When asking my high school students about the “deep questions” that have provoked men and women throughout history (classic ones like “what is the meaning of life” and “can a human give himself happiness”), I am often met with skeptical faces. The culture at large which has formed their moral consciences dictates (at least implicitly) that these questions are not “black and white” and thus do not have real, objective answers. Because we are confronted with the limits of our subjectivity which become apparent obstacles to knowing that which is real, we are left to construct our own meanings. And yet to conclude that there is no real meaning in life fails to satisfy our heart’s’ yearning to know “real answers” to these questions. The rejection of objective answers and the exaltation of subjective opinions can only further divide people as factions develop from their self-created answers. What can possibly transcend the hardening of opinions that are born from the exaltation of subjectivity? Is it possible that the subjectivity of man’s “I” can be truly embraced by, and thus be given the capacity to know, that which is objective?
Pope Francis casts a new light on the role of the Incarnation in moral deliberation in Amoris Laetitia. Christian morality proposes a correspondence to the human person’s desire to know objective truths through engaging his subjective “I”. In the Incarnation, the Truth takes flesh; It becomes a “You” that is intelligible to my I. Many a Christian struggle to find clarity amidst the cloudiness created by a moral culture that veers further and further away from affirming morality’s contingency upon an objective truth. This struggle has resulted in characteristically reductive approaches to moral deliberation, ranging from rigid legalism to lax revisionism.
The Pope, in addressing the issues that are not “black and white”, namely that of the reception of the Eucharist for married persons who have been previously married and have not received an annulment, responds to the reactionary moral assertions that stem from reductive understandings of Christian ethics. While resorting to “simply apply[ing] moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations” (AL 305) or dismissing the gravity of the transgression of marital vows may be easier, they hardly live up to the true moral standard of the Gospel. This standard’s true point of reference is a Person, and can be known through His gaze of mercy. In Him, the Origin of objective reality becomes knowable through a relationship that engages our subjectivity.
This “gaze of mercy” that originates in the source of the Standard in Christian ethics is made present 2,000 years later by the means of His appointed successors, that is, His pastors. Francis employs the agency of the priest as the point of reference in the process of pastoral discernment. It is only through the relationship with the pastor that the person living in an “irregular” situation that fails to conform fully to the ideal can reach the point in which they can wholeheartedly receive the Gift that consumes them into the divine Life, that is the Eucharist. A pastor who merely doles out legal obligations, or disregards the gravity of sin, cannot be said to take seriously the embrace of mercy that he is called to be not only a sign of, but to be an agent of reconciliation in when acting in persona christi.
Only when accompanied by the shepherd, who can fully understand the “concrete complexity of one’s limits,” can the straying sheep find his way back into the flock as a full member (AL 303). It is the bestowal of the Holy Orders that gives him the authority to discern the path toward full communion for he or she who has strayed. Lumen Gentium’s clarifies of the role of the priest within the ecclesial body: the priest is given the authority to regulate the “fruitful distribution” of the sacraments, and thus plays a crucial role in “sanctifying the people.” (LG 28).
Francis’ decision to emphasize the role and authority of the priesthood in such matters proves challenging to a postmodern mind, while also manifesting a newness in the stalemates that result from arguments regarding such contested issues. The postmodern ideals of individualism and a skeptical relationship with authority have undoubtedly influenced the dynamic of even those inside the Church, ranging from Her traditionalist children to Her progressive ones. The reliance upon simplistic “values” and definitions of Christian ethics reflect the autonomous attitude of the culture at large. Morality is subject to “my opinion”, whether it be “conservative” or “liberal.” But to refer to another fleshly being, that is an objective reality that exists outside of myself, radically challenges our conception of moral truths.
Perhaps this challenge is what is needed most in the tiresome back-and-forth between ideological poles. To refer to a priest to discern moral dilemmas is refreshing precisely because it does not subject moral dilemmas to people’s personal interpretations. In following a pastor, one can begin to discover his own shortcomings, his need for forgiveness, and a path for him to become truly himself through participating in the Life of the Church. In this “being accompanied,” one begins to discover the original “gaze of mercy” that can both shed light on man’s sinfulness and need for repentance, as well as invite him to participate in the beatitude that is born of conformity to the Light that is the Truth, primarily through reception of the sacraments; both of which fall under the authority of those who have received Holy Orders.
Many have found the priesthood, the divine authority made known and operating through the flesh, to be a stumbling block and a cause for scandal. Jesus’ decision to pass His authority on to fleshly beings became a cause for scandal for the likes of people ranging from the pharisees to Martin Luther. And yet the presence of someone who is willing to accompany us in our uncertainty and fragility may be what is most needed in a culture that suffocates in the “grayness” of subjectivity. It is this risk of entrusting that which is objectively true to the subjectivity of a fleshly, finite human being which is most needed as we struggle to reconcile the dramatic relationship between the Truth and our experiences. Through the objective presence of the Truth which reveals itself through a Person who embraces us in our subjective experiences, we can begin to discover a new freedom in front of the complexities that constitute our human dilemmas.
While some of my students may remain content with not finding any “real answers” to their existential inquiries, others are saddened and disillusioned by the great pool of subjective opinions out of which no attractive or genuine answers seem to be emerging. Where is the real meaning in life…if it even exists at all? As we look at recent events of bombings committed by “heartless” sociopaths, law enforcement officers who rather than uphold justice commit unjust acts of brutality, and politicians whose commitment to the golden calf of winning trumps moral truths and the common good, I yearn to see authentic meaning and goodness emerge from the mess of that has become of our society. I find that in my experience teaching, the answers to these dramatic question start to emerge as I engage in the “fleshiness” of the people and events that constitute my daily life; especially through the faces of my students and in my relationships with them. In the same spirit of Francis’ directives in Amoris Laetitia, subjective quandaries find their fulfillment in the encounter with the objectivity of those whom we encounter in our experiences. It is here that real meaning and true mercy begin reconcile the eternal rift that exists between our hearts and reality.