Being Pastoral: the Balance of Justice and Mercy

Today I return to my question, what does it mean to be pastoral? The Church is becoming affected by the kind of polarization that we see in politics, pitting the so-called pastoral against the so-called traditional. I say so-called because each has become a parody of its proper meaning and is very unhealthy. As parents, we seek to find that kind of balance in our families. For example, my husband often tells the story of having done something disobedient as a child and his mother grounded him. He was supposed to go with his hockey team to play at Maple Leaf Gardens, then the home of the Toronto Maple Leaf team – a once in a lifetime experience. The coach called the mother, and explained the significance to her and asked her to find another punishment if she could, and she did. She realized that her reasonable punishment was in fact disproportionate on this particular occasion. And her son is still grateful for her mercy decades later.

On other occasions, mercy can be found in applying the rule of law. Many a child has spent a night wailing in their room about how mean and unfair their parents are, learning (eventually) about what is most important in life. Parents have to exercise judgment and we try to be fair and reasonable, but parent-judgment and kid-judgment do not always align. It can be merciful to be strict when being permissive is not in the child’s best interest. In short, there are times when it is prudent to be firm, in order to guide an individual to make good decisions; and there are other times when it is prudent to be more relaxed. And, let’s be honest; we see the results when parents fail to take this responsibility seriously, being either too harsh or too lax.

The role of the Church as a whole, and of pastors for their part, is not altogether different. The laws of the Church, like the rules in our families, are meant to guide individuals to live in accord with God’s laws, as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. The Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life, for example, is firm. But as we have seen with the Atlantic bishops, the teaching can be obscured by an over-emphasis on being pastoral. Likewise with marriage or abortion, firm teaching is difficult and can be muddied by attempts at being pastoral. It is unfortunate because the firmness of the teaching is in itself pastoral – it guides the faithful in moral living. As always, the Church offers the mercy of Christ through the sacrament of Penance for those who fall, as in, all of us to some degree.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed priests who balked at hurting feelings, as though tears were some kind of pastoral failing. In fact, tears can be cleansing and facing up to our sins is the first step toward healing and conversion. Papering over serious lapses in judgment does no one any favor. Again – think of life at home. We don’t crush someone who has done something wrong, and we should be quick to forgive, but if we do not talk about it and teach from it, we are not being responsible parents. A child who wreaks havoc throughout the house and then offers a meaningless, “Sorry!” when confronted, with no consequences, is not likely to grow into an integrated, responsible adult.

The balancing of justice and mercy, or rigidity and laxity, as some would say, is just that, balance. We need a measure of both in life and we will struggle finding the right proportions. However, we should understand that they are not opposed to one another; they work best in combination. We should pray to the Holy Spirit to guide us in our families, parishes and in the universal Church as we try to integrate both justice and mercy in our lives.

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