Mercy—it’s a word that’s dominated Catholic discourse over the past three years, primarily because Pope Francis rarely makes a public comment without invoking it. Of course, it’s hardly a new idea for Christians. Francis’s immediate two predecessors, Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, wrote at length on this theme. The latter even penned an entire encyclical on the topic. In Dives in Misericordia (1980), the saint who died on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday stressed that divine mercy is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and fully revealed in the life of Christ, most notably in the Cross.
Historically-aware readers of Dives in Misericordia will soon recognize, however, that one reason why John Paul penned this text was to remind everyone that the pursuit of justice can easily degenerate into efforts to realize ideological programs. “It is obvious,” John Paul wrote, “that in the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights” (DM 12). These words clearly reflected the pope’s knowledge of Communism and Communists: people who enslaved and murdered millions in the name of their socialist, materialist, and atheist notions of what justice entailed.
Attention to mercy directs us to the ultimate source of justice—the God who is love—and thus prevents justice from collapsing into something quite anti-human. But John Paul’s warning was also directed to the many Christians who, in Vatican II’s wake and in the name of justice, were reducing the Gospel to this-worldly political agendas or embracing particular versions of liberation theology. The pope’s view was that a Church which embraces an understanding of justice that’s not informed by and ultimately directed to forgiveness is on the fast-track to losing its Christian distinctiveness.
That’s the risk associated with overemphasizing any aspect of the Christian message at the expense of its other key facets. You end up significantly distorting the Gospel. Perhaps less-well understood, however, is that the current stress on mercy isn’t exempt from this temptation. Far from it.
Mercy as Sentimentalism
Like everyone else, Christians are influenced by the social climate in which they live. It’s no exaggeration to say that those of us who live in the West are immersed in cultures in which sentimentalism, as opposed to reasoned discourse, is a distinguishing characteristic. Whether it’s people who begin arguments with the expression “I just feel that,” or those who endlessly invoke hard-cases (euthanasia advocates are masters of this black art) to justify what’s clearly wrong, the trend is clear: reason is out and emotivism is in.
That phenomenon includes large segments of Catholic life and opinion. Consider, for instance, those clergy whose pastoral manner is more akin to that of a secular therapist than a priest and whose preaching is difficult to distinguish from the ruminations of Oprah.
In such an atmosphere, it’s not surprising that mercy is increasingly understood by some Christians as a basis for painting those who highlight reason’s requirements as rigorists or judgmental. That attitude periodically surfaced at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family. Those who politely reminded Synod participants, for instance, that Christianity has always taught that there are moral absolutes which identify certain free choices as always evil were often portrayed as hard-hearted or lacking mercy—invariably by bishops presiding over taxpayer-funded, hyper-bureaucratized, and empty churches which now primarily function as tame auxiliaries of Western European welfare states.
Whoever would have thought that those who referenced the moral law and its inner logic inscribed, as St Paul tells us, on man’s very nature and confirmed by the Decalogue forcibly re-emphasized by Christ would accused of “throwing stones” and labelled as “Pharisees”? There’s nothing merciful, however, about trying to marginalize the truths knowable through revelation and reason in the name of mercy. Nor is there anything compassionate about pretending that mercy allows Christ’s moral teaching to be put aside in difficult cases. Christ Himself never did so.
Likewise, mercy isn’t realized by ignoring the truth that any free choice for moral evil involves doing serious harm to what John Paul’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor calls the “fundamental goods” (VS 48, 50) that lie at the core of the Christian moral life. Indeed, in the absence of the absolutes prohibiting such choices, coherent moral reasoning becomes impossible. Everyone is subsequently left adrift in a sea of emotivism.
Mercy as Injustice
That leads to another problem with a mercy detached from reason and Christ’s moral law: it quickly undermines any coherent conception of justice.
Back in 1980, John Paul warned in Dives in Misericordia that “In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness” (DM 14). If that sounds tough-minded, that’s because it is. Remember, however, that the Jesus Christ who embodies mercy isn’t the equivalent of a divine stuffed animal. Whenever the Scriptures portray Christ offering mercy to sinners, his forgiveness is always laced with a gentle but clear reminder of the moral law and the expectation that the sinful acts will be discontinued.
To take the point even further: if sentimentalist conceptions of mercy are allowed to drive the use of reason out of Christian life, it would become impossible for the Church to denounce any form of injustice in a coherent manner. Why? Because the criteria of justice would no longer be stable.
That would make it difficult for the Church to speak in any rational way about, for example, injustice in economic life or the difference between just and unjust wars. Instead Catholics would be reduced to making the same utilitarian and emotivist arguments that characterize liberal religion and secularism or simply joining the already long line of contemporary populists whose preferred mode of public engagement about questions of justice is demagoguery.
From this standpoint, we see how the spread of counterfeit mercy throughout the Church doesn’t just undermine Catholics’ ability to identify right and wrong forms of personal relationships. Its logic makes justice itself and its application in all aspects of life an exercise in applied sentimentalism. And that is no form of justice at all.
Mercy as Mediocrity
Christians believe that Christ took on the burdens of our sins and atoned for them on the Cross. Justice was thus satisfied. Yet Christ’s singular act of mercy doesn’t mean that his followers are now free to live lives of mediocrity. Contrary to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s strange 2014 claim that “heroism is not for the average Christian,” all Christians are called to lives of sanctity. Certainly, it’s impossible to answer this call in the absence of mercy and grace. But another form of counterfeit mercy surely involves suggesting that sanctity is simply beyond most of us. In this scenario, God’s mercy effectively serves to let us off the hook, with holiness becoming understood as something only attainable by a valiant elite.
Some have suggested that traces of this mindset can be found in parts of Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Whatever the merits of such analyses, it’s true to say that Christian mercy cannot have anything to do with acceptance, let alone affirmation of spiritual or moral mediocrity. That would be to contradict Catholicism’s very consistent teaching that, though all of us fall and fail over and over again, “the gift of mercy . . . offers liberation from the slavery of evil and gives the strength to sin no more” (VS 118).
That last citation comes from the conclusion of Veritatis Splendor. Here Saint John Paul offered a beautiful meditation on Mary and the ultimate end to which mercy directs us. Some have wondered how a pope who, inspired by Saint Faustina, the humble nun whose name is indistinguishable from devotion to the Divine Mercy, could write so powerfully about mercy but also produce an encyclical about the high demands of Christian morality. In Veritatis Splendor’s closing paragraphs, however, John Paul turned to Mary to show us why there’s no contradiction.
Describing Mary as the “Mother of Mercy” because her Son is “the revelation of God’s mercy,” John Paul reiterated that “Christ came not to condemn but to forgive, to show mercy” (VS 118). Mercy, however, isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card that enables us to consign Christian morality to the realm of “the ideal” or the too-hard-except-for-Super-Catholics. Directly addressing those who claim “that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice” (VS 119), John Paul specifies that “transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy,” (VS 119) it is entirely possible to live the Christian life in all its fullness.
So what is Mary’s role in all this? For one thing, as the Mother of Christ, she obtains mercy for us. At the same time, having been human, John Paul specified, Mary “understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother’s love.” And like any responsible mother, she doesn’t confuse mercy with a preferential option for averageness or a license for sentimentalist mush. Instead it’s precisely because Mary embodies love and mercy that “she is on the side of truth and shares the Church’s burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality” (VS 120).
In the end, it’s the clear-headed, simple Jewish woman who shows us that there’s no real clash between mercy and the high calling of the Christian moral life. This highlights the error of trying to drive a wedge between the two, such as through deploying ambiguous language that’s typical of the legalism which is characteristic of laxism. Mercy represents God’s willingness to forgive over and over again—the point being to give us the strength to resolve to go and sin no more.
Viewed from this perspective, reducing mercy to mere emotivism or transforming it into an excuse for mediocrity isn’t just a lie. These understandings of mercy demean our reason and wish away what the Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers called the freedom for excellence to which man alone is called.
Like all counterfeits, such mercy can’t help but disappoint.