I read the full gamit of Catholic blogs and commentaries online. I read conservative blogs and I also read less-than-conservative blogs. I read comments. One thing I've noticed is that whenever Pope Francis drops words like 'mercy' and 'love', traditionalists get defensive and are quick to qualify. "Yes, we need mercy, but we also need THE LAW and CLEAR MORAL TEACHING!" "Sure, the woman caught in adultery in the bible was forgiven, but JESUS SAID TO HER 'SIN MORE MORE' YOU CAN'T FORGET ABOUT THAT PART!"
Terminology like mercy and love seem to have twitchy PTSD type effects for those who have grown up grudgingly through the Vatical II era and associate such words with the "feel-good, wishy-washy, social-justicey type of cafeteria catholicism that got us all into this mess in the first place." Vatican II was a response to the (in my opinion) comfortable and insular enclave of traditionalism and clericalism that saw the modern world passing by through the stained glass windows and shrugged its shoulders.
Likewise, radical traditionalism is a counter response to the Vatical II response of how to be the 'Church in the modern world.' Radical Traditionalism does not 'open the windows to the modern world,' but shuts them tight lest the noxious gases waft into the sanctuary and spoil the wine and hosts. It seeks to circle the wagons and preserve the remnant of what is left of the 'true church' in a kind of Donatist-like vetting system for who is a true Catholic and who is not.
Now, I don't fall into either of these two camps very squarely, though I appreciate what each is trying to accomplish. Which is maybe why I appreciated Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation on marriage, family, and the 'Joy of Love.' Because I think it tends to speak to the middle--that is, upholding and reiterating the Church's traditional teaching on the ideals of marriage and family while also speaking pastorally in recognizing and acknowledging that members of our human family--real live people--do not always live up to this ideal, and what should the response to those 'irregular' situations be.
When I read flabbergasted and sometimes angry responses from traditionalists in the combox of blogs criticizing Pope Francis and his 'confusing, unclear message that opens things up to misinterpretation' when he references squishy things like love and mercy, it comes across like this: Mercy should be prudently dispensed in a restrained manner to qualified recipients and only then, with restrictions, after a inquisition like period of judiciary discernment by a tribunal determining whether or not said person qualifies for mercy.
If you've ever known mercy, been shown mercy, experienced mercy...you know this is not how mercy operates.
The examples in scripture are not lacking. The parable of the unforgiving servant, the parable of the prodigal son, the story of the woman caught in adultery. These stories paint a picture of mercy, what it looks like, using the canvas of real life. It illuminates us to the character of a God who is both just AND merciful.
You see, to those who have not experienced it, mercy is an abstract concept talked about in abstract terms, a catch phrase that is easy to criticize and dismiss as peripheral. They don't really need it, it is kind of nice but optional.
But those who know sin, know mercy.
I am currently at a professional conference for work. Nice hotel, catered meals, vendors with flashy displays, boring seminars, rehearsed and polished presentations...what you would expect for a conference.
But something interesting happened at lunch today. There were about 600 or so attendees seated at round tables in the ballroom, sitting down to their meals being brought out by servers, just kind of chitchatting, when a woman is introduced on the big screen and invited to say a few words. She is wearing a tee-shirt that says "Love Heals". She looks out into the sea of people and begins to speak. "I was addicted to drugs and working the streets. I've been arrested 87 times. I lost my kids. I had no hope." Not polished, not rehearsed. We didn't even know who she was or we she was being so uncomfortably honest in addressing a large room full of higher ed professionals. She stops for a few minutes and her eyes get wet.
"But God...God is so good."
This is a woman who has known what life is like on the other side, on the streets, where sin and darkness are the norm, not the exception, and certainly not simply concepts. But she was given a chance at a new life through the co-operative she was representing. They had a table in the lobby selling candles and beauty products made by women who were rebuilding their lives in a supportive, loving, and safe environment and seeking through entreupenerial means to provide for themselves and their families. Love and mercy were not abstract concepts to be debated in a combox--they were the embodiment of what had rescued and ransomed her from not only a metaphysical death, but a physical one as well.
God is both just and merciful, and these qualities are not at odds. He does not mete out mercy. He POURS it to excess, lavishly and unreasonably, til it is spilling over the sides and overflowing and you are drowning in it so that there is no doubt in one's mind that they have indeed been forgiven and that sin has been washed so far away that you couldn't scrounge around for it in the gutter drain if you tried...it was already out to sea.
Pharisees want a prescription, a formula that if followed correctly will lead to righteousness in a very clear A+B=C kind of way. Unfortunately real life does not always fall so neatly into line. You don't just hand someone a bible or catechism and tell them to start reading with no context, no foundation, and no instruction. Sometimes showing love and mercy is not even about teaching or instruction, but sitting on the sidewalk with someone and being late to a meeting as a result, or listening, really listening, when someone is telling you their story, or even making yourself vulnerable to caring about someone's life and being hurt as a result. Being in relationship, whether with a spouse or parents or each other or with God Himself, is dynamic and calls us to step away from the screen and get dirt under our nails. It's messy, it can sometimes be 'irregular,' it's full of ups and downs--and there is simply no substitute for it.