Christ, founded in the person of the Son of God, and animated by a willingness to do whatever he asks from those who wish to follow him.
We can choose to include or exclude ourselves on the path of following Jesus. He will never stop loving us, whatever we choose. But in all of today’s hard moral issues, the terms of the relationship are not ours to set.