A version of the following talk was given at the Shelbourne Easter Seminar on March 29, 2015.
Shakespeare had a Catholic imagination. He loved to write about monastic and religious characters; he had a keen sense of sacramentality in symbol; and his work seemed to reflect the themes of Catholic thought, culture, and tradition.
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, on April 23rd, falls during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the entire Church is called to contemplate the mercy of God, and to extend God’s mercy to the world. Shakespeare wrote a great deal about mercy. If Sir Philip Sidney was right, and poetry is a better teacher than philosophy and theology, Shakespeare is the right teacher for this Year of Mercy.
Perhaps his most famous monologue on mercy comes from The Merchant of Venice, delivered by the heroine of the play, fair Portia, in a court of law debating Shylock, the moneylender. Portia says:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
Shakespeare’s Portia says that mercy can never be forced; instead, it drops freely, as a gentle rain from heaven. Mercy blesses both the giver and the receiver, and makes the merciful like God himself.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Portia points to a universal human experience: we all have an intuitive sensibility that demands justice. We hate the idea that we have been treated unfairly. But Portia knew that justice, by itself, leaves us all damned. None of us measures up to God’s justice—“in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.” Therefore, Portia says we must each pray for mercy. And by the very act of asking for mercy, we ourselves will be formed to become merciful.
Man, Portia seems to say, cannot live on justice alone. It’s simply too demanding.
Portia’s monologue reflects ideas St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote about five hundred years before the Bard starting working. The Benedictine abbot of Canterbury wrote the Proslogion, at the end of the eleventh century, as a series of reflections on the apparent contradictions he found in the nature of God.
Among the questions in the Proslogion, Anselm zeroed in on one that Shakespeare seems to have wondered about. How can God be just, when he damns some souls to hell, and mercifully raises others to eternity in paradise? Is God just to punish us for our sins? Is God unjust to allow sinners salvation though Jesus Christ?
Anselm knew that we all deserve condemnation; we are all sinners and the “wages of sin is death.” But Anselm also knew that God did not leave us without hope; that he “remembered his promise of mercy,” and so he sent his son into the world, for our salvation.
Anselm concluded that both punishment and mercy are a part of God’s justice. We are justly punished because we are sinners. And God is just in mercy because mercy reflects the goodness of God’s nature. Anselm wrote: “When you [God] punish the wicked, it is just, since punishment agrees with their circumstance; and when you spare the wicked, it is also just; since mercy befits your goodness.”
This is why Pope St. John Paul II could say that mercy is “love’s second name.”
Shakespeare and St. Anselm knew that justice and mercy are inextricably related to one another. They understood that mercy comes into the world only because of justice. God extends mercy to the world only because he holds us accountable to moral truth. If God did not expect us to keep his commandments, we would not need his help or forgiveness. Unless it is predicated on justice, mercy doesn’t really make sense.
Shakespeare and St. Anselm understood two other important things about the relationship between God’s mercy and his justice. The first is that God’s mercy towards us is effective, not affective, compassion. This means that God doesn’t look at us with pity and excuse us from our moral obligations. God doesn’t pretend that we are perfect when we are not, that we are holy when we are not, or that the truth about our lives doesn’t matter. God’s mercy does not ignore reality.
Mercy, if it is real, doesn’t excuse immorality. Instead, mercy enables us to act rightly, to choose goodness, to be just. And mercy calls us, in word, and deed, and witness, to live well—to reject sin, to love as God loves, and to call others to conversion and communion with almighty God.
The second thing Shakespeare and St. Anselm understood is that God’s mercy is generous beyond justice, and beyond our expectations.
Remember the excesses of mercy from the father of the prodigal son: the fatted calf, the ring, and the robe. The magnitude of mercy is inexhaustible.
Last week, in the Exsultet of the Easter vigil, we heard a deacon chant the ancient words: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem. “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”
We are a race of fallen men, justly condemned. But, in the mystery of Divine Providence, because of our condemnation we have more than we could ever anticipate: we have the merciful Incarnation of Jesus Christ himself.
In mercy, God gives us communion with himself.
In truth, it would be merciful, an application of his goodness, for God to respond to our sin by balancing some kind of cosmic equilibrium. God could be merciful if he gave us some chance of returning to the Garden of Eden. But in his mercy, God gives us much more than earthly paradise.
Adam and Eve walked freely with God, but not intimately. In mercy, God now invites us into the intimacy of his inner life. Adam and Eve were deathless. In mercy, God invites us not to deathlessness, but to eternity. Adam and Eve loved in the image of God. In his mercy, God invites us to love with the very power of his own love.
In Paradise Regained, the poet John Milton wrote, “great acts require great means of enterprise.” Through mercy—through the Incarnation, and through our fall from grace—God begins the “great act” of our divinization.
Since the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Church has been engaged in a kind of focused conversation about mercy. In 2014, we began preparations for the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family—discussions in Rome centering on the meaning of mercy in the context of the family. A great deal of good has come from those conversations.
But two false notions of mercy have emerged from these conversations. They are very dangerous and very popular; and they’ve become real factors in pastoral practice. They both center on a false divide between truth and mercy. They both, ultimately, end up as a kind of relativism.
If we want to be missionaries of mercy—if we want to “render the deeds of mercy”—we need to be acutely aware of error, and be prepared to respond to it. Instructing the ignorant, however uncomfortable, is among the spiritual works of mercy to which we are all obliged.
The first false idea is that conscience is an absolute source of moral truth. This idea suggests that if we want to act rightly, we only need to “listen to our conscience.” But our conscience is only effective when it is formed correctly, when it strengthens us and guides us to live according to reality and moral truth. The conscience offers no escape from natural law, or from God’s revelation.
When people talk about following their conscience, they often mean that what really matters is how we feel about what we do. If we don’t feel guilty, then we must not actually be guilty. That if our choices feel right, they are right. This kind of talk implies that God’s mercy is a kind of revocation of our moral responsibilities; that because God is merciful, he won’t hold us accountable.
If the conscience is not connected to truth, and to revelation itself, we can’t have much hope of ever knowing what is actually right. Moral subjectivism leads to moral chaos, each of us acting in the way that makes us feel the best.
The husband who says his conscience tells him to take to take a mistress can justify his actions. The wife who thinks her conscience tells her to have an abortion can proceed without any guilt.
In the end, a God excuses us from the moral law, must think very little of us. A God who spoils us must not respect us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. And Christ the Lord tells us to “be perfect, as the Father is perfect.” Our God would be a cruel God if he called us to perfection, knowing that we could never actually achieve it. He wouldn’t make us in his image unless he expected us to live up to that dignity.
St. Bonaventure said that the conscience—“God’s herald and messenger”—has authority when it speaks the plain words of the Gospel to the quiet corners of our hearts. Pope St. John Paul II had the same view. In Veritatis splendor, he said “conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man's soul, calling him with patience and persistence to obedience.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that conscience enjoins us “to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. . . .When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” When God speaks, he calls us to goodness.
To form the consciences of believers, the job of pastors is two-fold: first, to inform the conscience by teaching the truth authentically, and then to help men and women make practical judgments, in particular circumstances, that reflect that truth. This work is done in the confessional and spiritual direction: heart to heart, cor ad cor loquitor
In Richard III, Shakespeare said that, “conscience is a word that cowards use.” Today, that’s become mostly true. We have reduced conscience to a coward’s excuse to act however we wish, with moral impunity and with the false security that God approves of evil choices.
The second false notion of mercy is the idea that our daily choices really don’t matter very much at all to God. That if we are fundamentally oriented to God and to goodness—if we have chosen to be Christ’s disciples as our so-called “fundamental option”—then our daily choices won’t really impact our salvation, or disorient us away from goodness. This is not a new idea. It was proposed and discussed by the late Karl Rahner in the 1960s and 70s, and later developed into modern-day expressions of utilitarian ethical “proportionalism” and “consequentialism.”
Some who’ve developed Rahner’s ideas teach that our “basic orientation,” serves as the only meaningful element of our relationship with God. That if we are oriented towards good, our daily actions, even outside the boundaries of revealed truth and the natural law, will be good. Some take this view even further, into deterministic dualism: teaching that only our fundamental spiritual choices matter, that our daily actions are only psychological reactions, or bio-chemical impulses, and not really moral choices at all.
Of course, all serious Christians make a firm choice to become obedient disciples of Jesus Christ. And we can be tempted to presume that our fundamental orientation toward God will save us; even if we choose to gravely defy the truth. But we cannot make, or teach, that mistake. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that our fundamental choices are only “actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God's will, wisdom and law.”
When a couple marries, they make a firm and fundamental choice for the good of the other. They commit to unity and indissolubility, to a partnership for the whole of life. And they are spiritually united when they make vows. But the commitment is only the place where the real work begins, and the spiritual can’t be divided from the corporeal.
If a husband ignores his wife, day after day, the commitment is meaningless, and the marriage won’t sanctify him. If a wife berates or belittles her husband for decades, her vows are empty, and her marriage won’t be fruitful. The couple may have sentimental affection for each other, but that affection doesn’t mean anything if, day-by-day, they ignore their obligation to love and serve the person right in front of them.
God’s true mercy makes us good when we grapple with hard choices and try to live out goodness on a daily basis. In marriage, sanctity only comes when the spouses work to serve each other. In the Christian life, holiness only happens when we work to live out the Gospel. Mercy is supplied to make us perfect, as God is perfect. Mercy doesn’t mean that, because we are baptized, moral law is abrogated or relativized.
In the past three years, some Catholic intellectuals and pastoral leaders have talked about homosexual couples living in “freedom” according to their conscience. Others have said that Christian disciples should not be bothered with legal questions about matrimonial validity; that the work of the Gospel in their lives is too important for such trifling details. Some claim that the mercy of God works through the conscience to excuse immorality, and that we can remain true Christian disciples even when we have freely chosen sin.
Last year, in God or Nothing, Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote that the “real scandal” of today is “the confusion between good and evil caused by Catholic shepherds. If men who are consecrated to God are no longer capable of understanding the radical nature of the Gospel message and seek to anesthetize it, we will be going the wrong way. For that is the real failure of mercy.”
The only true kind of mercy is predicated on truth. God’s mercy is operative when it makes us better men and women, not when it makes excuses for depravity. God’s mercy gives the capacity for goodness, and justice, and heroic virtue. Heroism, dear brothers, is the ordinary consequence of mercy in the life of the ordinary Christian.
Many of you have read Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, or you’ve seen the play or the movie. Hugo’s good bishop was a lot like the figure of Pope Francis—he lived simply, by choice, he gave away nearly everything, and he was most comfortable among the poor.
The protagonist, Jean Valjean, was a hardened and thieving convict released after two decades in prison. Valjean stole from the bishop’s residence. When he stole, the bishop offered him mercy. But to receive it, Valjean had to see the gravity of his sin, contrasted with the magnitude of the Lord’s mercy. Valjean became a hero—a man of extraordinary virtue and incredible love. Such is the power of mercy predicated on truth.
We are all called to be missionaries of mercy. We are called to witness to truth, and to redemption. And the best way to teach others the path of mercy is through the choices of our own lives.
In the new book-length interview, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis says that “mercy is doctrine.” Doctrine comes from docere: to teach. Mercy teaches. Mercy reveals truth. Works of mercy reveal God’s justice and truth: Feeding the hungry reveals that God invites us to an eternal feast. Visiting the prisoner reveals that redemption is always possible. Bearing wrongs patiently reveals the human dignity of our brothers and sisters. Forgiving offenses willingly reveals that we are all sinners, and that Almighty God longs to forgive each one of us.
If we hope to be missionaries of mercy, we must be merciful. If we hope to teach truth, we must be witnesses to its effects.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare says that, “best men are molded out of faults, and, for the most, become much the better for being a little bad.” God molds us from our faults. He makes us “much the better” when we have sinned against him. He calls us to perfection, and enables us to achieve perfection, through his grace and mercy. Being missionaries of mercy is witnessing to the mercy of our own redemption.
We sing and pray, O felix culpa—“O happy fault”—because mercy, predicated on our true faults, binds us eternally to God. Mercy offers us a share in God’s life and being.
May we become missionaries of truth and mercy. May mercy “season justice” in our public lives. And may mercy fall as a “gentle rain from heaven” bringing forth in the world new lives of freedom, charity and justice. As we pray for mercy, may our prayer “teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
James Conley is the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.
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