But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.
There is a certain debate that began at the Second Vatican Council and has never been settled. It is a dispute over whether it is better to use the phrase, “the medicine of mercy” to describe the Church’s approach toward the sinner rather than the more traditional expression, “the condemnation of error.” This dispute is once again in the spotlight due to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to the synod on the family, in which he advocated a pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics with a special emphasis on “mercy.” There is unfortunately no evidence that he is seeking orthodox ways to offer authentic mercy or truly pastoral solutions to those facing the difficult problems that arise from irregular unions. Rather, he appears to be attempting an alteration of the Church’s expression of her teachings on marriage through euphemistic language, with the likely consequence of altering the belief and practice of the faithful.
The phrase “the medicine of mercy” originally comes from St. John XXIII’s opening speech to the Council:
“The Church in every age has opposed these errors and often has even condemned them and indeed with the greatest severity. But at the present time, the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and, she thinks she meets today’s needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning.”
It is unclear why St. John XXIII considered the condemnation of error as a “weapon of severity.” It’s true that in today’s world, proclaiming the Church’s teaching unambiguously will often cause a person to be labeled as judgmental, fundamentalist, Pharisaical, lacking in charity, and so on – as if the faith is something harmful to the well-being of mankind. Modern man seems to have developed a deep need for protection from every hurt; he shrinks away from the discomfort that sometimes accompanies the acknowledgement of divine truth.
When I hear the word “medicine,” it invokes a therapeutic connotation. When I studied psychology as an undergraduate, I learned that a complete assessment of the client is needed in order to design an appropriate treatment program. It is vital to determine whether he has an actual psychological disorder, and if he does, its degree of severity. After the assessment is finished, a clinical diagnosis is made, which means that the specific disorder is named. Finally, the client is informed about the nature of his diagnosis, and is given an opportunity to ask questions such as:
- “What’s wrong with me?”
- “Why is this happening to me?”
- “Is there a remedy for this?”
- “How can I get back to being a normal and fully functioning person?”
The client who goes to see a psychologist often already realizes that something is wrong, and comes seeking a solution. However, there are those who are really “sick,” and yet they are convinced that they are healthy – that all is well and they have no need of a treatment. The first job of the healer is to help them to understand the existence and nature of the problem, and how to treat it. In other words, we must tell them the truth about their disorder.
Applied to the spiritual life, a similar approach is warranted. Recall the words of St. John Paul II:
“…we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20).’”
It is important not to compromise truth through euphemistic language. Speaking gently and charitably about the truth is an indispensable part of healing the soul. True recovery can occur only when the “client” has “courage to look truth in the eye.” And we are called to present the truth, to be a soul healer, to help our fellow man in the way of perfection.
Now let us talk about mercy. We know that the Lord is merciful toward sinners. He forgives us if we say sincerely, “Lord, have mercy on us, sinner”. He did not condemn the adulterous woman, but he did denounce her wrongdoing: “…and sin no more”. He had no hesitation to call the Pharisees hypocrites (cf. Matt 22: 19) because they were hypocrites. I do not mean to suggest that we should become cruel toward sinners, but we must be honest with them (cf. Matt 5:37) for the sake of the salvation of their souls.
Mercy does not destroy justice, but fulfills it. As a matter of fact, justice is the pre-condition for mercy. Just as a person will not receive absolution when he does not acknowledge his sins, so mercy cannot be given unless we accept the painful-yet-liberating truth that we are sinners.
Similarly, penitence involves the willingness to suffer just punishment. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we know that the younger son, after admitting his own sins, was ready to submit himself as his father’s servant. He realized his own unworthiness so deeply that he was ashamed – and he was ready to be humiliated as the cost of forgiveness.
From the synod, we see there are many who want to change the Church’s teaching. They want to relax the moral law of the Church. It is as if they are telling us that it is impossible to live the Church’s teaching. It is too much, many people cannot bear it, and they must therefore be given a way out.
Those who corrupt doctrine under the auspices of false mercy should give us pause. They may in fact be demonstrating that they do not really believe in God, or at least His promises, for to trust in Him is to know that He will not put us to a test beyond our strength (cf. 1 Cor 10:13). They do not acknowledge this simple truth: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:19).
Relaxing the Magisterium’s teaching will not solve all pastoral problems. In reality, we would be removed from the path of holiness, which has produced countless saints. I am convinced that our task is to preach again about sin and the four Last Things (particularly about hell), for these are parts of the medicine that the Church gives us. Then, we must bring back the real image of Jesus as a person who not only loves us, but makes demands on us; who invites us to walk on the difficult road that leads to salvation (Matt 7: 13-14).
This is not an easy task. It requires courage, humility, and willingness to live a sometimes painful repentance. But if we are truly asking for divine grace from Our Lord, we will surely be able to live in truth. We must put our confidence in God, trusting that He will heal us through His mercy – true mercy, which requires conversion.
“We beseech Thee, O Lord that our fragility may be upheld by the remedies of your mercy, so that what of itself is falling into ruin may, by Thy clemency, be restored.”
– The First Collect at Ember Wednesday Mass, 16 September 2014