Rules, Francis, and the Year of Mercy

Rules have a very important function in life, and that’s no less true in the life of the Church. Rules provide direction for proper living – what to do and what to avoid – so that we may flourish. A man placed in a junkyard with the single order to build a car would likely fare much better with a set of instructions than if he were left to his own devices. In this sense, rules, even though they carry certain restrictions – the steering wheel must connect to the axle, not the gas tank – can be liberating, because they are proven ways that aid our pursuit of what is good and true.

Some Catholics like rules, both those given by God and those made by the Church, because they know the rules lead to God. Rules, both negative (the prohibitions) and positive (the commandment to love one another), show us how to live and provide certainty in times of unrest. Such Catholics, rightly called “conservative” because they desire God’s laws to be conserved, have felt some dissatisfaction with the way some rules have been downplayed, or even undermined, since Vatican II by “liberal” Catholics, clergy and lay alike, who perceive rules as obstacles to an ideal faith life.

Into this broader cultural and theological disparity between conservative and liberal the pontificate of Pope Francis has been thrust. The media’s caricature of “Francis the Reformer” is now well established. Yet it also has to be said that some of the pontiff’s own comments and actions have fueled this perception.

And to this plot Francis has added a new twist: the calling of a rarely seen extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, to be celebrated in the Church. The pope hopes that “the whole Church will find in this Jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

Mercy has been at the center of Francis’s priestly life; rules and structures do not seem to have been nearly as high a priority. With the approach of another Synod this fall, at which a particular set of rules – the pastoral care of the divorced and civilly remarried – are to be discussed just before the Year of Mercy begins, it is fair to wonder if Francis will change these rules, considering the change as an act of mercy.

But just as interpreting Francis’ pontificate falls within a broader narrative, a deeper question underlies the manner in which the coming Synod has been cast. Is mercy antithetical to rules?

When asked this question nearly 800 years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas saw no conflict between them: “A person is said to be merciful” when he is “affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his.”

The pope proclaims a Year of Mercy [Alberto Pizzoli, Getty Images]
The pope proclaims a Year of Mercy [Alberto Pizzoli, Getty Images]

Dispelling another’s misery neither requires rules to be rewritten, nor undermines what is just to another. St. Thomas describes how both God and man act mercifully in this regard: “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully. The case is the same with one who pardons an offence committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift.”

Thomas thus concludes that “mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof.” To be merciful to another, then, is not a matter of changing the rules so that the miserable one now stands in a new set of circumstances. It is rather to suffuse the miserable one with love and compassion to alleviate the misery in which he finds himself.

The redemption of humanity, triumphantly celebrated at Easter, is the model par excellence of the harmony of rules and mercy. God, in an act of mercy, sent his Son into the world to redeem human beings languishing in the misery of sin. The Son, though he could have saved mankind in an infinite number of ways, consented to a torturous death because the Father’s own rules demanded that blood was required to expiate sin. As the author of the universe and all rules, God could have changed his own rules to spare his Son.

But instead of changing the rules, God showed us true mercy. The Son descended to our misery, not to take us out of it, but to help us be sanctified within it. And with his grace the misery of our hearts is dispelled, even if the miserable condition in which we live remains the same.

Some Biblical scholarship has depicted Jesus as a modern liberal who battled the rigid, conservative Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law. But Jesus did not overturn a single law, and, in the field where rules are most contested today – sex – he even made the rules stricter. Rather, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to love and heed “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)

Jesus’ exhortation is a fine model for the coming Synod on the family and the Year of Mercy: not new rules, but the same rules applied with justice, mercy, and faith.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.