Toward a Catholic Understanding of “Mercy”


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; Return of the Prodigal Son. (1667-70)

Miserando atque eligendo: these words, chosen by Pope Francis as his motto, seem fitting, as his emphasis on the theme of mercy has been clear since the very beginning. And so, it should come as no surprise that he has announced a Year of Mercy—in fact, a Jubilee Year of Mercy—that will begin on December 8, 2015 and finish on November 20, 2016. While we have some months until the Jubilee Year begins, it is important for us to begin reflecting now about how we might participate.

We should begin by noting that there are two kinds of mercy: mercy that is shown by God to man, and mercy shown by man to others. Of God’s mercy, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that in every work of God, there is an element of both mercy and justice, signifying that the two are not opposed to each other. Rather, “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice” (ST, I, q. 21, a. 3). Thus, when God acts mercifully toward His people, He is not acting in contradiction to what is due but gives beyond what is due. And, because “mercy is accounted as being proper to God,” it is not beyond His power or outside His nature to exercise mercy, but is rather a manifestation of His omnipotence (ST, II-II, q. 30, a. 4).

In a different section of the Summa, Aquinas defines mercy as a virtue, which is the mercy shown from one man to another. He says, “Mercy is heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress” (ST, II.II, q. 30, a. 1). He goes on to say,

Accordingly, the motive of ‘mercy,’ being something pertaining to ‘misery,’ is, in the first way, anything contrary to the will’s natural appetite, namely corruptive or distressing evils, the contrary of which man desires naturally, wherefore the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8), that ‘pity is sorrow for a visible evil, whether corruptive or distressing’ (Ibid).

Therefore, mercy—or pity—is felt as the result of an evil that has occurred to another, and we particularly feel the need for mercy if that ill was brought about by an accident or against the will of the individual (Ibid). In the next article, Aquinas argues that the reason for taking pity is a result of the defect in the person who pities (ST, II.II, q. 30, a. 2). We are only capable of pitying (or having mercy) on others because we recognize the defects within our own nature. We see that we are sinful and fallen as well, that we ourselves have experienced suffering as a defect from sin. We know what it is to suffer because of our fallen nature, and we are therefore able to have mercy on other sinners as well. Furthermore, for the bestowal of mercy on man by God, the person must be penitent and show that he is sorry for the defect caused by his sin. As Aquinas says, “The penitent sinner, by deed and word, shows his heart to have renounced sin, and in like manner the priest, by his deed and word with regard to the penitent, signifies the work of God Who forgives sins” (ST, III, q. 84, a. 1).

We now turn to Misericordiae Vultus the papal bull announcing the “Year of Mercy — to understand mercy in the context of the Jubliee Year. Its opening words are,

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (MV 1). Truly, the Incarnate Son, through taking on human flesh, reveals to us the mercy and love of God the Father. Pope Francis indicates the purpose of the Jubilee Year when he says, “At times, we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (MV 3).

As such, the kind of mercy that is the focus for this year is not necessarily God’s mercy, but the mercy that man shows to others, due to the mercy first bestowed on him by God.

Misericordiae Vultus is roughly divided into two main parts, the first part describing the mercy of God as evident in both the Old and New Testament. It focuses on Christ in the New Testament as the One who reveals God’s mercy to us. As God made man, He reveals to us the mercy of the Father in a particular way:

In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy…In them, we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon (MV 9).

Thus, the mercy described in the Bull is a continual openness of the Father to forgive those who have trespassed against Him, to beckon the sinner unto Himself. It should be noted, however, that the Bull contains no reference to the need for repentance or to faith in God’s mercy on the part of the sinner, which are, according to Aquinas, necessary for us to receive mercy.

Nevertheless, the focus of the Bull is to encourage the faithful to show mercy to others, as described in the second part of the document. The Bull says emphatically,

Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy (MV 10).

Every action of the Church should reveal mercy: it is at the heart of pastoral ministry to show mercy to others. Thus, the Church, having this kind of mercy in mind, ought to be “merciful like the Father,” which are the words used in the Jubilee Year’s logo—an untoward image that ostensibly seeks, however obscurely, to express of the mercy advocated in the Bull (MV 13). Hence, Francis calls the People of God not to judge and condemn their neighbors, for such is the action of the jealous and envious, which means that each individual must “know how to accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment” (MV 14, emphasis added). The pope wishes us to practice this kind of mercy, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Thus far, the mercy described in the Bull is not the kind of mercy that Aquinas defined. The Bull speaks of the opening of doors in cathedrals in Rome and around the world to show the openness of God’s mercy: “the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (MV 3). Further, “By crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us” (MV 14). Therefore, anyone who wishes—anyone who merely enters the door of the Church—can receive the grace and forgiveness of the Lord. Mercy thus seems to be an opening for love and acceptance, without reference to or judgment of the sin itself, almost as if there is a fear that, in judging the sin, we would also be judging the sinner—even though mercy only exists as a result of defects in the human person.

We must ask ourselves, then: to whom will these doors be open? Who will receive the mercy of God? Likewise, to whom shall we, as the Body of Christ, show mercy? We are given a hint when the document refers to “men and women belonging to criminal organizations of any kind” and “those who either perpetuate or participate in corruption” (MV 19). While those are rather vague terms, let us consider those leaders in our Church who have, we could say, perpetuated or participated in corruption. If Francis’ purpose is for us to increase our mercy shown to others, does this mean that we ought to be merciful to the German bishops, who, by their actions, have made it clear that they support homosexual unions, to the point of meeting secretly to discuss making changes to Church teaching to accommodate such things? Ought we to be merciful to those prelates in Ireland, who stood by and allowed the legalization of homosexual unions? Perhaps we should be merciful to the divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church. We cannot help but compare this understanding of mercy, this opening of the doors of the Church to sinners, to that of Cardinal Kasper, who similarly wishes to open wide the way to Communion for those actively living in grave sin. Considering the state of our Church at the current time, this list of possible groups to whom we should show mercy without asking for their repentance is virtually endless.

It is not without purpose that this Year of Mercy will open on the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. As is written concerning the council’s intent to make the Church more accessible to modern man, “The walls which for too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way” (MV 4). There is no doubt that Francis wishes to continue this mission of many of the Council Fathers, with the particular motive of revealing the Church, not as the protector of ancient traditions, but rather as the warm and welcoming home to which any and all are invited. The very spirit that caused such great division within the Church in the 1960s will only be vivified through the “spirit of mercy” advocated in Misericordiae Vultus. Moreover, we can only wonder about the mysterious “Missionaries of Mercy” to be sent out by the Holy See: who will be reconciled with the Church by these men, and in what way (MV 18)? We have reason to be concerned about the way this novel concept of mercy, seemingly independent of repentance or docility to God’s Word, may influence those who are already in tenuous relationships with the Church and the life of grace. Nevertheless, we must pray for the pope, and ask God to ensure that this “Year of Mercy” bring sinners back into the Father’s house.

My purpose here is not to argue for a rejection of mercy, properly understood. But there has been a shift in the Church’s dialectic, leading many who reject a spirit of repentance and amendment of life as necessary prerequisites for mercy to believe that the only authentic mercy is unconditional acceptance of the sinner—along with his sins. These same individuals believe that talk of unchanging moral truths, inherently evil actions, repentance, and conversion is therefore somehow unmerciful. We understand this to be a false conception as we beg for the mercy of God and reject sin in the sacrament of Baptism, in the Confessional, at the administration of the Last Rites, and in every liturgy of the Catholic Church.

In consideration of the battle in which the Church is fighting to save even her own doctrines from destruction, it would seem that we, as the Body of Christ, need the understanding of mercy as defined by Aquinas and further enunciated by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I quote from a homily given on the eve of his election to the Chair of St. Peter:

Christ’s mercy is not a grace that comes cheap, nor does it imply the trivialization of evil. Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in his body and in his soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of his suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favor converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ. This is the vengeance of God: he himself suffers for us, in the person of his Son. The more deeply stirred we are by the Lord’s mercy, the greater the solidarity we feel with his suffering—and we become willing to complete in our own flesh ‘what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ’ (Col 1: 24).

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