Where Mercy and Judgement Meet

One of the best ways to analyze a theory is to see if it works. The Holy Father recommends that we priests get out more and embrace those who need forgiveness and healing. We are to welcome all and show the mercy of God to all.

I love it. I love the devotion of the Divine Mercy. I think it is the answer to the world’s sorrows. I want to get away from my desk more and be with my people. I want to embrace all with the love and acceptance and mercy of Christ. I don’t want to condemn anyone. After all, we’re all sinners.

But sometimes reality hits.

Here are a couple of examples of what might happen.

Let’s say this guy and his family turn up one Sunday at church. He’s good looking. So is his wife. They have six kids. I give them a warm welcome and find out that he has made an appointment to see me. He tells me his story. He is a millionaire businessman and a lifelong Catholic. He’d like to enroll his six kids in our struggling school and says, “Father, we’re really looking for a parish where we will receive a warm welcome and where we can really be involved.”

I’m thinking…”I could sure use a few more committee Catholic millionaire businessmen in the parish…”

Then he tells me about his first wife who he married when she was pregnant at the age of eighteen, how that marriage ended within two years, then his second wife and  their bitter divorce, and how be met his third wife and how she was divorced and how the two families with three kids each have come together and they are all living happily ever after. He’s got paperwork in to the tribunal and is hoping for a decree of nullity.

So I say: “First of all, this parish welcomes all. We’d love for you and your family to be part of this parish. We’ll get the kids enrolled in school and help you with the decree of nullity and hope we can get the irregular marriage sorted out for you. I must ask, however, until that happens that you and your wife do not present yourselves to receive communion.”

If he gets angry and stomps out blaming me for being judgmental and condemnatory what’s to do?

Here’s another one: Ben and Jerry have had their civil partnership agreement and they join the parish. They sit together at Mass and hold hands as they leave church. Eventually they decide to adopt a child, and they want to have the baby baptized.

Any suggestions on how to be merciful and accepting while still upholding the Catholic teaching on the sacrament of marriage?

What is mercy anyway without judgement and what is judgement without mercy? It seems to me that mercy and judgement are two blades of the same scissors. They are interdependent and we cannot begin to exercise mercy without judgement nor can we exercise judgement without mercy.

Mercy without judgement is relativistic sentimentalism. Judgement without mercy is dogmatic legalism. This is why the Holy Father’s words about discernment in his interview yesterday are words I need to read and re-read because in fact, in parish life, and in our own personal lives we all struggle with the contradictions, hypocrisies and failures all the time. Every parish priest must know of people in his flock who regularly present themselves for communion who (if appearances are correct) are living in mortal sin. Every Catholic must know of inconsistencies and problems in his own path to sanctity for which he pleads for mercy and forgiveness and not judgement.

This struggle between the high standards of our faith and the realities of life are constant. On the one hand we do not abandon the high standards–on the other hands we realize daily our failure to meet those high standards. This is why we come back time and again to the place where mercy and judgement meet: the confessional and Holy Mass.

So in his interview the Pope says how important it is for the confessor to avoid being either too lax or too strict. The sin is not just an objective breaking of the rules which has a just punishment. Nor can the priest just say, “There, there, it doesn’t matter. It’s not really a sin.” He must get involved with the person and walk with them. In that action justice and mercy are met.



  • Catholic Psych Doc

    When I read Papa Francis’ musings/interview about abortion, I was so sad because I am a faithful, traditional Catholic who tries to be more Mary than Martha–however I also work for a pro-life organization PT, stand out in front of Planned Parenthood at least once a month, participate in 40 days for Life, and National Life Chain, and give money regularly to our local pregnancy resource center and what I took away from Papa’s interview was that I wasn’t supposed to be that involved in trying to end abortion. I couldn’t believe it. After all, we will have to face God’s judgement someday on the 55 million+ babies that have been killed in this country since 1973. I really believe that the devil tempts us to ONLY pray and not to act, sometimes, especially when it comes to the more grievous sins. Thanks for this post. It has helped me immensely.

    • Gordis85

      Continue your work I would say since I did not read that Papa Francis says anything about being involved in trying to end abortion. He is saying not to become obsessed with certain issues that are important to us that we forget everything else. His interview will serve for much reflection and discernment. He is asking us to trust God above all else and to love Jesus. That’s what I am going to pray for the grace to do as everything will come from those two blessings.

      Be of good heart and courage!

      • johnnyc

        50% of Catholics voted in a staunch pro abortionist, seem to have no problem with the goverment forcing the Church to go against teaching, probably the same group who thinks everyone is going to Heaven because hey…Jesus loves everyone and yes I know He said a man will leave his parents to join with his wife and become one BUT…He did not mention homosexuals so that must mean ‘gay marriage’ is ok, right? How can one talk too much about the danger of sin, the devil and hell. Eternity is a long time. Jesus talked much about sin, the devil and hell.

    • Gordis85


      Try watching the Vatican YouTube channel and Rome Reports and you will see that the Holy Father is a defender of life in all its stages.

    • wineinthewater

      The Holy Father didn’t say to not do those things. Those are great things to do. He did, however, say to not *only* do those things.

      Pope Francis’ call is radical. In our world, we achieve balance and equality by lowering everything to the lowest common denominator. But that is not he Catholic way. More emphasis on issues other than abortion and gay marriage and contraception does not mean less emphasis on those topics. It means being fully Catholic and more Catholic.

  • Strife

    The best way to analyze a spiritual theory is to simply read the scriptures. You’ll find that true Love comes from moral Judgment.

    “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without conviction” – G.K.Chesterton

  • johnnyc

    And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you (compassion). Go your way, and from now on do not sin again (conversion).

    Compassion for this life. Conversion for the next.

    Proclaim the whole gospel all the time.

  • FW Ken

    Father, the two situations are not complex and don’t call for discernment so much as courage. Many situations are complicated, but those aren’t.

    It would be fair to consider the baptism of a child separately, but, as I understand it, there has to be a reasonable hope of the child having a Christian upbringing. A gay couple? How about that millionaire and his third wife and their kids? Or a prostitute who comes in with her baby to baptize? Or a single mother, not a prostitute?

    Our parish is old and beautiful, so we get a lot of traffic for baptisms, weddings, and quinceneras, but they get turned away because they aren’t looking for the sacraments. What they want is a backdrop for pretty pictures. And yes, they are willing to pay nicely.

    • wineinthewater

      Then that beautiful church is an opportunity for evangelism. I hope that when they come for the pretty pictures, your parish uses it as an opportunity to try to get them to stay for the faith (of course, while safeguarding the sacraments and guarding against scandal).

  • Slocum Moe

    Why do you presume to withhold holy communion from anybody? If this man and his wife were standing in front of Jesus and not you, Jesus would not hesitate a moment to include him.

    Are you sure you are worthy of receiving, much less administering the sacraments?

    • wineinthewater

      Slocum Moe,

      How do you know what Jesus would do?

      Remember, Paul tells us that to receive Communion unworthily is to eat and drink our own destruction. The merciful thing to do is to seek to protect people from such a fate. The uncharitable thing is to ignore genuine obstacles to worthy reception of Communion and encourage someone to risk their own destruction.

  • krk

    My concern is that I cannot tell you the last time I heard a homily on abortion, divorce, homosexuality or contraception…or even a description of the joy and purpose of Holy Matrimony. I have been to several Churches in our area…it is not just our Parish. So, where are we too focused on these things I am not sure.