In our household, the traditional stereotypes of father as disciplinarian and mother as comforter don’t describe us very well and that’s probably a good thing. However, we do tend to parent quite differently.
Byron is more likely to provide study or career planning advice, and to engage with the children around sport. He’s more likely to challenge them physically and intellectually, sparring with the boys and affirming the girls of their dignity when their dress becomes a bit revealing. He brings an objectivity to family discussions and can inspire the children to think proactively about their futures, to be producers not just consumers, to boldly engage with the world not just for what can be gained, but for how they can improve it.
Francine is more attuned to the emotional world of the kids and will express her care through her nurturing, feeding, and affirming them for their goodness and in their successes. She revels in drawing them close in gentle hugs and intimate conversations. She seeks to provide a refuge in the home and in her heart where the children will always find a place of comfort in a world which is (either for good or bad) extremely challenging.
Neither is better than the other – just different, and they unsurprisingly tend to reflect the natural charism of masculine and feminine expressions of love. Both of our charisms are needed as, together, they bring a holistic balance to our parenting that neither of us could achieve as well on our own.
Likewise, our experience of the Church is best encountered through the balancing effect of its paternal and maternal dimensions. The paternal dimension, evident through the Church’s apostolic teaching authority, presents us with a motivating vision and ideal. It provides the guidelines (through its Canon laws and moral teachings) to direct us to a more Godly lifestyle. Like a light on the hill, the Church in its fatherly concern illuminates the way of true happiness which is holiness.
The maternal dimension of Church is transmitted via the encounter of merciful love which accompanies us as we strive… and fail… and strive again in our efforts to be whole and peace-filled persons. It encourages and comforts and draws close in our struggles as we seek a deeper holiness among the sometimes truly awful messiness of our lives. It is the field hospital to which we retreat for the treatment of our worldly wounds. It’s the sheltered place of recovery when life overwhelms us.
Neither dimension of the Church, in which either our paternal or maternal natures are mirrored, is better than the other. They are just different.
Both are essential for the fullness of life and faith. Each acts to temper and balance the other and so avoid the extremes of each – harsh legalism on one hand and rudderless subjectivity on the other.
This is essentially what Pope Francis’ recent document (Amoris Laetitia) explores – the dynamic tension between the necessity to present the ideal of God’s vision for life and love, and the need for a merciful response in the midst of failure.
The tension can be uncomfortable. Those of us more comfortable with the paternal expression can insist that love requires us to proclaim the ideal loudly and persistently, even to those who cannot hear. Others of us who more comfortable with the maternal expression insist that love requires us to modify or even give away the ideal to avoid further wounding.
It shouldn’t be an either-or choice. Pope Francis rightly insists that we need to do both: to clearly, yet sensitively, proclaim the ideal… even as we stand in the mud with our brothers and sisters, humbly offering them the hand of mercy while seeking God’s mercy for our own shortcomings.
Whether the issue be abortion, divorce and remarriage, the use of contraception, cheating on our tax return, or welcoming the asylum seeker… the truth of what God calls us to – the ideal – must always be proclaimed and defended, even when we can’t, or choose not, to live by it. In all these situations and more, proclaiming and defending the ideal must never become an exercise in ‘throwing stones’, condemning the other or excluding them from the community of the Church.
Similarly, in our desire to alleviate the suffering of others, we must guard against the temptation to reject the truth of God’s plan because we judge it to be unachievable, find it too confronting or fear it’s mere existence will offend the other. Rather, we must gently and persistently present the ideal as we encourage one another to grow towards the full embrace of the perfection that Jesus has called us to (Matthew 5:28).. For after all, every single one of us is a work in progress – together we are sinners seeking sainthood.
The Church is both a light on the hill and a field hospital, a referee and a coach, a mother and a father. Both aspects are necessary. This is the gift and genius of the Church and, like parenting, is something we should celebrate and embrace, even when at times it feels confusing and uncomfortable.