History will judge Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the Pope of Mercy. Throughout his pontificate the Holy Father has repeatedly reminded us that mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. He has frequently referred to the Church as “a hospital in the battlefield.”
I think about this statement often. I think about it in light of the various ministries the Office for Life and Family provides for the Church in Philadelphia. Some of the most sensitive and heart-wrenching needs of our people are addressed through this office — marriages that are on the brink of collapse through pornography, women and men who now regret their abortions, couples whose dreams are shattered because of infertility, persons with same-sex attraction and their parents who seek purity and understanding, and families whose loved ones are near death and struggle to make end-of-life decisions on their behalf.
In all these areas and more, the Church indeed is a hospital in the battlefield. It is the Church who picks up the pieces of these shattered lives and applies the healing balm of mercy and tenderness.
In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis relates to us a bit of the discussion among the Synod Fathers: “They began with the gaze of Jesus and they spoke of how he ‘looked upon the women and men whom he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps in truth, patience and mercy as he proclaimed the demands of the Kingdom of God’” (no. 60).
Truth, patience and mercy. These three words are critical to understanding respect-life and family ministry. When I read this section of “Amoris Laetitia” I was greatly affirmed and very much humbled by the fact that we have been conducting our ministries in this fashion already.
In terms of truth, Archbishop Charles Chaput and others have often said that mercy without truth is a lie. How true. For instance, couples experiencing infertility most often do not consult the Church regarding what treatments are morally acceptable and which ones are not. When they do approach the Church, it is for solace and to experience God’s peace. It is not uncommon that these couples would have undergone a few unsuccessful In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) cycles before they approach us.
It has been my experience that many of those who have used IVF to achieve pregnancy are unaware of the immorality of this act. Also, there are a myriad of emotional issues that affect couples who experience infertility that impair their will to make morally correct choices in how to achieve pregnancy. Both of these instances, if they exist in a particular couple, lessen their culpability for the immoral act.
However, the couple has a right to hear the truth and the Church has a duty to speak it in love and tenderness. Only in this way will the couple be able to properly form their consciences. In this lies the beauty of “Amoris Laetitia.”
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families” (no. 34).
At the same time, we must not minimize the demands of the Kingdom of God. Those offering God’s mercy to couples experiencing infertility must also present God’s plan for the generation of human life not as an ideal that we may or may not reach in this life but as a standard to which all human action must be ordered. Only through grace can this be accomplished.
This requires patience. It is not uncommon for those of us who are serving the pastoral needs of couples experiencing infertility to be confronted with anger as we speak this truth in love. We must let them vent their anger. Anger will be followed by tears. Both of these emotions expose the depths of this couple’s woundedness.
Their suffering unleashes the love that the Church has for them. As their mother, she has an indispensable opening to offer them hope and healing, and lead them to the loving embrace of their Father in heaven.
In respect-life and family ministry two poles must always be avoided. One is the “God understands” mentality that insinuates that God’s moral law applies most of the time but not all the time until one is ready for it.
The other pole is a rigid interpretation of the moral law that closes off all opportunities for further discussion and conversion, something about which St. John Paul II wrote on a number of occasions.
As Pope Francis writes in “Amoris Laetitia:”
“Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine” (no. 59).
Steven Bozza is director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Life and Family.