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Can we accommodate a refusal? The limits of mercy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 10, 2015

Under the influence of the last three popes, I have found myself trying to embody mercy more fully. In doing so, I become increasingly aware of the widespread abuse of mercy in the modern world. On the one hand, I know enough about myself to realize I have some anti-merciful tendencies. On the other hand, any school boy can see that many who speak most loudly about mercy confuse it with mere accommodation.

Let’s take my own dark side first. I am hoping many readers can relate to it. As a so-called “conservative” Catholic (though I despise the term), I recognize that by temperament I prefer having all the pieces of the spiritual puzzle fit “just so”. Each person is a piece of this puzzle, and it is natural to me to want to see each piece perfectly shaved to fit its space. I want the individual edges to all but disappear so that the whole comes more clearly into view.

One danger is that I tend to take myself as the normative edge-trimmer, though I may be completely unaware of those edges of my own personality and values that have not yet been shaped to perfection. Still, to me the proper way to work the puzzle seems obvious: People ought to seriously seek the truth; when this brings them to Catholicism, they ought not to hesitate; and once someone is a member of the Church, he ought to concentrate not on remaking the Church to suit himself, but on remaking himself to suit the Church.

This straightforward approach appeals to me most strongly within the Church. It applies to incorrect teaching in religious education classes, sloppy or deliberate departures from the liturgical rubrics, preaching which caters to the prejudices of the prevailing culture, and the tendency of so many Catholics to participate in the Church without accepting all of her teachings. This is in contrast to believing but falling continually short, which is the essence of Catholicism.

My instinctive attitude is not all bad (as we will soon see), but at times I have not distinguished fairly among confusion, inadvertent errors, insignificant infractions of rules, failure to study the content of the faith, deliberate denial of Catholic teaching, and a real effort to undermine the Church or the faith of others. For those outside the Church, I have sometimes too easily assumed they have had ample opportunity to figure things out if they really care. Have I always given due weight to the influence of culture, upbringing, scandal, and unrecognized temptation?

A Danger We All Face

Through what I sincerely hope has been a long, slow and even embarrassing process of spiritual growth, I find it less easy to dismiss others than when I was twenty or thirty. Nonetheless, I am pretty sure there is a related danger that clings to all Catholics who, like myself, have the “conservative” personality type (though it is by no means restricted to this group).

This is the danger of continuously leading with judgment. Once we have admonished someone for being insufficiently Catholic in any of the ways mentioned above—or once we have turned away from someone because he or she is “one of those people”—we have unfortunately all but eliminated any possibility of reaching them in a more encouraging manner. In most cases, a positive interaction with people as they are, including a deliberate effort to value their strengths, is not only more Christlike, but also the first step toward exercising a positive spiritual influence.

What we might call “this conservative tendency” is, I am confident, one of Pope Francis’ pet peeves. If we do not push this pet peeve too far, we are wise to take it to heart. To others we often appear to be nothing but Pharisees, not so much because our judgments are wrong as because the only thing we seem to have to offer is judgment. This is what I mean by “leading with judgment”.

The need to remain open to the sinner is the main reason I try to find a legitimate application to myself for everything our chief pastor says—even when he seems to turn a blind eye to the dangers of other personality types, or seems oblivious to the peculiar obstacles presented by his own.

If we are wary of that term “open”, then let me say more pointedly that we cannot help anyone spiritually unless we are genuinely “accessible”. If the face of judgment is the only face that others see, accessibility is lost. I doubt the “fundamentalist Catholics” Pope Francis so much likes to skewer constitute the primary contemporary danger to the Church. They seem to me rather more of an endangered species. But I will say that we are all sinners, and not a day should go by that we do not thank God with all our hearts that Our Lord always leads, not with judgment, but with love. Who are we, after all, if not for mercy?

The Nature of Mercy

Now stick with me. The foregoing describes only the first half of the problem that mercy faces in our time (and to some degree in all times). Typically this sort of judgmentalism is “our” half of the problem—a likely tendency of many seriously committed Catholics who value But the other half is far more widespread today. I am referring to the abuse of mercy by those who think that it does not involve any judgment at all.

The key to this “bigger” half of the problem today is that mercy is always an invitation to which the one who has been shown mercy must choose to respond. Mercy is always an invitation to enter into God’s love, to enjoy a closer relationship with Him. But our relationship with God is forged primarily through growth in faith. And faith, as St. Paul so beautifully teaches, has three aspects: It is at once belief in the truths God reveals, obedience to His commands, and confidence in His promises.

Without growth in faith, we cannot grow closer to God. And without a willingness to grow closer to God, we cannot experience His mercy. We must always remember that mercy and justice are two sides of the same coin of Divine love. As mercy is an invitation to live in the love of God, so a refusal of mercy leads to the hardships, failures and isolation of a life without love. By rejecting God’s invitation, we choose our punishment. We choose to be locked within ourselves. Pushed far enough, the result is despair.

Unfortunately, the problem with so much easy talk of mercy today is that it describes a counterfeit. This counterfeit mercy showcases a grandiose suspension of judgment without presenting mercy’s special defining quality, that is, its invitation to a deeper relationship with God. Authentic mercy always seeks our acceptance of God’s saving love, our willingness to cling to the Beloved. What is called mercy today too often fails to awaken and facilitate that response. This means it is not mercy at all. It is mere accommodation—a form of selfishness designed primarily to remove the tension of Divine love from our lives.

The Destruction of Mercy

We need to recognize that mercy, just like God Himself, is powerless against refusal: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34)

Modern culture deliberately inculcates this refusal very deeply into all of us, with its insistence on materialism, its emphasis on individuality and autonomy, and its confusion between liberty and slavery to sinful desires. The worldly response to mercy is very clear: Mercy must not hamper our preoccupation with self; we must be left just as we are spiritually; and so God’s love must be kept out of it.

It is one thing to approach others with mercy rather than judgment. The whole point of mercy is to take the risk of rejection in order to draw others more fully into the circle of God’s love. But it is quite another thing to destroy mercy by emptying it of its invitation. The counterfeit of mercy invariably fails to cherish the Divine truths, commands and promises which are essential to a properly ordered love. These are the tangible steps by which we appropriate mercy; they are the very bones, so to speak, of the human soul. Without them there can be no growth in love between ourselves and God.

Perhaps an example will help. Let us take the controversial question of admitting to Communion those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Here are some responses which mark our first problem, the refusal to extend mercy: To write such people off, to refuse to associate with them, to take no steps to re-evangelize them, to fail to remind them that Our Lord loves them so much that all they need to do to return to Communion is to turn away from their rejection of the Church’s sacramental system. These are all refusals to show mercy on our part—which, as the parable of the indebted servant shows, is also a way of refusing God’s mercy to ourselves (see Mt 18).

But the second part of the problem of mercy today is the opposite human response. Let me expand the point I made in the last paragraph. Here we have persons who have founded their very family life on a denial of the Church’s sacramental system, on a refusal to credit its Divine character, on a determination that they prefer to pursue happiness in their own way than to trust Our Lord Himself to provide it to them.

This is not a mere matter of adultery; it is the construction of a way of life which depends on a rejection of the very sacramental means Christ ordained to draw us to Himself. To decide that this does not matter—that such a couple is welcome to go through what we might call the motions of sacramental life—is to immediately rob the whole proposal of its merciful character. It eliminates the invitation that is the essence of mercy. It substitutes a convenient form of human inclusion for a pressing invitation to a deeper relationship with God.


So let me say it once again. Mercy always invites. In the banquet of life, its message begins with “Come, for all is now ready” (Lk 14:17) and continues with “Friend, come up higher” (Lk 14:10). But some are too busy to come to the banquet, or fail to dress properly, or use the invitation to push themselves into the highest place. (See Matthew 22 and 25, and Luke 14.) These either do not respond at all or, failing in love, they do so only to further their own ends.

The point is that mercy can be refused precisely because it is an invitation. Whenever those of us with conservative temperaments fail to reach out, mercy is not extended. But there are even more common ways of thwarting mercy today. This is because the reception of mercy always takes the form of a repentant movement in love toward the one who is merciful. When we remove the Divine invitation from the so-called Catholic projects we may have in hand, then what we offer is not really mercy at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo - Dec. 11, 2015 6:45 AM ET USA

    It seems then it's not an "either mercy OR justice/judgment" situation, but mercy THEN judgement. I love u, I forgive u, but don't do it again. "Go and sin no more." And without any expressed or implied "or else" lingering about. Mercy must be foremost in our hearts 7 times 70 times. Nothin to it.

  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Dec. 11, 2015 2:48 AM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff. I agree we should avoid leading with judgment. You have expressed it well. My problem: how to maintain one's "mercy reserves"? So often we lose our balance; go back to old ways. Why is judgment an "easy lead", almost instinctive, while mercy takes so much energy? Is mercy a more "pure" form of love? What have the Saints said about this? Any thoughts appreciated.