It is a failure of mercy to deny sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 20, 2014

Previously, I promised to explore how we too often obscure the life-changing mercy of the Gospel, despite our best intentions (see Light of the World: Morality vital, but mercy first). We will discover very quickly that this failure usually arises from our own complacency—our refusal to truly engage our brother and sister in Christ. This complacency may be motivated by any number of selfish tendencies, but spiritually and intellectually it is rooted in the denial of an important mystery.

The mystery is that God’s mercy and God’s justice are not really two different things. They are only two human ways of understanding God, who is completely simple and rightly identified as Love. Thus God both forgives and disciplines out of the same love. The Book of Proverbs advises: “My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). Yet the Psalmist begs: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (51:1).

When we become complacent, we grow lazy. When we grow lazy, we look for shortcuts, ways we can deal with others (and ourselves) without paying close attention to progress toward union with God. In complacency, then, we almost invariably do what God does not do. We either condemn the sinner or deny the sin. In reading these words, we might consider the one a failure of mercy, the other a failure of justice. But in reality they are both failures of mercy and justice, because they are failures of love.

This is why, in the same section of Pope Francis’ interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ with which I began this series, Pope Francis says:

The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. [See section entitled “The Church as Field Hospital”.]

Why Denial of Sin Betrays Mercy

Many things go into our relationship with God, but what has both temporal and logical priority is that God loves us even in our sins, and it is precisely this love which enkindles in us both the desire and the ability to love Him in return. We will find greater and greater fulfillment as this relationship matures. It is a process of union which enables us to “become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

This is evident even at what we call the natural level. We are created as beings ordered to union with God. This is why we feel empty and dissatisfied—as if something is missing—until we realize how much He loves us and begin to respond to that love. As St. Augustine famously expressed it, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee.”

Again and again, conversion stories recount the person’s decisive awareness of God’s mercy, whether gradually or in a single flash of grace. The convert begins with an unsatisfied life, a sense of sadness, anger, emptiness, lack, frustration or futility, which suddenly opens out into the Kingdom of God. This is the realization that our loving Father will give us what we need to transform our lives into union with Himself. The first effect of our awareness of God’s mercy is hope.

At the natural level—that is, before Revelation and our understanding of grace—we already see our behavior as an integral part of the problem of life. Typically we seek various kinds of pleasures, and the more pleasure we grab, the less whole we feel. We feel ourselves disintegrating, though we may not realize that human integrity depends on the right ordering of all of our loves in relation to the love of God.

Still, all persons have a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, which derives from the very nature of things (what we call natural law). We sense that we somehow live under a judgment, which suggests the existence of a judge and lawgiver. Although this can be drummed out of our heads through extensive brainwashing (controlled “education” by bureaucratic states comes to mind) or through our own denials arising from pride and passion, every sane person has experienced this. Every sane person also continues to experience it in what we call the voice of conscience, however badly formed the conscience might have become.

Another way of expressing this is that the denial of our call to seek the perfection of God is a denial of our very nature. This is why those who deny the reality of sin, by attenuating or dismissing the commandments of God, cannot claim to be merciful. Instead, they offer a cheap escape through rationalization. This temporarily satisfies the intellect while our pride and passions continue to distract us from our deepest yearnings. We disintegrate further in the very name of religion!

The reason is simple: Mercy without the invitation to authentic friendship with our inexpressibly holy God is a counterfeit. Unrecognized, this counterfeit is just another false path that blinds us to the transforming power of Divine love. Or, if we have experienced just enough of this power, we will eventually realize that we have been insulted by those who minimize sin, repentance and the cross. We have been given stones instead of bread, a chilling mockery of our heart’s desire.

The Lax Error

Christians can fall into this error in dealing with others even with good intentions, out of a mistaken notion of kindness. How often, however, is this confusion really a rationalization for complacency about our own worldliness? In any case, to use Pope Francis’ manner of speaking, this failure is born of laxity. It is a failure to accompany the person in discovering the full dignity to which he or she is called as a child of God. This is, obviously, the “liberal” or the “modernist” tendency, which is so impressively magnified today by secular influences.

To deny a person the full realization of his dignity, the perfection to which he is called, the Divine filiation with which he is honored, cannot be done honestly in the name of mercy. There must be a priority in proclaiming God’s love and forgiveness first, but there must never be a betrayal in pretending we really have no need of that love and forgiveness at all. This approach leaves us in our sins. It leaves us broken and empty and alone. The whole point of mercy is to take us out of ourselves and into the presence of God.


Previous in series: Light of the World: Morality vital, but mercy first
Next in series: Public perception demands a way of mercy

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.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Edward I. - Nov. 21, 2014 2:09 AM ET USA

    In my opinion, the ideas you're covering in this series of articles are a skeleton key to understanding Pope Francis. God bless you and your work.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Nov. 20, 2014 7:25 PM ET USA

    Beautiful!