A plea for mercy

We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Kasper’s gestures of compassion to the divorced and remarried.  Indeed, we are all sinners, and these wise prelates know that the Lord’s table is no place to exclude those who refuse to submit to Jesus’ statements on remarriage.  However, it should be remembered that selective mercy is often a greater cruelty to those who remain outside its graces.  Let us not forget those other sensitive Christian souls who have for so long suffered judgement and exclusion from the Church.  I refer, of course, to that other subset of unrepentant adulterers, the ones who haven’t abandoned their first families and civilly remarried.

Consider, if you will, the dilemma of a believing Catholic man who has found himself in a relationship with a mistress.  Rosary-counting Catholics–more Pharisee than Christian!–would condemn this man for his sins of “lust”, but I know that many extramarital relationships involve genuine friendship, love, and spiritual fellowship.  We acknowledge that the love in this man’s marriage has failed, and we have to feel the pain of the failure; we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love.  Not to condemn them!  To walk with them!  And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation.

What do adulterers actually hear from us though, when they earnestly desire to participate fully in the life of the Church?  Do we not presume to judge them?  Do we not cruelly demand that they severe those extramarital attachments that bring them so much joy and comfort?  Do we not hold the Lord hostage, saying that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist until they conform to our ideas of an acceptable level of monogamy?  Yes, we acknowledge that it may not be practical for a man never to see his mistress again, but we insist that when he does spend time with her they should behave as brother and sister.  But this is cruelly unrealistic!  A man may have an intensely meaningful relationship with his mistress.  Illegitimate children might be involved.  Plus, she might be totally hot.

Consider also the utter perversity of the fact that if this man were to abandon his wife and children to poverty and fatherlessness and “marry” his mistress, he would be welcomed with open arms in the Church of Pope Francis the Merciful.  Is it not bizarre that we accept a man who breaks all of his marital vows but not a man who only breaks one of them?

What should the Church do in such situations?  It cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Moses.  The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this command of fidelity in its pastoral action concerning adulterers.  It is always the case that those in mortal sin are called to spiritual communion with the Church even though they can’t receive sacramental communion.  But if one, why not the other?  Some maintain that non-participation in communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament.  The question that is posed in response is:  is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?  Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?

Now, it is true, alas, that the Church cannot disregard the biblical teaching that cheating on one’s spouse is sinful.  However, while doctrine teaches us what is true in the abstract, it doesn’t judge concrete particulars.  Thus, just as we now know that although sodomy is abstractly speaking always a mortal sin, every particular homosexual relationship is wonderful and deserving of civil affirmation, we can say that although adultery is wrong in the abstract, human beings are not abstractions, and we may not judge any particular extramarital dalliance.  We shall not presume to tell the husband with a wandering eye whom he may and may not love!  Look, the same bible that teaches us about the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people.  So I would say to the married man who’s on the side proudly banging his secretary “Bravo“.

Yes, we may say that monogamy is ideal, so long as we don’t proudly imply that open marriages among our sincere Christian brothers and sisters are therefore inferior.  Nor may we imagine that a man’s sexual desire for his wife is somehow more wholesome than a desire for some random other woman.  That would be to encourage the sin of pride in those who happen to be attracted to their spouses, an inclination that is not in itself praiseworthy.

Acceptance of adultery means compassion toward everyone:  the cheater, the mistress,…, um, yeah, everyone.

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11 thoughts on “A plea for mercy

  1. The question that is posed in response is: is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?

    Amen. Once you accept a formulation like Kant’s second categorical imperative, you become tempted to sloganize it as something like “It is wrong to treat others as a means rather than as an end.” Once you have sloganized it as such, you start to shorten the slogan to “It is wrong to treat others as a means.”

    That slogan is insane. How would I order lunch without sinning gravely? And it is easy to imagine it leading to the kind of thing Bonald is satirizing above. How could it fail to lead to that sort of thing?

    To make the refutation explicit, it is not treating the adulterer solely as a means if we make him a sign and warning. Because he himself may see the sign and heed the warning or because he himself may benefit from living in a community populated by people who have seen the sign and heeded the warning.

    • Indeed we’re already there. For those who haven’t read all the links in my “plea”, the text Dr. Bill is pointing to is a direct quote from Cardinal Kasper.

      • It should also be pointed out that one is not treating a person as a mere means if one punishes him because it’s what he actually deserves, regardless of whether it does him any good.

  2. What are the limits of “pastoral mercy”? When will we start pastorally accommodating, say, prostitutes? Sex-slave traffickers? Psychotic white-collar hedge fund criminals?

  3. What you’re getting at is that there can be no mercy unless there is first justice, unless there is first judgment and condemnation. And, in fact, there can be no mercy unless the guilty acknowledges his guilt and that the condemnation is just, that it is deserved.

    Any “mercy” that tries to skip the justice and the acknowledgment of “just deserts” is just an intentional increase of injustice.

  4. Pingback: Lets just call the proposed ‘pastoral exception’ what it is: vicious cruelty | Zippy Catholic

  5. Pingback: Tightening the thumbscrews of kindness | Zippy Catholic

  6. Pingback: “Don’t cross the streams.” | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam" fidescogitactio @ gmail . com

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