Mother Teresa Knew That Mercy and Truth Are Never In Conflict

By Manfredo Ferrari [CC BY-SA 4.0]
By Manfredo Ferrari [CC BY-SA 4.0] (photo: Register Files)

At the core of the divisive campaign to coerce the Synod of the Family, into approval of reception of Communion by divorced-remarried Catholics and of homosexual behavior, lies this defamatory assertion: That the Church leaders who insist on upholding key Catholic teachings about these matters are cold and harsh pastors, insensitive to today’s complex human realities.

Really? Then somebody must have forgotten to send this important moral memo to Blessed Mother Teresa, and to her spiritual daughters in the selfless Missionaries of Charity order she founded. And the word obviously must not have gone out to passionately pastoral shepherds like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who drew down the curtain on a successful and eminently pastoral World Meeting of Families immediately before boarding a plane to Rome for the synod.

Actually Archbishop Chaput has become a particular target this week for some of the promoters of pastoral changes that inevitably would have the effect of undermining Catholic doctrine about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and the immorality of homosexual acts. One U.S. Catholic media commentator, for instance, rhetorically wondered if “as a pastor” the archbishop possesses “an ounce of empathy for the confusion people feel in their lives.”

Those who know Archbishop Chaput well (I don’t) tell me it’s utterly silly to imply that this gentle and generous man, who has dedicated his entire life to the service of God and humankind, is crippled pastorally by a lack of empathy. It’s even sillier to circulate this slur in the particular context of the archbishop’s compassionate commitment to communicating Catholic truth to confused Catholics — given that truth is, by definition, precisely what we need most from our pastors whenever we are seriously confused.

In any event, such attacks are rooted in emotion, not logic. The claim in play being, that synod participants like Archbishop Chaput, who insist mercy must combine with Catholic truth if it’s going be truly merciful, are heartlessly obsessed with promoting doctrinal clarity at the expense of pastoral accompaniment of troubled Catholics — in alleged stark contrast with the “big-hearted bishops” who supposedly congregate only on the other side of the reception of Communion and homosexuality debates.

Two jarring errors are incorporated into this antagonistic meme positing the existence of a “merciful fault line” dividing synodal bishops into two warring pastoral camps. First, while there are some very important differences over the two contentious issues, no such “pastoral division” has been evident among the synod fathers themselves. Instead there is a cordial collegial agreement among all the synod participants over the pressing need to provide pastoral accompaniment.

For example, in response to a question at today’s daily synod briefing at the Holy See Press Office, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, succinctly commented that all of Poland’s bishops “do not consider” the possibility of Communion for divorced-remarried Catholics. But he continued on at much greater length about the numerous other ways to communicate to these Catholics that they are not excluded, and have a full right to participate in the Church’s life.

Second, and of broader significance, there isn’t a shred of proof supporting the claim that pastors or other Catholics who are concerned about doctrinal clarity are less pastorally compassionate or effective because of this concern. In fact there is a massive, 2,000-year-old body of historical evidence establishing that it’s the very Catholics who have encountered Jesus, in the clear light of the Church’s foundational teachings, who are most inclined to pour out their lives in sacrificial accompaniment of their brothers and sisters who are in spiritual or material turmoil.

A striking contemporary case in point is none other than the Missionaries of Charity. The Catholic order’s contribution of non-judgmental service to the poorest of the poor, at the very furthest margins of human society, is indisputable even to those who dislike the Church — so much so that in 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the inspirational Catholic nun was never the tiniest bit shy about emphasizing faithfully Catholic perspectives, as in the Nobel Lecture she subsequently delivered when receiving the award. In characteristically direct remarks, she denounced abortion as the “the greatest destroyer of peace today,” extolled the benefits for families of following natural means of family planning, and cited family breakdown and the inattentiveness of parents as a chief cause of the crisis of drug addiction in Western societies.

She found no conflict in offering such perspectives directly alongside this powerful affirmation of the need for Christian accompaniment of those on society’s margins: “[Jesus] makes himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one — the sick one — the one in prison — the lonely one — the unwanted one — and he says: ‘You did it to me.’ Hungry for our love, and this is the hunger of our poor people. This is the hunger that you and I must find, it may be in our own home.”

As it happens, Mother Teresa’s order is in the international news this week, courtesy of the disclosure that it has recently decided to withdraw from participation in India’s federal adoption program, because of a recent government edict mandating that single-parent homes be eligible to adopt children. The Missionaries of Charity’s leaders certainly knew their decision would leave them wide open them to criticism that they are being judgmental and hard-hearted towards single people who yearn to be parents. But for these Catholic sisters, who take in orphaned children from the mean streets of India and nourish them lovingly without any desire for praise and attention for their efforts, there was no other possible decision.

That’s because there is a simple truth of human existence that can’t be ignored in the Indian adoption debate: The best possible family for any child is one that includes both a father and a mother, and the orphaned Indian children living under the Missionaries of Charity’s care are just as deserving of such a home as any other child. And the sisters know that if they accede to the government’s demand, a significant percentage of the children they currently harbor will be adopted into single-parent homes where neither the love nor the material support these children require will be adequately present.

So who, one might ask, is being hard-hearted here? Is it the sisters, who emphasized that despite the decision forced upon them, “We will continue to serve wholeheartedly and free of charge — unwed mothers, children with malnutrition and differently abled children — in all Homes/Centers run by us, irrespective of caste, creed and religion by God’s grace”? Or is it those who criticize Mother Teresa’s order for refusing to recognize the “complex human realities” of modern family structures, and who insist children be placed into single-parent homes primarily to satisfy the ideological agendas of activist groups who regard the optimum nurturing of children as subordinate to the advance of these secularist agendas?

Similarly, moving back to the synod debates, who’s really interested in being merciful to those who are most vulnerable and confused? Is it those who believe that the best means of accompanying people to a better future, here and in the hereafter, is to accompany them with mercy expressed through the fullness of Christian truths? Or is it those who insist the Church must mute those truths that uncomfortably contradict some of the central agendas of contemporary secularism?

While Mother Teresa is no longer with us physically in this messy world, when she was here she left no doubt she sided with the “truth” folks on the topic of Christian accompaniment. But like I said, someone must have forgotten to send her the memo about how truth and mercy sometimes don’t go together. What a shame.