Pope Francis, in his recent pastoral exhortation Laetitia amoris tells us that:
The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgments.
He also tells us 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. (307).
We all get to read those statements with our own prejudices. Those who lean “progressive” read the first and skip the second. Those who support “traditionalism” read it the opposite.
The Gospels show us Jesus preaching hope to “the sinners,” that is, those outside the Jewish religious community. Recall, however, that Jesus also preached strong judgment against those inside the community if they failed to follow God’s intent for the Law. Those who claim to be part of the Church today should feel the sting of that judgment. The path to holiness is marked by mistakes and arrogance in spite of all the graces that have been given to the Church. The simple fact is that we’re all sinners, both in and outside the Church.
God in not tolerant of sin; rather, he forbears to pass judgment while giving the sinner a chance to repent. The clergy have a holy and non-negotiable obligation to lovingly encourage and even pressure every single person in the parish to conform their lives to the Gospel. The more that the Church imitates Christ in his embrace of sinners into the community of the Church, the more demanding that the preaching of the Gospel needs to be.
Jesus was merciful to those who needed mercy and pulled no punches to those who needed judgment. The pastor wields a lash to the insider and offers a hope to the outsider. When a parishioner complains that he feels “judged,” the pastor needs to ask himself: Has he judged wisely according to the teachings of the Church, setting aside his own biases and opinions? Has he spread out the lash of judgment evenly across all parishioners (including himself)? Have his words and actions given his parishioners (and himself) hope by clear teaching and adequate opportunity to repent? If he can answer “yes,” then he can do no more than to encourage the individual to patiently and humbly endure the judgment and remain open to God’s healing grace. If the individual instead separates himself from the Church’s judgment, the pastor is left with the gnawing pain of “What could I have done differently?” This is a sacrifice which needs to be joined to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and through that suffering, come to a deeper and better understanding of God’s grace and healing power in himself.