The overall theme of this month’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family seems to be this: Catholics stink at being Catholic. No, really, we’re terrible at it. Now what?
The specific topic is everything that has to do with family life, marriage residing at the heart of that. It turns out Catholics, like the rest of the world, aren’t any better at marrying than we are at, say, remembering to read the parish bulletin. And yet, weirdly, we still long for a deep, lasting, soul-rousing relationship with God.
So what to do with us?
There’s nothing Satan likes more than a good false dichotomy, because if you can cut the human heart in two, the rest is pancakes. So we’re being fed the Justice vs. Mercy wars, which is the euphemism for We Can Be Mean or We Can Lie About Stuff, Pick One.
Are those the only choices? Must we choose between giving the great unwashed the cold shoulder of disdain and ostracism, or alternately patting everyone on the back and saying, “There there, ‘mortal sin’ is such a harsh word, isn’t it? Here, have a cookie.”
No. These are not the only choices.
The Catholic Option
The third way is the Catholic way, in the heart of which we find the Gospel:
- Why yes, you are a wretched sinner.
- God loves you so much He literally died for you.
- He died for you because He wants to spend eternity with you.
- He wants you to be happy during that eternity.
- He made you, so he knows what it takes for you to be happy.
- The way you are living now is not what will make you happy.
- Look! The grace of God is here to help you become more like the person you were made to be.
The grace of God is not a factory assembly line, because your soul is not a widget. The tools of your conversion — converting you from ‘miserable wretch’ to ‘eternally fulfilled’ — aren’t meant to be applied by a technician following standard operating procedures. They are used by the divine Craftsman, a tap here, a touch there, another dab of that there, perfecting you bit by bit until you are finished.
Is it a painless process? Generally not. You feel at times like you are baking in a kiln, or your very heart is being ground out with steel brushes, or you’ve been stuck on a shelf to dry for half an eternity.
During these times, when it seems we are good for very little, we cry might out to God: Why are you even bothering with me? Can’t you see how utterly useless I am? How hopeless my cause is?
And God chuckles and says, “Yes, I’m aware of that uselessness thing. But no, I don’t do ‘hopeless.’ Fortunately you’ve got Me, so we’re good.”
And that’s on an easy day. When it’s really bad, the conversation grows far darker. There’s nothing like having your soul seared to a crisp to add an unseemly edge to the prayer life, or lack thereof.
The Mercy of God is Measured in Truth
Mercy never comes in the form of a lie. Mercy brings the truth, the whole tragic, hopeful, glorious truth. It’s not mercy to tell you that your sins aren’t sins. It’s mercy to tell you that yes, your sins are killing you and taking others down in the process, but look: There is hope. Divine hope. Eternal hope. You don’t have to be a slave to this. You don’t have to be condemned.
Divine justice doesn’t seek condemnation, it seeks reparation: How can I make whole what has been broken? How can I save this one who is so very close to being eternally lost?
Justice costs. It requires someone — God — to endure what must be suffered, if the victim is not to be abandoned, left to languish in the pit. Rescue work is work. Hard, painful, crushing work. God does it for us, and sometimes lets us help.
Image: Antoon van den Heuvel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons