A Synod Discussion Asks the Question: What Is Mercy?

This post is the sixth in Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.

St. Peter’s Basilica dome and colonnade on a rainy Rome day.

Not every day here at the synod is an exciting day.  Yesterday was a gloomy, rainy day in Rome, and a kind of lethargy hung over the regularly busy city.  The same kind of malaise seemed to permeate the daily press briefing, with little information being put forth that was of interest to Catholics concerned with LGBT issues.

At the press briefings, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi gives an overview of what has transpired since the day before.  Today his report was followed by reports from four different sub-spokespersons who reported on what bishops in different language groups said.  Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the English sub-spokesperson, and he related a long list of different comments from bishops, though, as is the standard practice, the bishops who stated these various comments are not identified.

Mercy, particularly for those who do not follow church teaching, was a major theme of today’s comments from the bishops, Rosica noted.  Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter captured the main highlights of Rosica’s reporting on mercy:

“Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who assists the press office with English-language media, said one Synod prelate had said: ‘Mercy cannot be encountered unless it is measured against an eternal law.’

” ‘One must seek truth in order to experience mercy,’ Rosica quoted that prelate. ‘And the church must seek truth when confronting the theme of marriage. Means giving people a challenge; it is not covering reality with giftwrap.’

“Another Synod prelate, Rosica related, had said: ‘Unless we acknowledge openly people’s situations, we will not be able to address those situations clearly.’

” ‘Mercy towards sinners is not a form of weakness, nor an abandonment of church teaching,’ Rosica quoted that prelate.”

” ‘We have to learn how to speak the truth in love in many situations, because in many situations people are completely powerless over what has befallen them,’ he said. ‘And our communities of faith have to be communities that welcome people.’ “


Cardinal BaseliosCleemisThottunkal

Also speaking at the press briefing was Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, who is the Archbishop of Trivandrum, in southern India, and the president of the bishops conference of India as well as the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.  He explained his own view about mercy:

“When we speak of god’s mercy, we also talk about an openness to be converted by God’s mercy.  Persons must be well motivated. The Gospel demands this as a condition.  [We say] “The Kingdom of God is at hand, be converted.”  Jesus said “I forgive you, but sin no more.”

Taken all together these comments show that there is a debate about how mercy is to be understood going on in the synod.  Is mercy something that recognizes reality, accepts that people are sometimes powerless to their situations, and welcomes unconditionally or is it something that “demands” conversion as part of the process?

As far as LGBT issues are concerned, this is a critical point.  Will LGBT people be welcome in the Church only if they agree to follow the church’s teaching–which in many cases would be a violation of their consciences–or will they be welcome as they are with their “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” that last year’s mid-term synod report described?

Today’s press briefing focused on bishops’ comments on the second part of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document of the meeting. The second part is entitled “The Discernment of the Family Vocation,” and it focuses on more spiritual, rather than sociological or cultural, aspects of family.  So, we were told that a great many of the bishops’ interventions covered topics such as the importance of family prayer, the family as a place where suffering is shared and comforted, the family as a school for teaching about love and concern for others, the spirituality of the family, the mission of the family to help other families, and the family as the place where the life of faith is lived out every day, the family’s concern with raising children and protecting the elderly, and the vocation of the family.

What struck me as I listened to all these descriptors of the family is that they are all describe families I have met that have LGBT members either as sons and daughters or as the heads of the household. In describing the vocation of family, the bishops are describing the characteristics of ALL families, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of their members.  I hope that they recognize that even in their own thinking, the issue of procreation and the concept of gender complementarity are not the fullness, or even the lion’s share, of family life.   If they would recognize this truth, I think they would be more disposed to welcome LGBT families into the Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


7 replies
  1. lynne miller
    lynne miller says:

    Exactly – we don’t have to like the way families live (with the exception of abuse) but we can’t deny that they are families, and face the same duties and joys as any family.

    • Betsy Linehan
      Betsy Linehan says:

      I wonder if some of the bishops are imagining that gay and lesbian people have the option of a heterosexual marriage, and that this would fix everything. They cannot really think that lifetime celibacy is a healthy option for everyone. I have seen the tragic effects of people who are actually gay or lesbian marrying an opposite sex partner. I have an in-law who, at the end of his life, had to tell his children that he was gay and was dying of AIDS.

  2. Rhea Campbell
    Rhea Campbell says:

    So true – as I am married (50+ years) and an out Trans woman (2+ years) being in Canada I am still married. This is why I believe it’s important that we are recognized as Childern of Our Lord like anyone else. We also go to our Catholic Church regularly. Thank for the article.

  3. Barbara Cooper
    Barbara Cooper says:

    I don’t like the word “mercy”. It conjures up visions of the mighty king on his (definitely) throne handing down judgments about the actions and lives of others. I would much prefer the attitude and word “justice, which to me signifies that all people are equal, responsible for their own actions, we don’t qualify to judge, and we are commanded to love all, even our enemies.

    But maybe it’s just me.

  4. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    When I think of the nature of mercy, I think of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). I also think of Matthew 5:45, “that you may be children of God, Abba causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In the Parable, the ruler forgives the servant’s debt. I’m sure the ruler knew that the servant was giving him/her a “snow job,” but forgave the debt, nonetheless. But the servant, full of arrogance and not an ounce of humility, persecutes his/her peer heartlessly for a minor debt. S/he claims a power that is not his/hers. S/he doesn’t consider the humanity of his/ her peer, but an action that is insulting to the unmerciful servant’s delicate sensibility. Instead of being righteous like the ruler, s/he is self-righteous and assumes that s/he can judge more harshly than the ruler. And, according to Matthew 5:45, the One who can judge has such illogical mercy, that all receive the goodness of the sun and rain alike…no prior need for man-made holiness codes. Could this be the mercy that my brother bishops and cardinals are talking about? A mercy where we act remembering that our judgement is ultimately to see all of Creation with God’s eyes?


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