Considerable tension in present-day Catholicism centers on the Church’s moral teachings. Many regard the Catholic moral system as heartless and cold. This judgment is often based on the concrete experiences of Catholics in dealing with clergy who preach and practice moral orthodoxy at the expense of compassion.

What I would call the orthodoxy-without-compassion approach sets out the moral demands of the Catholic tradition and insists that no one may call him or her self a Catholic who does not completely espouse and live by these ideals.

This outlook was exemplified in an essay I came across some time ago by a “conservative” Catholic entitled “Shape Up OR Ship Out,” which argued that Catholics who do not fully accept and follow official teaching should simply leave the Church. This outlook is notable for its harshness, cold judgment, and lack of sympathy, and is, therefore, fundamentally flawed. It often assumes the worst about human motivations and exhibits a basic lack of charity,

At the other end of the scale is the compassion-without orthodoxy approach. This view is committed to generous forgiveness, respect for individual situations, and the need to include all sincere believers in the life of the Church. It is slow to judge and quick to accept. It is strong on individual conscience and the priority of love over law.

In its extreme form, this approach is known as “situation ethics” (named after a book of the same name by Episcopalian Joseph Fletcher published in the 1960s) which bases moral decision-making on conscience and subjective reasoning. However, it evades the pastoral responsibility of challenging believers to an engagement with the radical wisdom of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition.

Both the orthodoxy-without-compassion and the compassion-without-orthodoxy approaches are inadequate expressions of the Catholic moral tradition. Authentic Catholicism offers a more coherent vision. It has long experience in holding principles and situations, idealism and imperfection, orthodoxy and compassion together. It rejects the view that struggling Catholics should “shape up or ship out.” But it does not compromise moral orthodoxy in the interests of the unqualified acceptance of persons.

The example of Christ sets the tone for all compassionate Christian ministry. In his teaching and ministry, Christ combined uncompromising moral requirements with great compassion and care for those who struggled. Jesus warned the law-givers of his time: “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Lk.11:46).

The Church which continues Christ’s ministry must act in the same manner. It both preaches the Gospel ideals embodied in its moral tradition, and offers love and support to those who for one reason or another do not measure up to the high ideals.

The orthodox moral theologian or pastor acts improperly when his teaching or preaching leads people to walk away from the Church feeling rejected, abandoned, or defeated. He must preach and teach in a manner which establishes bonds of ongoing pastoral care for those in moral difficulty.

Were compassion and orthodoxy held in complementary relationship in teaching, preaching, and pastoral practice, the official moral tradition of the Church would be more credible and ordinary Catholics would have less difficulty living with it. There would be less polarization in the Catholic community and the world of Catholic morality would be less painful, bitter, and divided.

What I am proposing here is inspired in great part by the preaching and teaching of Pope Francis who, without ever compromising Catholic moral tradition, makes solidarity with people in their imperfections an urgent pastoral necessity.