The search for balance

The Church must avoid both moral rigorism and laxism, writes David Quinn

Commenting on the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis last week, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin observed that on several occasions “Pope Francis has drawn attention to the polarities of ‘rigorism’ and ‘laxism’”, that is to the overly strict imposition of the moral rules on the one hand, and to an overly relaxed attitude towards the same, on the other.

Archbishop Martin said: “Irish Catholicism has for too long been rigorist. Today, however, Irish Catholicism runs the risk of being laxist.” I think this is exactly right. Today’s laxism is a reaction to yesterday’s rigorism.

This is what societies seem to do all the time, they overreact to their past. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. Ireland was once a strict, authoritarian society. Whether it would have been as strict and authoritarian if the Catholic Church had not been so dominant is open to question – other societies have been just as strict and authoritarian – but there is no question that the Catholic Church contributed to this atmosphere.


Today, Ireland is in the middle of a full-scale rebellion against its authoritarian, Catholic past. ‘Imposed morality’ is out and ‘choosing your own morality’ is in. But there is a curious paradox at work here. It’s what Pope Benedict called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Basically, huge pressure is now being exerted on everyone to conform to the new moral relativism.

The Church itself is under pressure to conform. This is one reason why anything Pope Francis says which seems to be relaxing the moral rules is seized on by the media, even if that means quoting him out of context.

Thus the media are extremely happy to quote the Pope saying we should not be “obsessed” with issues like abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage, but are much less inclined to quote him when he condemns abortion, praises Pope Paul VI for his courage in issuing Humanae Vitae back in 1968 or reaffirming that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Likewise, the media are happy to quote him saying ‘who am I to judge a gay person’ without adding the qualifier ‘if they are seeking God’, or the qualifier, ‘the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this [the Church’s stance on homosexuality] very well”.

But if society is pushing the Church in the direction of the prevailing moral relativism, tremendous pressure to do the same exists inside the Church itself as well, and has for years.

This is what Blessed John Paul II fought back against with encyclicals likeVeritatis Splendour. The Second Vatican Council was misrepresented by many in the Church as a massive break with the past and with the Church’s own moral traditions.

Many priests, religious and laity were understandably reacting against the authoritarianism they grew up with but unfortunately embraced the sort of ‘laxism’ both Pope Francis and Archbishop Martin have drawn attention to.

Just as this tendency in the Church misrepresented Vatican II, it is now misrepresenting Pope Francis and essentially presenting him as a fellow traveller.

What is happening is that ‘the rules’ are being falsely pitted against mercy. However, ‘the rules’ often mean simply, morality itself. Are morality and mercy really in conflict?

Let’s suppose someone has done something very wrong – been unfaithful to a spouse, for example. The rigorist will simply condemn the person, pronounce sentence and make it very hard if not impossible for them ever to make amends.

The laxist will do something like the opposite. They might even make excuses for the person’s infidelity. They might point, for example, to the fact that the person’s marriage was going through an unhappy patch, if that was indeed the case. On this basis they will minimise the wrong done. It might even seem as though there is nothing to forgive at all or to make amends for.


The rigorist, in other words, won’t take into account circumstances at all and will simply look at the objective wrong done.

The laxist will look at almost nothing but the circumstances of the case and will practically overlook the objective wrong done.

The more balanced attitude, which I think is the Pope’s attitude, is to look at both the objective wrong and the particular circumstances.

This is surely the only way to properly hold in balance the need to uphold the moral rules and the need to show mercy.

Rigorism and laxism both fail to do this and so fail people. Ultimately both result in a lack of proper pastoral care.

Today, as Archbishop Martin says, the real problem is likely to be laxity.

However, if a person has done wrong, we are doing them no favours if, in the name of ‘mercy’, we pretend that little wrong, if any, has been done at all.

In fact, if you do not help them on the road to moral recovery (also called repentance) you are greatly failing in your duty towards them. In the final analysis that would be a failure of charity.

Furthermore, you are failing those hurt by the moral failure of the person in question. Morality isn’t there to protect the strong so much as the weak. It’s quite likely, for instance, that children will be among the victims of a spouse’s infidelity. In the case of abortion, it is obvious that the victim is someone very weak indeed, namely the unborn child.

So we need to strike the right balance between mercy and morality, between laxism and rigorism. That is the challenge before all pastors today from the Pope down. Indeed, it has always been the challenge when you think about it.