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Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life
by walter kasper
paulist, 288 pages, $29.95

Recently, there’s been an odd conversation in Catholic circles about the nature of mercy. Francesco Miano, one of the married attendees of the recent synod on the family, said it centered on the “tension between mercy and truth.” In this debate, the “traditionalists” were in favor of truth (you can’t receive Communion if you are in a state of sin; if you intend to have relations outside a valid marriage, you are in a state of sin; ergo, etc.), while the “progressives” were in favor of mercy (shouldn’t those who have had a conversion after a divorce and civil remarriage be able to approach the Eucharist?). Since instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners are among the traditional “works of mercy”—not to mention that Scripture tells us that Jesus is both merciful (Luke 6:36; Titus 3:5) and the Truth (John 14:6)—opposing mercy to truth is an unfortunate place for Catholic discussions to be.

Cardinal Walter Kasper seems to be the reason why the Catholic Church has been speaking about mercy so frequently these days. Pope Francis, who chose God’s mercy as the theme of his first Angelus address on the Sunday after his election, credited the influence of Cardinal Kasper on his choice of topic:

In these days, I have been able to read a book by a cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a talented theologian, a good theologian—on mercy. And it did me such good, that book, but don’t think that I’m publicizing the books of my cardinals. That is not the case! But it did me such good, so much good. . . . Cardinal Kasper said that hearing the word mercy changes everything. It is the best thing that we can hear: It changes the world. A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God’s mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience.

Ever since then, mercy has been on the Pope’s lips, and in book titles—as in The Church of Mercy, a collection of speeches by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Kasper’s scope in ­Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life is wide. He attempts to address the question of just what mercy is, in God and in man, in theology and in politics. He begins the book with the complaint that “this topic, which is so central for the Bible and so relevant to the present experience of reality, appears at best in the margins of the lexica and handbooks of dogmatic theology.” He calls this “catastrophic,” especially given the current moment, “when many contemporaries have become discouraged, without hope and without orientation.” Mercy is for Kasper a pastoral virtue, meaning one that brings love (and Christ) to people where they are. Kasper thinks that to be “pastoral” is basically the same as to be merciful, and so failures in pastoral practice are failures in mercy.

Kasper thinks that the Catholic theological tradition doesn’t talk about mercy enough and that the classical concept of God, which sees God as perfect and unchanging, is “pastorally . . . a catastrophe.” To most people, “such a God appears to them to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world, in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties of the future.” To counter this, we need a new dogmatic theo­logy of divine mercy: “What is now required is to think through anew the entire teaching about God’s attributes and, in the process, to allow mercy to assume its proper place.”

And its proper place is as the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God’s justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy “surpasses” and “goes beyond” justice.

This sounds profound, but does not withstand examination. Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. He loves the Holy Spirit, but there’s nothing imperfect about the Holy Spirit so that he needs the Father’s mercy. For mercy to be essential to God, as Kasper holds, it would mean that God could not exist without ­expressing mercy. But since God does not show mercy to himself, it would not be possible for him to exist without there also being sinners in need of his mercy—and that notion is absurd.

So there is a good, basic reason that the tradition has not made mercy essential to God. The Father can be loving and just to the Son and the Spirit, and so to say that God is loving and just essentially doesn’t create the problems that come from saying he’s essentially merciful. It’s not hard to see how God’s mercy ­toward sinners could be rooted in his goodness and love, that when God shows mercy he’s manifesting his love in a particular situation. To say this is perfectly coherent with the classical doctrine.

Kasper doesn’t actually make arguments for his views but says, among his many statements that aspire to be premises in an argument, that “mercy is the externally visible and effectively active aspect of the essence of God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16). . . . In short, mercy expresses God’s own goodness and love” ­[emphases added]. These are perfectly orthodox things to say. Unfortunately, Kasper also says that “forgiveness belongs to [God’s] essence,” “God’s mercy is the . . . ground of creation,” and “mercy is the perfection of God’s essence.”

It’s disappointing that Kasper never bothers to respond to traditional objections to his sort of view. According to the classical doctrine, divine justice must be more fundamental than divine mercy, because justice is essential to God and mercy is not. But God’s justice is not more fundamental than his love, since both are essential—God is Love (and loving), and God is Justice (and just). This suggests that there must be some way of talking about love and justice—whether human or divine—such that they are at least not contraries; ideally, the concepts would be defined so that every action that is just is also loving and every action that is loving is also just. In either case, it would not make sense to say, as Kasper does repeatedly, that love “surpasses” justice or “goes beyond” justice, either in God or in creatures, since God is both of these things, essentially and completely.

Thomas Aquinas famously warned that a small mistake at the beginning of an argument leads to a large one at the end. For Kasper, most of the time, his weaknesses as a systematic theologian cancel each other out. He frequently uses the terms love and goodness and mercy interchangeably, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the first two terms but not the third can be proper divine attributes. The upside is that readers can go along with all the nice things he says about God’s love, as Pope Francis apparently did, and not be sticklers for the details. Occasionally when Kasper departs from traditional conclusions, he tries to claim warrant based on his supposed insights into God’s essence. For example, since he thinks he’s shown that mercy is higher than justice, he concludes that the entire just-war tradition has to be rethought.

One wonders how he can plausibly claim that there’s a “neglect” of his views. He uses the terms divine love and mercy generously, but is it really plausible to suppose that Catholics haven’t heard the news that God loves them? It’s a favorite theme of parish homilies, in the experience of many. Does anyone really think that the topic of love has been “catastrophically” neglected in Catholic circles in the past forty years and that therefore all theology has to change? Further, is there really anything all that different about today’s pastoral situation such that immediate change is required in dogmatic theology regarding the divine attribute of mercy? It’s not as if there was ever a time since the Fall when people did not suffer or have anxieties about the future, when ­people did not need or want to ex­perience God’s mercy.

I suspect that it’s Kasper’s conviction that “we’ve got to do something” that leads to major problems. Dogmatic theology is dogmatic precisely insofar as it’s not dialectical, or not in response to the pressing or fashionable questions of the day. Apologetics should change and adapt in response to the questions of the audience and the particular themes of the age, but dogmatic theology is deliberately distinguished from apologetics in its concern for timeless truths. Theologians usually misstep when they react to current moods, unless it is to take today’s questions as an opportunity to think about eternal truths.

If Kasper’s understanding of mercy is wrong, what’s the right way to understand it? Mercy’s political origins are important to remember, because it’s very easy for a flawed application of mercy to lead to grave injustices in real life. The crime waves of the 1970s and early 1980s across England and the United States came in part from the introduction of a false concept of mercy into criminal punishment. Prominent experts at the time suggested that crime was really a form of mental illness that demanded therapy rather than incarceration. Judges developed or were given a variety of sentencing options, including expanded parole and out-of-prison furloughs, aimed at reintegrating criminals into society so that they would feel more connected. Prisons were reoriented around the idea of rehabilitating criminals rather than punishing them. Therapy, leniency, reintegration, and rehabilitation were implemented in one jurisdiction after another—and crime went through the roof. Soon voters were demanding stricter laws.

Around the same time, the Catholic bishops tried to replace canonical punishments with therapy, leniency, reintegration, and rehabilitation. In the 1970s, priests who were reported to be abusers of children were ­quietly sent for psychiatric treatment to be treated, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into parish ministry, rather than punished according to canon law. This was, among other things, an attempt to show mercy to the priest—by protecting his reputation and allowing him a second chance. In many places, including my own Archdiocese of Boston, psychiatrists pronounced the priests cured and fit for ministry even after several “relapses,” and the bishops did not second-guess the psychiatrists. Neither did they apply canonical penalties. Today, the bishops do not permit themselves even the possibility of granting mercy to a priest who has been accused of such a sin or committed it only once.

Is my bishop, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, merciless for enforcing the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, with its famous “zero tolerance” for abusers? I’m quite sure that Pope Francis doesn’t think so, since he just appointed him to head the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. ­Probably most of America would think likewise. But why? Why does the ­Boston Globe’s readership think that it’s a scandal for the Church to show “mercy” to priests wh­o ­committed one serious sin of abuse forty years ago but that it’s a sign of the wonderfulness of Pope Francis that he’s reportedly considering showing “mercy” to a man who dumped his wife and kids for a younger woman, also forty years ago? A consistent principle of mercy is lacking, and Walter Kasper has not helped us find one.  

Daniel Patrick Moloney is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston.