Even mercy can be built on sand. Here’s how to tell.
On the whole, the renewed emphasis on mercy since the pontificate of John Paul II is a very good thing. There was a danger in mid-twentieth century piety of falling into a “who’s in and who’s out” sort of spirituality, with an emphasis on the righteousness of “good Catholics” and the serious danger of everybody else. We need to remember how dependent all of us are on the mercy of God, which carries with it always the opportunity of a deeper conversion, a greater conformity to Christ.
Awareness of mercy fosters humility; that is very good indeed. At the same time, however, our capacity to interpret all Christian ideas according to errors deeply embedded in our own culture can lead to distortions. Such distortions seriously reduce the power of mercy to free people from bondage to sin by winning them to Christ. In our own day, for example, we find it very difficult to hold people morally responsible. We live in a sea of conflicting moral claims. The good is continuously redefined. Free will is called into question. The primary “sin” in our culture is insistence on an independent moral judgment.
Unfortunately, this creates a strong temptation for Christians to use the language of mercy as a religious version of our dominant culture’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The Christian idea that we cannot judge the state of another’s soul morphs into the secular notion that we cannot judge the difference between good and evil. The Christian idea that God wants nothing more than to embrace repentant sinners morphs into the secular notion that acting in a “loving” way means applying no standard of truth or morality to anyone.
One easy way to tell whether our “mercy language” has been corrupted is to examine it for evidence of a willingness to help others to escape the misconceptions which enslave them, and to overcome the bad habits which interfere with their ability to embrace God’s mercy by casting off whatever prevents a fuller union with Him.
Forgotten Works of Mercy
The standard short course in merciful behavior is the traditional enumeration of the works of mercy, drawn from Scripture, and as old as the Church herself. Our culture has no great conflict with the corporal works, so we will find a great deal of emphasis on them in both Christian and secular circles: To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked (or give alms to the poor), shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive (or visit the imprisoned), and bury the dead. We will receive no cultural flak for emphasizing any of these things.
But what about the spiritual works of mercy? Unfortunately, all of these are calculated to trigger a cultural backlash. In theory, I suppose, the culture has no problem with bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offences willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. The only problem here is that the dominant culture will not extend the first three to those guilty of offenses against the dominant ideology—and it will be hostile to our efforts to do so as well. As for the fourth, it will be treated as either a waste of time or something to be done only privately and within strict limits.
But it is the other three spiritual works of mercy that disappear almost completely in those who speak about mercy in a secularized way—those, I mean, who are really offering a counterfeit mercy. I am referring to the works of instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing sinners. Our dominant Western culture regards these three acts as a kind of declaration of war, an utter rejection of the contemporary passion for personal license, and a grave offense against human rights. After all, instruction, counsel and admonishment must constantly seek to overcome the ravages of our contemporary personal and sexual mythology.
Give it the test.
In other words, as with all Christian concepts, what we have to be on guard against in evaluating the contemporary emphasis on mercy is expressions of mercy which are never counter-cultural. And the simple test for this today is to see if there is a reasonable proportion, first, between the spiritual and the corporal works and, second, among all seven of the spiritual works. If we find that instruction, counsel and admonishment are rarely or never mentioned, it is a sure sign that the speaker or writer has become culture-bound—that he or she has succumbed to the world’s refashioning of mercy to foster not conversion, but its own estrangement from God.
I would go even one step farther. There is a presumptive obligation for the Christian, within the limits of prudence, to place a somewhat greater emphasis on the merciful need for instruction, counsel and admonishment. This is so for two important reasons. First, the other works of mercy, at least in some reasonable form, are fairly common currency. Most people will take their goodness for granted, at least within the limits I mentioned above. But the goodness of Christian instruction, Christian counsel, and Christian admonishment are all but completely denied in our larger culture. Since they are widely lacking, they very naturally require a special emphasis. At a minimum, they may not be omitted in any significant discussion of mercy.
Second, it is precisely instruction, counsel and admonishment which enable the recipient to respond effectively to mercy. God loves each of us at all times, but He approaches us in particular moments of mercy precisely in order to enable us to respond to Him in gratitude and love. Sadly, we can show neither gratitude nor offer love if we remain unwilling to learn God’s will and do it. No religious concept is more fundamental than this: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:22).
The entire seventh chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel is well worth reading. Mercy depends on love. Love is ordered to goodness. Goodness demands instruction, counsel and admonishment. If we ignore this reality, mercy loses its transformative strength. We face a real danger today of offering a mercy very much like a house built on sand. When it falls, great will be the fall of it. When it falls, what will become of those within?
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