What is missing in the Church today? What we brag about most: Mercy
Writing about the minor prophets on Tuesday, I mentioned this famous passage from Hosea: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). Now I am wondering why mercy is so conspicuously absent in the Church today.
This may astound my readers. But I am not referring to talk about mercy. That surrounds us almost constantly as Catholics today. But is mercy not most often advocated in a way that dulls our awareness of the gravity of offending God? Again and again, Catholic leaders and preachers who are far too influenced by the attitudes of our contemporary secular culture insist—or at least imply—that mercy is always about forgiveness and never about conversion, always about affirmation and never about instruction.
But this is not mercy. This is just a way to make our lives easier.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is not only that Christ has died for us so that our sins can be forgiven but also that we can be freed from sin and drawn into union with God by repenting and believing the Gospel (Mk 1:15). This is actually how the evangelist Mark summarizes Christ’s message. To understand what this means, we must ask ourselves about the context in which God is working. Put as simply as possible, this context is explained by St. Paul: “God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4).
Yet for all the talk about mercy today, was there ever an age in the Church’s history when both her leaders and her rank and file were so reluctant to speak God’s truth so that those who are far from Him can “repent and believe the Gospel”? Was there ever an age in which bishops, priests and religious were so prone to assume that every person is doing as well as he can, to argue that it is wrong to judge anyone’s behavior, to assert the value of all belief systems, and to insist that our sole task is to emphasize the isolated fact of God’s mercy—as if the fruits of that mercy may be reaped without belief in God, without trust in God, without learning God’s will, and without repentance and amendment of life?
Borrowing from another of the minor prophets, it was Micah who said that God requires each of us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). But, returning to Hosea, have we not instead plowed iniquity, reaped injustice and eaten the fruit of lies (Hos 10:12-13)?
Now it is no secret that the predominant rebellion against God today consists in a radical refusal of our given nature along with an insistence on unnatural sexual license. Owing to our cultural sympathy with this attitude, the words of God are no sooner formed on Micah’s lips than we protest how unkind it is to correct those who are caught in sin and how presumptuous it is to assist them in a reformation of life. We do not walk humbly with our God because we presume to know better than He what is true, what is important and what is for our good.
Why else do so many in the Church refuse to condemn pornography, fornication, contraception, adultery, serial monogamy, deliberately sterile marriage, homosexual relations, gender change and every other form of affective licentiousness? Why else do we acquiesce in the destruction of self-control and personal integrity, the claim that sin is only sin when it is non-consensual, the reduction of family life to a series of “options”, and the shredding of the fabric of society? Why else do we affirm those who constantly deny the commandments of Christ, reject the purposes inscribed within their very nature, and personally offend their Creator?
All of this is encouraged or at least tolerated even at high levels within the Church herself. It can be no surprise that a recent poll of “millennials” reveals that nearly half consider it wrong to share their faith with others in the hope of precipitating their conversion. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear such faith-sharing denounced as “proselytism”.
It would seem that, at the prompting of the Serpent, we want to “be like God, knowing good and evil”(Gen 3:5) according to our own judgment. We act, in other words, exactly like the Jewish nation before the exile: Getting, spending, pursuing false gods, enjoying all manner of debauchery, reflexively striving to be part of the in-group, full of willful self-deception, and leaving our neighbors to wallow in their sins. We say, “Who am I to judge?” and think ourselves clever, forgetting that in the deepest sense of this question, in the distinction between right and wrong or sin and grace, it is not for us to serve our own judgement, but God’s.
It is of course true that we are not to judge in the sense of condemn: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). But Our Lord immediately adds: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.” It is a supreme mercy to develop relationships with those in spiritual need so that we can, exactly as Christ did, preach the Gospel, lead them to the truth, and rejoice with them as they repent their sins and place their confidence not in their passions or in worldly attachments or in the dominant culture, but in their Lord and Savior.
How can we think otherwise? The goal is not to condemn but to draw others into union with God, for which purpose they must be taught, brought close to grace, and encouraged to exchange the tawdry attractions of this world for the transformative, redeeming love of Christ. But instead of showing this kindness, this authentic mercy, we pretend that we must not teach and must not preach, that we must accept the most serious sins as the best others can do, and that we must assure them that death to self is not required to enter the Kingdom of God.
In contrast, Our Lord, Who was mercy incarnate, said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35).
Teaching and Preaching
Everyone knows that the task of inspiring conversion is a delicate business when dealing with those who are ensnared by sin. Only an idiot would caricature such a mission in these terms: “Hi, I’m a good Catholic. You’re a serious sinner. Repent, you fool, and pay attention to what I’m telling you.” No, the process of authentic care and concern for real persons “where they live” requires good judgment and prudent decisions about when and how to speak, and how best to challenge them. It makes excellent sense to make oneself available in the name of Christ and see who expresses a deeper interest. But precisely for this reason, there is never any need to disguise Christ’s teaching or the teaching of the Church. To the contrary, it is precisely this disguise which robs the Church of the mercy which ought to be her hallmark.
If we reflect for a moment, we see that in Catholic institutions such as parishes, dioceses, religious communities, schools, and universities, or in any venue in which one is invited to speak precisely as a Catholic or a representative of the Church, one cannot hide the truth in the hope that doing so will make one a more successful apostle, either now or later on. Particularly in the pulpit and in the classroom, the failure to announce God’s love, His call to repentance, the challenge of the Gospel to new life, and the moral and spiritual demands of the Lord which contradict the spirit of the age—the failure to articulate these things is tantamount to a denial of Christ Himself.
Yet it is precisely in the most obviously Catholic contexts—in the pulpit and in the classroom, in the statements of too many bishops, and in the writings of too many moral theologians—that we find these failures at their worst, with no truer justification than a fear of contradicting the zeitgeist, a fear of appearing out of step with the times, a fear of being repudiated by one’s peers, a fear of losing the favor of whoever it is that controls one’s sinecure. These fears, even if unrecognized, result in constant betrayals portrayed as “mercy”.
Indeed, if things are bad enough in many dioceses, parishes, religious education programs and parochial schools they are far worse in certain unrenewed religious communities and, above all, in Catholic colleges and universities, which are now almost impossible for the Church to control even should she attempt to do so. It is especially among alleged moral theologians that bizarre theories are developed which argue, on the one hand, that traditional Catholic teaching is misguided and, on the other, that people cannot be expected to reform their lives because their sins are the result of deep-seated tendencies and so, most likely, not really sins at all.
Thus do wayward academics scoff at grace! But no matter how convoluted the arguments, all of these refusals to teach as Christ and the apostles taught represent a failure to walk humbly with God, a failure to desire that all men come to the knowledge of the truth, a failure to trust grace more than mortal life itself—let alone more than human flattery. Immediately after insisting that we must save our lives by losing them for the sake of the Gospel, the One who is mercy incarnate had this to say:
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. [Mk 8:38]
Not of this World
Such errors and follies lie at the root of a selective reading of the Gospel in our time which paralyzes the Church, rendering her ineffective by making her incapable of consistent witness. This selective reading emphasizes all the passages which seem easy and ignores all the passages that seem hard. We are surrounded by those who will, in effect, be eager to cite John 8:11 to say “Neither do I condemn you” while forgetting to mention the rest of the verse: “Go, and do not sin again.”
As a remedy, I recommend that we drop all our preconceived notions of how to go along to get along and instead take to heart the advice of St. Peter on this point, dispensed to very real Catholics in his first Letter: “Gird up your minds,” he wrote, “be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you” and “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, by holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1:13-16).
Peter warns: “If you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” because “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1:18-19).
And Peter asks, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord” (3:13-15).
Finally, he is even more specific:
Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild debauchery, and they abuse you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. [4:3-6]
Does anyone think I mistake Peter’s meaning, or misjudge how aptly it applies to the crisis of Catholicism today? What I am talking about is the widespread failure of the Church to practice mercy. In a grotesque mockery of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), we make very sure not to pass by on the other side. But instead of applying the cure, we prop up those set upon by sin—with wounds still untreated—and send them on their way.
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Posted by: Bveritas2322 -
Feb. 20, 2019 12:18 PM ET USA
A good essay but with two underemphasized elements. Little mention of how merciless it is to ignore the victims of sin, like the slaughtered preborn for example, and why we should not be cowards in condemning evil behavior, like fornication for example. The other is the problem of having a pope with a mind too adolescent to comprehend his mercilessness towards the victims of sin.
Posted by: feedback -
Feb. 16, 2019 6:47 PM ET USA
Thank you for the great essay. It makes me wonder, who is the real neo-Pelagian? The one who follows Divine Revelation and the Commandments, or one who "follows his own conscience" instead?
Posted by: dover beachcomber -
Feb. 15, 2019 10:57 AM ET USA
Posted by: Cory -
Feb. 15, 2019 1:16 AM ET USA
Pope Francis ought to read this. But I wonder if he will understand. Most likely not, because he is completely sold on the 'talk of mercy' cool aid.