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When faced with practical problems, rely on principles not platitudes

March 14, 2014

The line between principles and platitudes is a narrow one. Both sorts of assertions are true and both can put into a few words concepts that otherwise require many paragraphs to explain. But principles and platitudes are not the same thing; in the face of concrete questions needing practical resolution, principles inform good decision-making, while platitudes derail it.

Catholic World News reports: “Looking forward to the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family has said that the status of Catholics who are divorced and remarried ‘should be looked at with a merciful eye. Mercy is not blind, and does not oppose the truth, [but] mercy is the suprema lex.’”

For starters, no, mercy is not the supreme law in the Church, but I’ll deal with that in a moment. First, we need to be alert to platitudes being substituted for principles when faced with concrete questions about divorce, ‘remarriage’, and reception of holy Communion.

One must ask, what does it really mean to say that divorced-and-remarried Catholics should “be looked at with a merciful eye”?

Pray, exactly who in the Church, nay in the world, should not be looked at “with a merciful eye”? No one, I would venture. But if everyone stands in need of a merciful eye, then singling out one portion of humanity as deserving to be looked at with a merciful eye either tells us absolutely nothing we didn’t already know, or implies that this portion of humanity has somehow been denied mercy; now, if that is the prelate’s claim, he should feel free to make it—and then be prepared to defend it. But if that is not his claim, his admonition to others to look at divorced-and-remarried Catholics with a merciful eye amounts to a platitude, that is, a true statement but not one that advances the practical resolution of a pressing pastoral question. No matter how it sounds.

Now, about mercy being the “supreme law” of the Church.

Sure, one can defend that assertion. Problem is, one can defend about a dozen other things as being the “supreme law” of the Church. What about love? What about charity? What about evangelization? What about the divine liturgy and worship of God? And so on. We must be very careful about asserting any given principle of action as being the supreme anything in something as complex as the Mystical Body of Christ, for what is “supreme” in the Church is often a matter of context. Sever assertions of supremacy in the Church from their ecclesial context and confusion quickly arises. (Want a canonical example? Read Canons 331 and 336, and tell me where rests supreme and full power in the Church.)

But since the prelate invoked law, let me frankly observe that canon law does not, as it happens, cite “mercy” as the supreme law of the Church. Instead, Canon 1752, the final canon of the 1983 Code, states that “the salvation of souls … must always be the supreme law of the Church.” Variations on this theme (e.g., salus animarum et bonum Ecclesiae) are common in theological literature and have, I think, just as sound a claim on our thinking as does the assertion that mercy is the supreme law of the Church in regard to divorced-and-remarried Catholics and, while we’re at it, to any other Catholics.

Those who invoke platitudes as if they were principles enjoy a rhetorical advantage, of course, in that it is hard to disagree with the content of most platitudes, being, as they are, almost always true. (Anyone want to count the nanoseconds that it will take for someone to decry this post as a denial that divorced-and-remarried Catholics should be looked at with a merciful eye?). Nevertheless, the gravity and the clarity of Christ’s teaching against divorce and remarriage are beyond reasonable dispute and the obligation of the Church to uphold the integrity of the sacraments, of all the sacraments, is clear. To those struggling against the easy substitution of platitudes for sound and principled thinking about these and related vital matters, I can only say, shoulder on.

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