The debate over remarriage after divorce has resurfaced with an interpretation of controversial aspects of Amoris laetitia by Archbishop Victor Fernandez, a papal advisor rumored to have ghostwritten the document. Like many wishing to accommodate “second unions,” he seems to prefer vagueness and marginalizing those who raise objections rather than presenting a precise, comprehensive rationale. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying to clarify a few key points.
The problems begin with the human tendency to treat morality as a kind of legal system. This approach mistakenly identifies the rigorous application of rules with “justice” and circumstantial adaptation with “mercy.” Those who prefer “mercy” often label their opponents “Pharisees.” But they fail to recognize that, by contrasting justice and mercy, they expose their own pharisaical mindset. The correct assessment of a “second union” – or any moral situation – requires an understanding of morality based on Christ and the righteousness of God, not on approaches designed to favor allegedly just or merciful applications of legal precepts.
Human laws cannot anticipate every situation. Hence, judicial decisions tend either to apply the law strictly or to adapt it to circumstances. Because legal justice strives to give “what is due” to others, mercy toward an offender sometimes conflicts with justice for an aggrieved party.
But this is simply not the case for divine justice and mercy. God owes us nothing; his works of creation and salvation are acts of pure generosity. The Old Testament calls this generosity “justice” or “righteousness” (tzedeqah). It means giving to others “what is good” rather than “what is due.” God calls his people to practice this generous justice rather than mere legal justice.
Despite sin, God’s justice does not abandon us but offers “what is good” for us: truth, conversion, and union with Himself. Thus, divine justice reveals itself in merciful love (hesed) and fidelity (emet). Because God’s merciful love expresses his justice, they cannot be in tension. Covenantal justice is founded in love of God and neighbor. This foundation is personal, not legalistic, calling for the faithful gift of oneself in imitation of God’s gift of Himself.
Covenantal justice, merciful love, and fidelity are directed to authentic and realizable goods, not to subjective or idealized ones. In a fallen world, these goods may be unwelcome or entail considerable suffering – even death – because fidelity to the good cuts against our fallen condition, mistaken judgments, false attachments, and sinful inclinations.
Our commitment to God and neighbor causes pain when we see how we and others mistreat them. It also leads to suffering innocently from evil and from the animosity of the world.
God’s people proved unfaithful, under trials, in the Old Covenant. Responding with justice, God generously promised to wed them to himself in a New Covenant by sending his Spirit and giving them new, faithful hearts.