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“A Christ Both Loving and Fierce”

On Twitter, I follow the hashtag #Amorislaetitia, which allows me to see all the self-categorized tweets on this topic. While this has proven not entirely useful since the exhortation was released 11 days ago, today was different. Today, I saw a series of tweets from Matthew Schmitz, the literary editor of First Things.

I am unfamiliar with both Matthew and his work. But something he said in that constantly-scrolling feed caught my eye:


Conservative friends who don’t like what he’s saying? Who is this guy? I wondered. Which perspective is he writing from? He continued his thoughts over a series of Tweets, which I’ll compile as a block quote rather than separate images:

My conservative Catholic friends who have told me that they don’t like what I wrote on have ended up saying that they don’t disagree with what I said, just object to my having said it. (I’m sure some disagree outright!) Some who have praised the document in prominent venues have told me that they don’t like it at all. Curious times. I think Catholic truth is radiant, and I don’t feel a need to praise every papal pronouncement in order to preserve it.

Nor do I think piety binds me to. Others do, which I respect.

More curious than ever, I looked him up on First Things and found his essay.

And I can say without qualification that it’s one of the best things on this topic I’ve read. Candid. Sincere. Poignant. A few excerpts:

Shame and bitterness overcame me when the priest said that my parents were not married. They had spent thirty years together and had raised three children, but because my father was a Catholic who had married outside the church, the church held that he had never married at all. Or so this priest told me. I thought him a bastard—after all, he was saying I was one.

Truth can sting. Pope Francis wants to soften it, to minimize its assaults. In his apostolic exhortationAmoris Laetitia, he uses the euphemism “irregular unions” to describe relationships that Catholics consider objectively adulterous. He suggests that people living in a persistent state of sin may receive communion if certain conditions are met—not least, if they are “tactful.” Francis would like the church to be tactful, as well.

I have felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a sharp blow, yet I take no encouragement from this shift. Amoris Laetitia suggests that an objective assessment of whether or not one is in a state of mortal sin can be replaced with a more subjective “discernment” of one’s “interior disposition.” While this may seem merciful, it leaves Catholics less sure of how they stand before God.

Francis writes: “We must make room for the conscience of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel.” This notion of conscience as a licensing agency, as “making room” for actions that otherwise would count as sins, is strange to me. Far from reassuring me that I am worthy to receive communion, my conscience has often reminded me that I am not.


Francis says that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” How well I know it. But the conclusions he draws from this great truth are strange. Who considers himself weak, if not the man who repents his sins and confesses them? Who thinks himself perfect, if not the man who believes he has no need of confession, but a right to the Eucharist? It is not possible to have a purely subjective assurance of our worthiness without the taint of pride.


Francis likewise asks us to practice “discretion,” to be “responsible and tactful,” to “avoid giving offense.” Our “words should be carefully chosen,” he says. He has pastoral reasons for this emphasis, I know. But even pastorally, the strategy fails. I am a straying sheep, prone to wander. What I need from my pastor are words that direct me away from the religion of the day and toward an encounter with a Christ both loving and fierce.

I cannot recommend the whole thing highly enough. Schmitz finishes his reflection with a personal story about his own failure — out of consideration of feelings, but not, he realized, out of love — to warn a friend (who wouldn’t have listened anyway) to stay away from a relationship he knew would hurt her. She reproached him for that failure, as many Catholics will no doubt come to reproach the Church for a softened stance on the challenge to live a virtuous life, no matter the cost.

Even if we won’t listen. Perhaps especially then.

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