Light of the World: Morality vital, but mercy first

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2014

I doubt anyone has forgotten the famous words of Pope Francis in his premier interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ of La Civiltá Cattolica back in September of 2013. Many were struck especially by this comment:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

Some were left scratching their heads over the expression “all the time” because, as a simple matter of fact, these devastating moral issues are almost never addressed from the pulpit. So how could they be emphasized too much? But Francis was raising the deeper question of how the Church can best convey the message of Christ to those whose lives have not yet been transformed by it. I encourage everyone to read the entire context of this remark, which consists of the section of the interview entitled “The Church as a Field Hospital”.

The Essence of the Gospel

The fundamental message of the Gospel is that God loves us even when we are still in our sins, that Jesus Christ dies for us before we repent. It is precisely our response of gratitude and trust in this mercy that enables us to become new creations, leaving sin and death behind. This is the Good News—not that we must lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but that God loves us into new life. Therefore, simply by accepting and growing in this love, our deepest wounds can be healed and our deepest aspirations can be fulfilled. Our Lord desires nothing more than to make us whole through His mercy, by drawing us into an infinite love.

There are dozens, probably hundreds, of expressions of this reality throughout the New Testament. For example, there is the famous passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us…. God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. [Rm 5:1-8; see also the entire chapter]

Our Lord Himself repeatedly said things like: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17). And “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Lk 6:32). And “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). When those who were suffering trusted in him for a cure, He often said something like: “Take heart, your sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:2).

Let us look at St. Paul again. In one of his great sermons, he proclaimed: “Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). Paul also recounted to King Agrippa what Our Lord had said to him at the moment of his own conversion, very much in the midst of his sins:

I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. [Acts 26:16-18]

St. Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24). And to come full circle with our theme, St. John proclaimed, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).

The Reality of Repentance

Now of course you may point out that there are plenty of occasions when Our Lord, his apostles, and the evangelists speak of repentance, of the need to remain free of our sins, of the injunction to “go, and sin no more”. Moral behavior is certainly a very important part of doing the will of God, and if we have been reclaimed by Christ, we should hardly act as if this is not so. But the point here is to understand the order of priority. In the Christian dispensation, it is always true that mercy precedes repentance. The injunction to “sin no more” is always preceded by the affirmation: “Neither do I condemn you” (Jn 8:11).

Jesus Christ does not insist that we measure up before He forgives. Quite the contrary, it is precisely by pouring out His mercy while we are still in our sins that He brings about the interior transformation which will enable us, with His grace, to repent our past sins and triumph over these same sins in the future. Nobody can repent without grace. Nobody can grow in virtue without more grace. We are not Pelagians. What we are is sad, and destitute, and hungry, and yearning for something to fill our intolerable emptiness. The Father sees this from afar—beholding the distant sinner from the heights of holiness—and rushes out to embrace us in His love.

It is precisely this that breaks our stony hearts. With the prodigal son, our interest in some calculated advantage is dissolved into tears. And if these are tears of sorrow, they are at the same time tears of joy. It is this movement that marks the beginning of the Christian drama. This, and only this, is how converts are made.

And now, since I have put it so, most readers will say, yes, of course this is true. But still. But still, is there nothing more? Of course there is. But if we are too forward with our “buts”, we cast the essence of the Gospel into shadow. We quench the flame that ignites all the rest. Let us examine, in one or more sequels, how this can happen. Let us ask how, with even the best intentions, we sometimes dim the Light of the World.


Next in series: It is a failure of mercy to deny sin

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 20, 2014 9:50 AM ET USA

    In discussing Predestination a friend- a Protestant minister- once quipped: Are they forced- kicking and screaming- into eternal bliss? Indeed what of this mysterious free will? What of the poor "bad thief"? The Prodigal Son was already sorry (perhaps not perfect contrition) but seeking mercy. Speaking of abortion and field hospitals, just look to Catholic women and religious working among those poor souls seeking abortion. In the context of the Catholic Church, mercy is nothing new.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Nov. 19, 2014 9:11 PM ET USA

    You raise valid points Dr. Mirus. I trust you will take into account the wrongness of putting mercy against commandments, but not only that, also the wrongness of assuming that there ought to be a synthesis between thesis (mercy) and antithesis (commandments), that is, a point in the middle of the road. And lastly, not wanting to be contentious but rather being incapable of shutting this concern off, I would argue that the message being conveyed by the Vatican as of now borders these errors.