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Mercy before morals

Ted Mason calls on the Church to exercise its 2000-year-old tradition of mercy in ministry.

I was introduced to Moral Theology by Father Maurice, a tall slim Irish priest who lectured in that subject at All Hallows, Dublin. He began the course with the story of the adulteress as told in John 8:2-11. Our responses to the passage were many and various, no doubt similar to hundreds of responses Fr. M had heard over the years. His own response was simple and direct; “mercy before morals”.  I have never forgotten it.

Our House of Prayer is open to all who come, and come they do from all levels of society; all denominations, priests, ministers, religious, lay, even the occasional non-believer, seeking that merciful face of God. Many are broken. Most are angry, fearful, doubting, anxious. With the divorced and remarried in particular, always there is an unspoken question: “will you too condemn?” or, “will you also throw stones?”  Too often these people stand in the centre listening to debates on their worth, their problems, possible solutions and future developments.

The rate of divorce among Catholics is the same as society in general. It is not uncommon to find in Catholic schools 30 per cent or more of the children belonging to single parent families. Just as many Catholic women procure abortions as any other group in our society. The high level of unemployment of just a few years ago has produced a generation of people without a sense of self-worth or purpose. Social justice issues dominate the agenda of the media and many groups: issues such as the plight of our indigenous people, the unemployed (or poorly paid), the mentally ill, single parents. You will have your own list.

Recently I re-examined data from a major diocesan assembly to find that the main concern of people was not adult faith education or liturgy (high on the list of course), but loneliness, isolation and alienation.   Just before writing this article, I received an email from friends who have settled in retirement on the central coast: “Four Sunday Masses and one Ash Wednesday, and no one has spoken to us yet. Parish Priest disappears immediately after Mass. It’s going to be difficult.”   People are losing their sense of belonging; the Church is perceived as hard, not caring or not interested. For many, the Parish is seen at best irrelevant, at worst a hostile place. Where is the loving face of God in all of this?   

A short time ago I attended the wedding of two dear friends; one a widower, the other divorced by a husband who deserted her years ago. The former husband refused to be involved in the annulment process.

Families from both sides attended the simple, joyful, civil ceremony. I brought gifts, not stones. The couple remain hurt and angry because the Church will not recognise their union, or countenance the wife receiving Communion.        

Today much is written and spoken about holding the line on truth. I have no argument with that, only the way in which it is ministered. At the time of deepest hurt or numbing loneliness, truth can be cold company. How does truth keep intact the sanity of a wife reduced to an “on demand” sex object by an aggressive husband? How does truth comfort and bring companionship to the deserted spouse?

Some years ago The Tablet reported that a few religious sisters, threatened by rape in a third world country, had been given permission by the Vatican to take the contraceptive pill. I applaud that sensitivity, but why cannot the same consideration be shown to those women repeatedly raped in marriage by selfish, demanding (often brutal) husbands?   

The Church will go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate married Anglican clergy genuinely seeking communion with Rome, yet can deny similar accommodation to former Catholic priests who have left the priesthood to marry, but who wish to be re-admitted to the priesthood.

Does the “truth” differ according to one’s station in life or circumstance? Does the hierarchical face of the Church always have to reflect authority over love?

Relativism and determinism are philosophical terms that have little relevance in a world of loneliness, isolation and alienation. Most of the people we meet are burdened already by guilt of some sort or another: “Is it my fault?” or “I blame myself for what has happened”. Does holding the line on truth demand that I burden them further?

In the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50) again we find Jesus ministering to a woman of doubtful morals. As before, there is no condemnation from Jesus, no stone throwing, no rejection; again mercy before morals.  This is not a plea for the Church to abandon its stance on morals, that would be absurd: but it is a plea for a more merciful/loving face to be reflected. Pope Benedict’s encyclical “God is Love” gives me great hope that maybe the Church can move in that direction.

I respectfully suggest that the next encyclical be addressed to the rejected ones, the lonely, the doubters, the angry, the anxious, those wounded so deeply by society and the Church. The Church can be so forthright in its condemnation of evil in all its forms; no one would have it otherwise, but equally the Church has a 2000-year-old tradition of mercy and ministry, founded on Jesus’ own words and actions. Could the next encyclical, addressed to all peoples, begin “Nec nos te condemnabimus …”,  (Neither will we condemn …)?

Ted Mason has been involved in pastoral ministry for more than 23 years.


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