Action Alert!

Public perception demands a way of mercy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 24, 2014

In last week’s discussion (It is a failure of mercy to deny sin), I explained how the love and mercy of God are undermined by human efforts to be “nice”. This frequently takes the form of denying or minimizing sins in accordance with the spirit of the times, which obscures our need for mercy. It also gives a comfortable excuse to avoid deep involvement with others, whose spiritual needs we complacently redefine out of existence.

I pointed out that this is a kind of secularization of the Gospel all too frequent among those who identify themselves as progressive, liberal or Modernist. But since the overwhelming majority of those who frequent CatholicCulture.org are not in this category, writing further on this point would be rather like beating a dead horse. By now, everyone expects me to address the ways “conservative” or “traditional” personalities sometimes undermine mercy—that is, people who are more like myself in their convictions and sensibilities—and I do not intend to disappoint. But first I hope it will be useful for everyone to return again to Pope Francis’ comment that, with respect to the signature moral failures of our time, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

In the context of mercy, what could this possibly mean?

The World We Live In

In any given time and place, there will be characteristic blind spots in a culture which make it extraordinarily difficult to access the truth in those areas. For modern Western culture, an intense individualism coupled with dramatic misunderstandings of both freedom and sexuality constitutes a huge blind spot. Our culture reflexively assumes that freedom from restraint in creating our own identities and choosing our own patterns of behavior is essential to human dignity. We are not defined, in this view, either by nature, or by the purposes to which we commit ourselves, or by the communities we sustain, but rather by a kind of Promethean individual autonomy.

Sexual politics is perhaps the most obvious disaster following from this endemic blindness. Divorce, contraception, promiscuity, the legitimization of sexual perversion, the redefinition of marriage, abortion, the destruction of family stability, and the sacrifice of child well-being on the altar of adult self-determination have obviously become the flashpoints for both “self-realization” and political identity in our time. Because all of this is packaged as freedom and given the highest possible priority as a matter of human rights, our dominant culture perceives the Catholic Church’s position on human dignity to be constantly negative. Raise any question about self-fulfillment, and the Church’s answer will be reported as NO.

This is rendered far worse by another characteristic of modern times—a near totalitarian dependence on the power of the Bureaucratic State. Every question is seen primarily in political terms and every conflict rapidly becomes a political conflict. In a society which has lost intermediary institutions and a robust social fabric, everybody wants to address every issue at the highest political level possible. Good Catholics are often no exception to this cultural tendency. To take just one example of how this can skew things, it frequently leads good people to self-identify primarily as “culture warriors”—a paradoxically political designation which, despite the good it signifies, obviously fails to capture the fullness of the Christian message. (I’ve discussed this at some length elsewhere, most recently in The Credibility Wars: Where We Go from Here.)

The upshot is that, yes, it can seem to others that Catholics and their Church really do “talk about these issues all the time”, even when most of us who actually embrace the truth of the Church’s moral teachings cannot remember the last time sexual morality was reiterated or reinforced from the pulpit. The closest our homilists seem to come to it is the fight over religious liberty, which only just barely qualifies as spiritual initiative.

Personal Engagement

Now all Catholics are stuck in this situation whether they like it or not. This is a feature of the dominant culture in the secularized West. It means we have to correct misimpressions of Catholicism through personal engagement with real persons—direct engagement and interaction which is not filtered through a political lens or through the media.

When Pope Francis discussed this in the Spadaro interview (in the context of the Sacrament of Penance), he spoke of taking “responsibility for the person”. In pastoral ministry, he said, “we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.” It is self-evident, I think, that this insight is important for lay people as well. We must find ways to get to know other persons who may have these moral problems, to ensure that they hear a positive message of God’s love for them, and of the potential for Christ’s life within them. We must start where they are, discovering their broken hopes, their suffering, their dreams. Then we can begin to offer the mercy that creates hope, leading them to a better way, a deeper truth, and a richer life.

Sometimes, of course, people encounter this more complete understanding of Catholicism in the media, whether on EWTN, or Catholic radio, or in some book they have discovered, or on the web, perhaps even on CatholicCulture.org. But given the immense personal and cultural obstacles, this widening of the horizons must most often come through personal contact.

Most of us, I presume, do not act toward troubled, conflicted, or wayward family members and friends as if our duty is to state the truth and then write them off until they change—what Francis calls leaving them “to the commandment”. Yet we need to be aware that most people will have exactly this sense of the Church, this sense of having been left with nothing but a commandment, which sounds like a condemnation. For this reason, the failure to engage personally with those who need Christ becomes another way of diminishing the Gospel. Even with good intentions, then, we may assume a mercy that has not been shared.


Previous in series: It is a failure of mercy to deny sin 
Next in series: The gift of orthodoxy: A mercy and a challenge to 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.

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!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 25, 2014 2:10 PM ET USA

    I agree that the wake of Vatican II left the laity "no choice but to stand in the breach." The former Archbishop of Atlanta knew this well when he told me shortly after arriving in town that the majority of priests were not with him and that he was counting on the laity to help his reform of the diocese. On the other hand, how did the many heterodox, even angry, nuns and divorced lay women help the Church from their positions as directors/coordinators of religious education and similar roles?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 25, 2014 11:07 AM ET USA

    Thus the term "koinonia.":) Some speak of "surprises" and there is some merit to this description in the right context. However there is also confusion which is evil. "...the body of the Episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful..." said Bishop Schneider. Contrary to prevailing wisdom it is possible that those who speak also possess and exhibit "the joy of living the Gospel." They must not be disparaged -even implicitly- for speaking out.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 25, 2014 9:31 AM ET USA

    koinonia: As a lifelong teacher, I applaud your amplification of my point. Engaging fully with students involves a sharing of life and values which enables faith to grow. Similarly, crisis pregnancy centers are a stellar (and in many ways the most obvious) example of the virtues of positive engagement rather than "leaving someone with the commandment". And as for the widespread secularization of bishops and priests, especially between 1965 and 1985 or so, I have often remarked that the Second Vatican Council's brilliant emphasis on the vocation of the laity bore fruit far more quickly because the laity were left with no choice but to stand in the breach. This is fairly typical, I think, of the surprising ways in which the mystery of Divine Providence unfolds. For a great many of us, with the help of grace, an initial confusion and even bitterness has been transformed into the deep joy of living the Gospel more fully ourselves.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 25, 2014 8:24 AM ET USA

    "...the failure to engage personally with those who need Christ becomes another way of diminishing the Gospel." What of the failure of teachers to teach? So many souls ignorant of their baptismal vocations. How many faithful laity have stood in the breach founding volunteer organizations like Birthright etc, reaching out, engaging? Where were the prelates? These lay folks by the tens of thousands must never be forgotten. Virtue can be disconcerting, but it can also be transformational.