Church must not shrink away from the ideal

Church must not shrink away from the ideal
World Meeting of Families must proclaim the truth with charity and clarity, writes David Quinn

Every moral act has two main components, the objective and the subjective. Here’s an example. If someone steals, what they have done is wrong. The act of stealing is wrong in itself, objectively wrong. But the person might be starving. They might have stolen some bread to stay alive. That is the subjective side of the act, the circumstances.

In this case, the person’s circumstances are such that the moral guilt attaching to what they have done is hugely diminished. Mercy ought to be shown to this person if they are caught. God will certainly show mercy.

The dominant theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis is mercy. He wants us to look long and hard at the subjective circumstances facing each person. Yes, they may have done wrong. Yes, they may have fallen short of the ideal. But their circumstances are such that we should show mercy, help them to improve their circumstances, show them what is the ideal and help them to achieve it.


St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did not neglect mercy by any means. One of John Paul’s very first encyclical was about mercy – Dives in Misericordia – and he tirelessly promoted devotion to the Divine Mercy.

But both of these popes were very interested in the objective nature of a moral act, pointing out its wrongness or rightness in the interests of truth. Pope Francis is resetting the balance by asking us to emphasise the subjective nature of an act more, and the objective nature of it less.

The World Meeting of Families, to be held in Dublin in August of next year, is set to follow Pope Francis in this. It is going to look at the subjective nature of moral acts more and at the objective nature of moral acts less. It will be following the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, released after the two synods on the family in Rome.

Last week, a three-day meeting was held in Dublin to help prepare the way for next year’s event. It attracted delegates from around the world. At a press conference, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, drew attention to the Pope’s emphasis on mercy and people’s subjective circumstances.

Archbishop Martin said: “The World Meeting of Families will be a moment when we will speak of confidence, but also of realism stressing both the challenges and the joys of family life. That is the reality of the life of every family: the ideal family does not exist. Great families do exist. They need the support of the Church.”

To say “the ideal family does not exist” is striking and attention-grabbing. What can it mean? I think in this context ‘ideal’ is being used as another word for ‘perfect’, as in, ‘the perfect family does not exist’. This is obviously true. Every family is made up of sinners big and small, so how can any family be perfect? Was even the holy family perfect? Joseph was a good man, a saint, but he wasn’t totally free of sin and therefore he wasn’t perfect. To be honest, we can take some comfort from this.

At the same time, it is absolutely clear that the ideal family does exist, in the sense that there is an ideal to aim at, and the ideal to aim at is Christian marriage, and in this sense very many people live out the ideal. It is not unrealistic and unobtainable.

Amoris Laetitia mentions the word ‘ideal’ no fewer than 22 times. Several times, the document emphasises that the ideal cannot be used as a kind of stick with which to beat people who fail to live up to it. But even when it is using the word in this context, it is still clear an ideal exists.

At one point, Amoris Laetitia sets out exactly what the ideal is when it says: “Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realised in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society.”

It says that the Church’s teaching on the family is a “sign of contradiction” and that, “married couples are grateful that their pastors uphold the high ideal of a love that is strong, solid, enduring and capable of sustaining them through whatever trials they may have to face”.

This very much suggests that pastors are supposed to uphold the ideal albeit in a manner that helps “each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters”.

Elsewhere Pope Francis warns against shrinking away from proclaiming the ideal. He states in his Exhortation: “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur…a lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves.”

Will the World Meeting of Families be guilty of this “undue reticence”, of “a lukewarm attitude”, of “relativism”? If so, this would be a “lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves”.

In other words, the World Meeting of Families cannot over-concentrate on the subjective at the expense of the objective. It has to hold both in a proper balance. Above all, the World Meeting of Families must clearly and unambiguously proclaim what the ideal is, namely Christian marriage.

To do otherwise would not only be a failure to proclaim the truth, but a pastoral failure also, because good pastoral care leads people into the truth.