Is ‘accompanying’ sinners always merciful? Jesus and the early Christians saw it differently
February 2, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – “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 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.”
Click here to learn about St. Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah and his crusade against a plague of sodomy and corruption in the Catholic Church, translated by LSN reporter Matthew Hoffman.
The Sacred Scriptures urge the exclusion of sinners from the Christian community so many times that it is difficult to list every passage. However, the most striking examples come from Christ himself, who orders his disciples to rebuke evildoers three times: first privately, then in the company of several others, and finally before the whole Church. Those who will not hear correction are to be ejected from the community of the faithful: “If he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican” (Matt. 18: 17).
The counsel of Christ to exclude recalcitrant evildoers from the Church was an analogue to his much more terrifying doctrine of perpetual and eternal exclusion from the community of heaven. In many passages of Scripture, Christ portrays himself as ordering unrepentant sinners to go “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25: 41) and promises of “them that work iniquity” that he will “cast them into the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13: 42). In the Book of Revelation, Christ assures the apostle John that those who “wash their robes” in his blood may “enter by the gates into the city” of heaven, while those who are “dogs, and sorcerers, and unchaste, and murderers, and servers of idols, and every one that loveth and maketh a lie” are left outside (Rev. 22: 14-15), in a final and perpetual act of exclusion and marginalization.
How exclusion benefits the sinner, and the whole Church
The connection between exclusion and mercy is explained in detail in the letters of the apostles. The exclusion of recalcitrant sinners is seen as merciful in two ways. First, it removes a source of scandal and corruption from within the Church, thus protecting the spiritual health of the rest of the faithful. This is illustrated by a case of a man living in sexual sin in the Church of Corinth, whom St. Paul urges the Corinthians to excommunicate.
“I wrote to you in an epistle not to keep company with fornicators,” Paul reminds the Corinthians. He says they are “not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother be a fornicator or covetous or a server of idols or a railer or a drunkard or an extortioner: with such a one, not so much as to eat. ... Put away the evil one from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5: 11, 13).
His reasoning is clear: the Church must be protected from such a scandalous example, which can confuse the faithful and lead them into similar evils. “A little leaven corrupts the whole lump,” he warns them, urging them to “purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened.” Later, in the same letter, he adds: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’”
Second, exclusion induces the sinner to consider the gravity of his sins by illustrating his estrangement from God, giving him a foretaste of the miseries of hell as he lives out his immoral behavior in the fallen world outside of the Church. This is done in the hope that malefactors will be lead to repentance, confession, and reparation, by which they will be reunited with Christ and the community of his followers.
Paul explains this to the Corinthians by stating he intends “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In his first letter to Timothy, Paul speaks similarly of two heretics, Hymeneus and Alexander, “whom I have delivered up to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1: 20).
The leadership of the early Church was aware too that failure to properly discipline the flock and to punish recalcitrant evildoers would not only harm the souls of their flocks, but would accrue to their own personal guilt before God. They kept in mind the warning of the Prophet Ezekiel (3:18), “If, when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die: thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may be converted from his wicked way, and live: the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand.”
The clear instructions in the Scripture regarding the exclusion of recalcitrant sinners from the Church made their way into the Church’s ritual practices and jurisprudence in the centuries that followed. The laws of the Church recognized a wide variety of offenses for which it excluded people from the reception of the sacraments or from Church membership altogether.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which systematized most of the Church’s traditional law for the first time in a single tome, provided for excommunications for a wide variety of offenses, including heresy and schism, attacks on prelates or their rights, blasphemy, grave abuses of the sacraments, membership in Masonic organizations, and particularly heinous acts of aggression or abuse against other members of the faithful.
Among those acts considered grave enough to merit an excommunication were offenses against life and family, in particular the procurement of an abortion (which automatically excommunicated the offender), and the sin of public bigamy, in which people enter into an illicit second marriage, even if only a civil one. Those guilty of other sexual sins, such as public concubinage, and publicly-known acts of incest, pederasty or pedophilia, were at a minimum excluded from the reception of the Eucharist until they made public reparation, and could be struck with stronger penalties at the discretion of the bishop.
Although the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which prevails today, is more general, and allows discretion in most cases in applying penalties (which can include excommunication and interdict), it still prohibits anyone from receiving the sacraments who is living in manifest public sin (canon 915).
The Catholic Church’s traditional rite of anathema, which is the strongest form of excommunication, sums up the Church’s reasoning regarding exclusion from the Church. The rite expresses this exclusion in terms of the greatest mercy of all: the salvation of souls. It also reminds the prelates of the Church, particularly bishops and popes, that they will be judged on the last day if they fail to protect the faithful from the wolves in their ranks. Below, I provide my own translation of the rite from the Latin of the Pontificale Romanum.
(THE RITE OF SOLEMN EXCOMMUNICATION)
When an anathema, that is, a solemn excommunication for more grave sins, must be given, the bishop, dressed in his amice, stole, purple cope, and simple miter, accompanied by twelve priests dressed in surplices, and with both him and the priests holding burning candles in their hands, sits upon his seat before the high altar, or in some other public place that is more pleasing to him, and there pronounces and carries out the anathema, in this way:
Wherefore [Name], persuaded by the devil, discarding, by his apostasy, his Christian vows, which he made in Baptism, has not feared to ravage the Church of God, to plunder ecclesiastical goods, and to violently oppress the poor of Christ: therefore, anxious that he not perish because of pastoral negligence, for which we might be compelled to render account in the terrible judgment before our Lord Jesus Christ the Prince of Pastors, regarding which the Lord himself gives a terrifying warning, saying: “If you do not declare to the evildoer his iniquity, I will require his blood at thy hand,” (1) we warned him canonically, a first time, a second time, a third time and even a fourth time in an attempt to convince him of his evil, inviting him to amendment, satisfaction, and penance, and rebuking him with paternal affection. Lamentably, however, he spurned these salutary warnings, and puffed up with a spirit of arrogance, contemptuously refused to make amends to the Church that he had injured. We, however, are informed by precepts of the Lord and of the Apostles, of what we should do with evildoers of this kind. For thus says the Lord: “If thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee.” (2) And the Apostle says: “Put away the evil one from among yourselves.” (3) And again: “If any man that is named a brother be a fornicator or covetous or a server of idols or a railer or a drunkard or an extortioner: with such a one, not so much as to eat.” (4) And John, beloved by Christ above the rest of the Apostles, forbids us to greet such a nefarious man, saying: “Receive him not into the house nor say to him: God speed you. For he that saith unto him: God speed you, communicateth with his wicked works.” (5) Therefore, fulfilling the precepts of the Lord and of the Apostles, by the sword of excommunication we cut off from the body of the Church this putrid and incurable member who did not receive his medicine, lest the rest of the body be infected, as with a poison, by such a pestilential illness. Therefore because he has despised our admonitions and our numerous exhortations, because he was called to amendment three times in accordance with the precept of the Lord and refused to repent, because he did not consider his guilt, nor confess it, nor give any excuse to the legation sent to him, nor ask for mercy, but his heart being hardened by the devil, he persevered in the evils he had begun, as the Apostle says:
“According to his hardness and impenitent heart, he treasurest up to himself wrath, against the day of wrath:” (6) therefore with all of his accomplices and his supporters, by the judgment of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, as well as by the authority of our mediocrity, and our power of binding and loosing in heaven and on earth which has been divinely conferred upon us, we separate him from the precious reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord, and from the society of all Christians, and we exclude him from the entrances to Holy Mother Church in heaven and on earth, and we declare him to be anathematized and excommunicated; and judge him to be damned with the devil, and his angels, and all of the reprobate in eternal fire; until he escapes from the bonds of the devil, and returns to amendment and penance, and gives satisfaction to the Church of God, which he injured, we deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved on the day of judgment. (7)
And all respond: So be it, so be it, so be it.
This having been done, both the bishop and the priests must throw the burning candles, which they have in their hands, on the ground. Then letters are sent to the priests by way of the parishes, and also to neighboring bishops, containing the name of the one excommunicated and the reason for his excommunication, lest anyone out of ignorance have further association with him, and so that on the occasion of his excommunication he might be removed from the company of all.
(1) This is a paraphrase of Ezekiel 3:18: “If, when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die: thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may be converted from his wicked way, and live: the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand,” and Ezekiel 33:8, “When I say to the wicked: O wicked man, thou shalt surely die: if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked man from his way: that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand.”
(2) Matthew 18:8.
(3) 1 Corinthians 5:13.
(4) 1 Corinthians 5:11.
(5) 2 John 1:10-11.
(6) This is a paraphrase of part of Romans 2:5.
(7) This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 5:5: “To deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic journalist and the translator and author of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). In addition to his work for LifeSite, his award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Detroit News, Catholic World Report, and the National Catholic Register. He is currently LifeSite's Latin America Correspondent.