A statue of St. John Paul II in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland. The statue is situated between the Wojtyla family's apartment and the church where the young Karol Woytyla was an altar boy. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Mercyit’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
Attention to mercy directs us to the ultimate
source of justicethe God who is loveand 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
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 mercyinvariably by bishops
presiding over taxpayer-funded, hyper-bureaucratized, and empty churches
which now primarily function as tame auxiliaries of Western European
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 againthe 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
Like all counterfeits, such mercy can’t help but disappoint.