Law, Mercy & Controversy at the Synod on the Family

Law, Mercy & Controversy at the Synod on the Family October 12, 2015


The Adulterous Woman Alone with Jesus by James Tissot


In case you hadn’t heard, there is a meeting being held at the Vatican right now.


It has a daunting title. The “14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops on the Family” which is the follow up meeting to the equally daunting “3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family” held in October of 2014.


Okay, WAKE UP!

Let me give you this brief and approachable primer to what this meeting is and why it matters. The Synod of Bishops is a fifty year old idea in which a representatives of the worldwide assembly of Bishops act in a collegial fashion to advise the Pope “on important questions facing the Church in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens her internal discipline.” The Pope calls an “Extraordinary Assembly” (like in 2014) to deal with an issue of extreme importance that requires expeditious attention and action for the good of the Church. He calls an “Ordinary Assembly” simply when the issue would benefit from the wisdom of the world’s Bishops (like what is occurring now between October 5-25). The “Extraordinary Assembly” is a bit more spontaneous and with less preparation due to its urgency, while the “Ordinary Assembly” has more preparation, organization and thoughtful execution. There have only been three “Extraordinary Assemblies” while there have been fourteen “Ordinary Assemblies“.

Now in the day and age of social media with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and blogging mixed in with traditional media, it is of little surprise that there is increasing scrutiny, analysis and, yes, conjecture surrounding the proceedings of these Assemblies. Furthermore, when dealing with issues of the family that affects over one billion Catholics and concerns that squarely address favorite modern hot button issues of marriage, divorce, annulments, cohabitation and parenting, it is easy to reason that coverage will be considerable. The “Extraordinary Assembly” in 2014 was asked to “thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.” While the “Ordinary Assembly” currently underway is intent on “continuing the work of the Extraordinary General Assembly by reflect[ing] further on the points discussed so as to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines for the pastoral care of the person and the family.” Or to better summarize, the 2014 Assembly was called to think about the challenges to the family and the 2015 Assembly is called to do something about the challenges to the family. First think, then guide. When all is said and done, it is anticipated that Pope Francis will issue an Apostolic Exhortation which is not binding as doctrine, but intended to encourage Catholics along a certain line of thinking.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *snort, snuff* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

OKAY, OKAY! So here’s the thing…

Rather than following perfectly along the “collegial” line of discussions and collaboration, last year’s and this year’s Assemblies have served up delicious morsels to the Papist-razzi who like to highlight dissent and dissonance among the Bishops of the Church. Different stances have emerged on partaking in Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, cohabitating or same-sex partners. Disagreements have been lodged about “the law of graduality” which suggests a gradation of virtues and vices as opposed to the binary worldview of absolute virtue and vice.

And with these not-so-internal debates, a Narrative seems to have emerged. And it goes like this: Theological scuffles have arisen between Bishops advocating for the Law over Mercy and those who advocate for Mercy over the Law. Those advocating a respect for the Law say that jettisoning the Truth leads to warped guidance for lost souls which, in turn, proves merciless by perpetuating damnable error. Those championing a respect for Mercy say that the “Spirit” of the Law is lost if the Law seems unbending and unsympathetic in the face of the plight of fallen humankind. And yet no single Bishop could reasonably be accused of failing to recognize the complementary need for an edifice of Law to house an ethic of Mercy. The tension, therefore, lies in the matter of degree.

Now, let’s be clear. I am a simple man. I don’t have the answer to this fine, if not precarious, balance.

But Christ does. Consider this wisdom. When Jesus was challenged on the tension between the Law and Mercy and when the calculated intent was to balance Christ on morality’s knife edge to see which way he would tip, here is what he did:

But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”

– John 8: 2-11

Christ showed that the Law provided an edifice to house the ethic of Mercy and afford it room to be practiced. “Neither do I condemn you”… Mercy. “Go and from now on do not sin any more”… Law.

How will the Synod Fathers – the Bishops at the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops on the Family – guide us? Lawfully? Mercifully? With Christ-like wisdom?

Let us hope. Let us pray.

Come, Holy Spirit.



Image Credit: Brooklyn Museum 

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