20 May 2010

Peter, Do You Love Me? Part 2

Tomorrow's Gospel portrays the reconciliation between Jesus and Peter occasioned by a dialogue in which Jesus questions Peter, and thereby reminds him of what is deepest and truest in himself. As noted in part 1, through Jesus' questions, Peter gets in touch with his heart of hearts and with the reality of agapeic love that objectively inspires him most profoundly. (What Peter feels subjectively is affirmed in his responses, which are expressed in terms of filial love.) From this experience, this reconciliation with what is deepest in himself comes Jesus' triple commission of Peter to "Feed my Lambs, feed my sheep." And of course, Jesus then reminds him that when Peter was younger he could dress himself and go wherever he wanted, but now that he was older (more mature), someone else would gird him in a new role and lead him where he did not want to go.

The point of course, besides referring immediately to the kind of death Peter would die, is that an Apostle's vocation and commission is a difficult one; it represents a kind of freedom which is far more mature and responsible than the liberty of youth. More, while Love speaks to us in our heart of hearts and is the basis of all Christian morality and ethics (something the Church affirms again and again, not least in her teaching on the primacy of conscience coupled with the idea that conscience is that sacred and inviolable place where God speaks to us), discerning how the imperative of that voice of Love works out in concrete terms is sometimes difficult and will always have significant consequences because the stakes are very high.

In recent days we have been reminded of this latter part of tomorrow's Gospel in a particularly striking way, not only of the difficulty of working out what is most loving and most inspired in concrete situations, but of the fact that sometimes our commitment to communion which is our deepest reality and the Love which grounds it and our vocation will take us places we would really rather not but certainly must go if we are to be true to ourselves and our God.

You may know the story: Sister Margaret McBride, a Sister of Mercy and member of a hospital ethics committee was presented with a really terrible situation. A mother of four children with an 11 week pregnancy had a condition which was exacerbated by the pregnancy. If she continued the pregnancy the prospect of both mother and baby dying was nearly 100%. If the pregnancy was terminated the mother had a chance of living. In either case, the baby would die. Church directives on the matter were clear and unambiguous: direct abortion is never allowed. One may not intend evil in order to do good. The demands of love, however, were not so clear in this particular situation. The abortion was done and Sister Margaret and all who participated in it in any way were automatically excommunicated, meaning the Church hierarchy did not act to excommunicate these people but rather, those involved incurred this ecclesiastical (not Divine!) penalty themselves as a consequence of their very action.

Now the classical position on the teaching of the absolute primacy of conscience foresees such a situation. Aquinas was very clear that one MUST act in good conscience (to do otherwise is to sin) and that if one's actions will take one outside the church, that is, if they will result in excommunication, one must act according to one's conscience judgment and bear the excommunication humbly. Again, to fail to act according to one's conscience judgment is to sin; to act in good conscience is not, no matter what the consequences or the correctness or incorrectness of that judgment. Sometimes we hear people suggest that if one acts in good conscience it can only be with a well-formed and informed conscience (this is true), and further that this must mean that one can only act in accord with Church teaching (this is not true). Of course, if this latter part of the statement were true, Aquinas' analysis with its prominent conflict between law and love would be meaningless; excommunication when acting in good conscience could never occur. Similarly at Vatican II it was proposed by some Bishops/Curia that the Council's teaching on conscience be modified to state explicitly that a well-formed conscience was one which was formed to be in accord with Church teaching in any given situation. The theological commission in charge of such a modification rejected it as too rigid and narrow to reflect the scope and wisdom of Church teaching on primacy of conscience.

What we see is that sometimes there is a disconnect or conflict between law (which deals with universals) and love (which not only is a universal imperative but which deals more adequately with concrete situations than law can ever do). Church teaching and the magisterium honors the fact of this disconnect by refusing to soften the crisis (krisis is the Greek term for a moment of decision) that can occur as a result and by commissioning us each to act as Love itself demands. Only we can bring love to a situation. Law cannot. Only we can act in an inspired and creative way given specific circumstances require. Law cannot. Only we can courageously negotiate the transition from universal legal norms in a way which truly chooses life in the best way possible. We are not prevented from erring, nor assured that every decision we make is correct, but the task and challenge of discipleship is this momentous and compelling nonetheless. The charge in tomorrow's gospel passage is a somewhat stronger version of Augustine's famous dictum: Love and do what you must! Love, and do what only you can do. Feed My Sheep!!

My own prayer as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost is a prayer for the Wisdom, Love, and Courage of the Spirit (and any other gifts) necessary to accept the commission which comes with our acceptance of a mature Christian identity; it is a prayer for the Spirit which grounds, reveals, and allows our affirmation of that communion ---that agapeic reality which is deepest, most true and real within us. I especially pray for Sister Margaret who acted in good conscience (quite a high value and demanding reality), and showed us how the face of God is made manifest in the concrete situation. She did this not by thumbing her nose at law, but by relativizing it in light of the Great Commandment and the Voice of God she heard in her heart of hearts. I also pray that her Bishop will lift the automatic sanction, not because abortion is acceptable, but because sometimes, as Sister Margaret has shown us, there are even worse threats to innocent life in the concrete situation. Difficult as this situation is, we cannot allow people of faith, courage, and exceptional integrity to be automatically excluded from the Body of Christ in a way which suggests that church law trumps rather than imperfectly serves God's own Commandment.

May we, each of us, from the lowliest hermit, religious or lay person, to the highest Bishop or Pope act in ways which effectively bring the face of Christ's love, mercy, and compassion into the concrete situation. Law can assist us in significant ways, but will always fall short here. A heart forgiven by Christ and reconciled with him, a heart which knows its own frailties and failures even while it is inspired by and obedient to his Holy Spirit will not.