The outcome of the recent Synod of Bishops became a short-lived talking point in the media last week. Their general common perception of the final document was of a blow dealt to Pope Francis’ plans, mainly regarding the divorced and homosexuals. The main problem with the media is that they consider the Church to be in the same category as any other law-making body, where everything can be discussed and changed at will. The Church considers itself the guardian and interpreter of divine revelation, not its creator. Over the centuries the Church has remained faithful to doctrine, but has been changing and adapting its pastoral and practical approach to the ever-changing social aspects of life. This is what the bishops at the Synod were discussing; expectations of changing the Church’s doctrine had been misplaced.
At the heart of the ongoing discussion within the Church, which the Synod just mirrored, is the permanent tension between the two main commandments mentioned by Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. […] You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ The main problem with these two is striking the right balance between them; favouring one over the other leads either to merciless moral rigidity or to misplaced self-indulgent leniency. The plenitude of current and historical examples illustrates that all too well.
Although these two fundamental rules appear to be very simple at first glance, their practical implementation seems to be more complicated. There are many situations in everyday life when the love of God clashes with the love of neighbour, e.g. when an individual wants to go to Mass but the spouse has other plans in mind; the choice is tough and upsetting, whatever the final decision. And then we have all these difficult moral choices on a much greater scale like unborn life, euthanasia, wars, and so on. We come across these sorts of choices, great and small, on a regular basis. Some of them are made automatically, as our moral compasses usually work well. Yet they need re-calibration from time to time. That’s why we’re here. Let’s stop for a moment and take into consideration what these two commandments actually mean – how we should understand them.
‘We love God because he first loved us.’ In the entire biblical tradition our love of God is an imperfect response to his perfect, total, personal and unconditional love. God has a plan of peace and happiness for each and every one of us. By the act of faith we cling to his plan involving all our powers: ‘all your heart, all your soul and all your mind’, allowing God to penetrate every aspect and dimension of our lives. Every sin is fundamentally a rejection and a questioning of God’s love. ’The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments; and his commandments are not burdensome’ for those who accept them as the gifts of love and the way to genuine happiness.
This quotation from the first letter of St John leads us towards the second part of Jesus’ teaching: ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ Today’s first reading gives us figuratively a couple of justifications for this bit: because of our own past experience (you lived as strangers in Egypt), because of our own unknown future when we might expect compassion (your own wives will be widows, your children orphans), and – last but not least – simply because of compassion for our fellow human beings.
To sum up: love of God without loving others is indifference dressed as piety; love of others without loving God can be misplaced and delusional. Harmoniously combining love of God with love of others cannot hurt anybody, because ‘on these two commandments hang the whole law.’