Is ‘Accompanying’ Sinners Always Merciful? Jesus and the early Christians saw it differently

“Mercy is inclusive and tends to spread like wildfire in a way that knows no limits,” wrote Pope Francis in his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera in November of last year. As the months and years have passed since the two Synods on the Family and the publication of Amoris Laetitia, the metaphor seems increasingly apt. Pope Francis’ emphasis on “inclusivity” has become a wildfire that is now threatening to consume the whole of the Catholic Church’s sacramental discipline, its canon law, its evangelical mission, and even its distinctive institutional identity.

What began with manipulated meetings of bishops and became a convoluted and ambiguous apostolic exhortation, has now exploded in a free-for-all in which priests and bishops seek to outdo one another in discarding the Church’s restrictions on the reception of the sacraments.

Shortly following the publication of Amoris Laetitia in March of last year, the president of the Philippines episcopal conference declared cryptically that “there is always room . . . at the table of sinners.” Then the Buenos Aires bishops announced in September that they would allow divorced and remarried couples to publicly receive the sacraments if they met certain conditions. Now, the bishops of Malta have declared that anyone living in an adulterous “relationship” outside of a previously-contracted marriage may receive Holy Communion and the sacrament of Penance, as long as they have come “to acknowledge and believe that” that they are “at peace with God” regarding their behavior.

In numerous official declarations, such as Amoris Laetitia and Misericordia et Misera, as well as countless interviews and other informal statements, the pope has emphasized “inclusiveness” and its relationship to mercy. He has made this point so frequently that there appears to be a virtual equivalency between the two. The virtue of “inclusiveness,” as well as its analogues “welcoming” and “accompaniment,” have been repeated so many times by Pope Francis that Religion News Service calls “inclusiveness” the “signature theme of his pontificate.”

Christ both includes and excludes

However, the Sacred Scriptures, as well as traditional Catholic theology and doctrine, offer a very different understanding of the relationship between inclusiveness and mercy. Although the two are, in certain contexts, related, they are quite often seen as opposed to one another, so much so that exclusivity, as much as inclusivity, is understood as an integral part of the virtue of mercy.

Christ himself offers a profound example of mercy and inclusiveness when he forgives those who have repented of their sins and invites them to return to communion with him, such as the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11), and the sinful woman who washes his feet with her tears of remorse (Luke 7: 36-50). He also offers compelling parables of inclusive mercy, such as the prodigal son received by his father after leaving home and living a dissolute life (Luke 15: 11-32).

These examples, however, have a common element: the sinner who is received into communion is always repentant. The mercy of God is offered to all, but only those who renounce their immoral behavior are able to receive it. Full inclusion of the sinner in the Christian community is predicated upon his confession of the Christian faith and his abandonment of grave sin.

For those who refuse to repent of grave sin, the message of Christ and of the inspired authors of the New Testament is clear: true mercy requires their exclusion from the life of the Church, partially or completely, particularly those who have been baptized and bear the name of “Christian.”

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