Pope Francis has announced a jubilee Year of Mercy, starting December 8. He is hardly the first pope to stress the importance of mercy. John Paul II spoke about it often and eloquently. But Francis has a special passion for the virtue, likely rooted in his experience of the poor and his affection for the thought of Romano Guardini.
In his masterpiece The Lord, Guardini has a revealing chapter on “Justice and That Which Surpasses It.” It’s worth reading as a clue to the Holy Father’s thought. To quote Guardini at length:
Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life.
Guardini shrewdly notes that “too often [an appeal to] ‘justice’ is used as a mask for quite different things”—envy of the person who generously grants mercy, or resentment that the penitent sinner is escaping his just punishment.
Most of us know the story, in John’s Gospel, of Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery. For St. Augustine, the woman embodies the entire human race. She has sinned grievously. She has betrayed her God, her family, and the community to which she belongs. Brought before the religious authorities, she faces the severity of Mosaic law, which allows for stoning. The men who stand in judgment of her, all of them sincerely committed to the law, seek to rid the community of sin by ridding it first of the sinner. Their interest is punishment, not penance.
Jesus makes use of the moment to show the power of mercy and the conversion it can bring about. As Augustine notes, Christ is not indifferent to sin or justice—quite the opposite. When Jesus asks the religious authorities who among them is without sin, he speaks with the voice of his Father’s justice. When the law casts its eye on the human race, all persons—including those who consider themselves righteous—need God’s mercy. In forgiving the woman, Jesus does by grace what the moral law cannot do. He gives her a new life in God’s friendship.
We should not read Christ’s mercy as a judgment against all judgments. Evil exists. Sin matters. The damage it does can be bitter and not easily undone—adultery being a perfect example. But the story does remind us that, apart from God’s grace, all of us are misshapen by the distorted desires of our hearts.
As Guardini wrote, “before one can be just, one must learn to love.” We live in a tangle of debts that we owe to others and that others owe to us, in a web of mutual hurts that pure justice can never undo. When we seek justice untempered by mercy, no matter how well-intentioned we are, we risk crushing others or being crushed ourselves by the punishments we deserve. On its own, the human race cannot achieve true justice or show true mercy effectively. As Paul says, we’re in bondage to sin and death.
A people bound to their passions, to false gods made with their own hands, cannot enter God’s house. We end up stuck in the glue of our mistakes, resentments, and disordered desires. Only Jesus can free us. Only he could have justly cast the first stone. But he didn’t, saying instead, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again”(8:11).
Mercy derives from the Latin word merces, “ reward” or “gratuity.” We see this meaning in the French expression merci. It’s a courtesy that graces our social interactions with a touch of kindness. In English, however, mercy can take on a theological sense, even in secular contexts. God’s grace comes to us as an unmerited gift. To be merciful, then, is to freely offer clemency to someone worthy of punishment, or to release someone from a debt he or she owes.
Mercy also has a meaning that involves more than gift, merit, grace, and the forgiveness of debts. It’s often used as the word to translate misericordia, the Latin word for compassion, or, literally, having a “merciful heart.” Here we speak of an emotional state of entering into someone else’s plight and sharing in his burdens. As Chaucer put it, mercy is a “virtue by which a man’s heart is stirred by the misery of those in distress.” In Jesus Christ, God doesn’t offer us grace from afar. He walks with us in our daily sufferings.
The Book of Exodus gives us a first model of God’s mercy. It prefigures the life of the Church. Israel suffers in Egyptian slavery, and God hears the cries of his people. He remembers his covenant with the patriarchs. He turns his face toward them and, as Scripture says, using one of its terms for intimacy, the Lord knows their affliction. He comes to Moses in the burning bush. He states his purpose, which is to bring his people out of captivity and into the land he promised to Abraham. He gives Moses his name as a keepsake, a sharing of the divine with the human that foreshadows the Incarnation.
From that point in Exodus, God binds himself to his people. He seeks their freedom, not because they deserve it, but because they are his beloved ones. The Lord destroys Pharaoh’s ability to impose his will on the Israelites. But as children of Adam, the Israelites themselves are slaves of sin. They need the liberating power of God’s judgment, which comes to them in the law delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Freedom from servitude is not a license for self-will. It is oriented toward obedience to the Torah and friendship with God.
The true character of mercy lies in what sets it apart from pity. A state governor might pity prisoners on death row. He might genuinely feel their suffering. But if he does nothing to spare their lives, he has turned away from mercy. Mercy leads us to imitate the God of Israel, so far as it falls within our power. Only when the governor commutes death sentences to life terms in prison can we rightly call him merciful. He has married compassion to action.
This kind of talk can confuse a lot of good people. We often think of mercy as somehow opposed to righteous judgment. But this is misguided. Consider a teacher who notices that one of her students is deeply distressed, with bruises and other signs of beating. Simply feeling bad for the child achieves nothing. Genuine mercy pursues the facts. Is the child abused at home? Is he being beaten by another child at school? Judgments must be made, evil actions reported. Wrongdoers must be held accountable. It’s a false mercy that pities a suffering child but shrinks from delivering him from those who do him harm. True mercy can be rightly fierce. A merciful person is quick to use what power he has to destroy evil. This is exactly how God acts throughout Scripture.
Two factors tempt us to a mistaken view of mercy. The first factor is God’s love for Israel. Like all humans, the Chosen People are sinners. As a result, God’s actions on behalf of Israel—the mercy he shows them, again and again—is preferential. In human terms, there’s nothing “fair” about God’s ways. For reasons entirely his own, God intervenes to wrench one of the weakest and most obscure primitive peoples of the Mediterranean basin out of the muck of brutality, and to set them on the way toward righteousness. In that sense, mercy is remote from justice, for in a fallen world justice, strictly speaking, would demand God’s punishing everyone.
The second factor is the New Testament fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promise of mercy. Redemption in Jesus Christ goes out to all the nations. In other words, God’s love becomes reckless, even prodigal. Here again our human instincts for justice—the justice of rendering to each his due—seems to run counter to God’s mercy.
But God’s mercy is active. To save us, God assumes our human condition “from within” and becomes the most human of us all. In his crucifixion Jesus offers his life to the Father on our behalf out of love, in perfect innocence and justice. In doing so, he renders us “just,” refashioning a right relationship between human beings and God. Precisely for this reason, the Cross is the greatest sign of divine mercy. Nailed to it, God enters into our estrangement from himself—and bridges the gap with an act of love that frees us. Because Jesus has died for us, when he says, “Come, enter into my kingdom,” we can lift up our heads and go.
Having said that, we are wise to remember that God does not owe us forgiveness or redemption—or anything else. Nor does God’s mercy license us to continue in sin. It demands a response to “go, and do not sin again.” To borrow a thought from Augustine: We must not despair, one of the thieves was saved; we must not presume, one of the thieves was damned.
Mercy, like the virtue of charity (or love) from which it derives, is a virtue easily abused and misconceived. There is no mercy in “mercy killing,” the taking of another’s life based on the obscene judgment that some lives aren’t worth living. But even in our daily routines, we’re often tempted to use the language of mercy to dodge our responsibility to seek justice. We lie or dissemble rather than bruise the feelings of others whose behaviors are clearly wrong. This is a polite form of cowardice, not mercy. The moral law guides us toward choices that are life-giving, and true mercy is always intimately linked to truth. Indulging our own or another’s flawed choices in the supposed service of mercy defeats mercy’s true goal.
It’s useful to recall that Guardini also had, along with his thoughts on justice and mercy, much to say about truth. This from The Faith and Modern Man:
A man’s mind falls ill when he relinquishes his hold on truth—not by lying, though he lie often, for in that case the injury to the spirit can be repaired by contrition and the renewal of good will—but by an inward revolt from truth. True illness of the mind and spirit sets in when a man no longer cherishes truth but despises it, when he uses it as a means to his own ends, when in the depths of his soul truth ceases to be to him the primary, the most important concern.
Truth is essential to the sacrament of reconciliation. As sinners, we approach God seeking his mercy. In a truthful act of confession, an honest admission of our sins, we find consolation and peace. But the sacrament is not meant to confirm us in our sins, as if mechanically mentioning a list of mistakes and bad actions excuses us from renouncing them and changing the course of our lives. The Christian vocation is more demanding but also more beautiful than this. The sacrament of reconciliation, received and acted upon truthfully, is a steady path to transformation and holiness. Through it, we’re given the grace to make an exodus, a going out from our destructive situations and patterns of behavior, and to attach ourselves more deeply to God. The mercy of God is meant to render us increasingly more honest, more just, and so also more loving and peaceful.
For this reason the Church has always insisted on the necessity of repentance for serious sins as a condition for receiving the Eucharist. Confession and genuine repentance—which includes a turning away from sin—must precede Communion. A sincere movement toward God always entails a movement away from sin and error.
And this leads us to current proposals that divorced and civilly remarried persons should be admitted to Communion without a change of life. These proposals—advanced as expressions of mercy—are aimed at couples who were previously married, and where annulments are not deemed possible. According to such proposals, couples who are sexually active with people to whom they are not really married in the eyes of the Church might receive the Eucharist even without confession of their sins, and without seeking to be chaste while living as “brother and sister.”
These proposals draw strength from the fact that many of the people they seek to help are decent, well-intending persons tied to complex new relationships, often with children. Why—so the reasoning goes—would the Church want to punish and exclude them?
The answer of course is that the Church doesn’t want to punish them and doesn’t in fact exclude them. The divorced and civilly remarried remain welcome members of the believing community. But neither can the Church ignore the Word of God on the permanence of marriage, nor mitigate the consequences of the choices that grown people freely make. She cannot confirm human beings in patterns of behavior that separate them from God and remain faithful to her own mission at the same time. Authentic mercy is evangelical. It proceeds from the belief that God’s grace has the power to transform us. Ironically, a pastoral strategy that minimizes sin in the name of mercy cannot be merciful, because it is dishonest.
The Church can be truthful without being merciful, like the scribes who wished to stone the adulteress who violated the Mosaic law. But the Church cannot be merciful without being truthful. And the truth is, we are called to conversion. A pastoral approach that ignores this truth out of a thinly veiled pastoral despair and accommodationism will result in less faith, not more. “The one who wants to adapt himself too much,” Henri de Lubac famously warned, “risks letting himself be dragged along.” Indeed, this is what we see happening in Europe, in those churches where the pastoral practice regarding divorce, remarriage, and reception of the sacraments has departed from authentic Catholic teaching. What ensues from an untruthful teaching about and practice of the sacraments is not a more zealous evangelical life but its collapse.
Pope Francis has spoken eloquently of “accompaniment,” the task of walking patiently with others in the tangled realities of their lives—and of our times. This is a key aspect of mercy and a vital expression of Christian love. Sin’s bonds are strong, and God’s grace often unwinds them slowly. Sometimes, the most important word that another person needs to hear is best whispered gently and patiently. We must be close to those whom we love if we’re to do our part in lifting them up to the fullness of the Gospel.
But a therapeutic age tends to translate “accompaniment” as “thou shalt not judge,” affirming people indiscriminately as they are. This is not mercy. God’s mercy always moves us forward and upward. No sin places us beyond God’s forgiveness. His mercy endures forever. That means everyone is invited when the great churches of Rome open their doors at the beginning of this extraordinary jubilee, the Year of Mercy. But again, it would be the opposite of mercy to say “come” and then imply that we need not move, need not step out of our present romance with sin and toward obedience to God’s life-giving righteousness, the law of Jesus Christ.
In the end, the ministry of mercy in the Church is Marian in character. John’s Gospel tells us that Mary was a witness to the crucifixion of her Son. She saw firsthand the forgiveness of God revealed in the face of Jesus crucified. His arms open to the world, Christ offered, and still offers, the mercy of God to all humanity. Uniting her prayer to that of Jesus, Mary herself became a mirror of divine mercy. In this, Mary is an archetype of the Church. Christians are sent into the world bearing the imprint of the mercy of the Cross on our lives. The Church seeks, then, to follow the maternal example of Mary in being the perfect servant of the mercy of the Lord.
This mercy asks us to teach the truth but also to live it. It asks us to preach not ourselves but the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is news not of “affirmation” but of something more powerful, more desired by all of us—redemption. The Church in this Year of Mercy invites us to encounter anew the love of our Redeemer. She opens her doors to the world and invites all to enter and join the marriage feast of the Lamb.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.,is archbishop of Philadelphia.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?