Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The reception of mercy begins with repentance

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 04, 2022

As I mentioned in the previous installment (The Church: Mere exclusion or inclusion through mission), the Church’s missionary character is ordered toward the extension of God’s mercy to those who either do not know Him or estrange themselves from Him through sin. For this reason, the Church’s very exclusivity as a body of believers who take the saving work of Jesus Christ seriously is itself ordered to mercy. In fact, if the demands of this exclusivity are blurred, then in exactly the same measure is the ready availability of the Church’s mercy reduced.

Now the reason for this is simple. Once again I will quote Our Lord’s initial and most fundamental message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Of course, the central point of Christianity can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. For example, we can say that Christ died for our sins, to reconcile us to the Father. But we can also say that, to understand what this means, we must accept the teachings of Christ and the Church which He established to carry on His mission. And we can also stress that each person must accept this reconciliation for himself and actuate the resulting transformation by God’s grace through the repentance of his sins.

In other words, from the very beginning the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church are uniquely ordered not just to the affirmation of Divine mercy but to its effective reception.

The obfuscation of mercy

This reality makes it utterly astonishing that any Catholic leader or teacher would minimize the nature and consequences of sin in the name of mercy, when in fact it is precisely in the name of Divine mercy that the nature and consequences of sin must be recognized and repudiated for what they are. For the greatest impediment to the acceptance of Divine mercy is sin; by its nature and consequences, sin always either limits our acceptance of God’s mercy or refuses it altogether. To refuse to recognize sinful behavior for what it is—a rejection of God’s will and God’s plan for us with devasting natural and supernatural consequences—is to make it impossible to receive God’s mercy. The result is that we can be neither initiated nor confirmed in that life which, beginning even in the world, culminates in eternal happiness in Heaven.

It is just this that makes so incomprehensible the diabolical refusal of many in the Church to speak clearly about sin and repentance, especially since repentance in Christ is the supreme remedy for our sinful condition and the gateway to our true joy. A few days ago Phil Lawler commented on the extraordinary refusal of mercy on behalf of his people by Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry in Ireland, when he offered an apology for a priest who preached on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, the distribution of contraceptives, the promotion of promiscuity, and the encouragement of children to question their sexual identity (see Apologizing for hard truths). As a proponent of what is really the anti-mercy school of thought, Bishop Browne also restricted the priest’s ministry going forward.

Now it is not that Phil Lawler expressed incredulity at this episcopal behavior. He has, along with all the rest of us, witnessed not only episcopal inaction but episcopal opposition to speaking the truth about Divine mercy on countless occasions throughout the greater part of his life, and he has been calling attention to this disastrous absurdity for the past forty years and more. But this behavior of Bishop Browne, which Browne has doubtless convinced himself is a defense of Divine mercy, is simply and precisely an offense against divine mercy. Like so much of Catholic practice in our modern secularized world, it deliberately obscures the reality of sin, the consequences of sin, and the need for repentance from sin as the essential first step in turning toward God in order to receive His mercy.

The Odds on Salvation

Perhaps one other factor is worth mentioning here. As everyone knows, theologians disagree about whether many or few will be saved. God has not revealed the answer to this question to His Church, and there have been debates about it since the coming of Christ. The great Father of the Church St. Augustine explored this question sixteen hundred years ago on more than one occasion. One line of theological argument led him to the conclusion that the vast majority would be damned (his famous massa damnata theory), but following up another line of argument elsewhere in his writings, he concluded that far more will be saved. If memory serves, St. Thomas Aquinas explored both of these possibilities as well. This should not surprise us, because it reflects how theological inquiry works. Since (a) we are dealing with a mystery to begin with, and (b) there are a number of different indicators throughout Scripture, it is quite possible to suggest more than one insight into the mystery without being able to reach a complete explanation or, in some cases, even a definitive conclusion.

Very famously in the twentieth century, a gifted Catholic theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that, on balance, he thought it unlikely that a loving God would not be able to find a way to get through to every soul without violating that soul’s freedom of will, and that His love would impel Him to do so. Therefore, it seemed unlikely to von Balthasar that anyone would spend eternity in Hell. One could make the same argument about God and the angels, of course, yet Scripture is fairly clear that a significant number of angels have already been cast out of God’s Presence for all eternity. In any case, Von Balthasar’s provisional opinion suited the spirit of the age. It was blithely seconded by a great many less able theologians later in the century, with the result that there is comparatively little emphasis placed on the real possibility of damnation in Catholic education today.

This is not von Balthasar’s fault; at least he did his best to do a serious study of the issue. And he never intended his tentative conclusions to weaken our commitment to the claims of Christ and His Church. Indeed, he defended the teachings of the Church against Modernism, and offered the laity guidance on how to spot the errors that were becoming so widespread in the Church by the second half of the twentieth century (see his very readable Short Primer for Unsettled Layman, published in the 1980s).

In any case, this tendency toward universalism fits nicely with the proud secular pieties of our time. Yet it does not reflect the teaching of the Church, which is not a matter of numbers but a matter of truth: God wishes to save all, but to be saved we must cooperate with whatever gifts He gives us for that purpose. The point is that failure is not “on God” (who asks much from those who have been given much, and little from those who have been given little); rather, failure is “on us”. Failure is nothing more nor less than a refusal. One might reasonably ponder whether the near universalism (the conviction that all are saved) so common among secularized Christians everywhere today prompts a greater effort toward our own sanctification, our own growth in holiness—our own desire to share in the life of God—leading to eternal happiness in Heaven.

If not, then all the blather about cheap salvation without an interior change of heart is dangerous and damaging. But at the same time, we need to keep in mind that the primary motive for growing constantly closer to God ought not to be fear but love. If we think we may be damned owing to our indifference to God’s will, then that is a motivation to overcome evil habits and strive to do that will. But a far greater motivation is love of God because He created us and destined us for eternal glory if we would but respond to His invitation. Love is a better motivation, and always leads to a far greater share in the Divine life, both now and forever.

Therefore we ought never to be swayed by the latest odds offered on salvation. These are a moving target, and salvation is not at all a game of chance. We ought to love God because He loved us first, and because His Son gave Himself up for us while we were still in our sins—that is, while we were still deformed spiritually, and still (in that sense) unworthy of His love.

Not just a symbolic death and resurrection

To come back to the beginning, then, Our Lord told us to repent as the first condition of accepting the Gospel. In fact, the deliberate obfuscation of the role of repentance and amendment of life in the reception of mercy, so widespread in today’s Catholicism, is the chief result of the spread of that “smoke of Satan” into the Church which was first remarked by Pope St. Paul VI in 1972. In its smoky, obscured form, mercy is perceived as reducing our need for repentance. We hear often about God’s love, but we hear about it ineffectively because we are so rarely urged to reflect on what is required of us in order to perceive and respond to that love. And what is required is a painful process of what we might call “repentant divinization”: For we cannot rise with Christ unless we first die with Him.

Some interpret the key passages of the New Testament on this point in a purely sacramental sense, as if baptism itself is not an urgent grace and a fierce call to protect and nurture the sacramental identity which has been imparted to our souls. To be baptized into Christ’s life, death and resurrection means that each of us must affirm with St. Paul that, in my own will and my own habits, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by Faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Note Paul’s emphasis on “the life I now live in the flesh”—that is, his daily life in this world before the time of his death. This was written to the Galatians, but he clarified it further in writing to the Ephesians, using words that tell us what we need to know about the repentance and change of heart required of Christians. I mean the absolute necessity, if we are to accept and benefit from God’s mercy, of recognizing sin and striving through grace and free will to repudiate it in a new life of faithfulness to God—acceptance, in other words, of what is perhaps best described as ultimate reality:

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [Eph 4:17-24]

That priests can be rebuked by their bishops for preaching about ultimate reality ought to astonish and appall us. The same is true when this can be said of religious and their superiors, or of lay people and those who claim to be their spiritual guides, theology teachers, and Catholic opinion leaders. Or of parents making excuses for themselves and their children.

It is by the mercy of God that we are called to die with Christ so that we can rise with Him. It is by the mercy of the Church that we know what this means and how to extend the same opportunity to others. For this reason, a certain institutional exclusivity is absolutely necessary to the Church’s mission of mercy. The duties of faithful membership in the Church must be made clear precisely so the gift of membership in the Church can be properly received. For it is to be fully and gratefully received by those who first hear and then respond to the Christian call to conversion of heart.

Receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ begins with the mercy of repentance. Nothing is more valuable, in this life or the next. Nothing bears such a fruit of love.

Previous in series: The Church: Mere exclusion, or inclusion through mission?

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: gskineke - Nov. 04, 2022 7:08 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr Mirus. This answers numerous questions that have been swirling in my head in recent months. Such a confusing time—we really often find ourselves to be sheep without shepherds. I try to read Newman and the Church Fathers (and of course Holy Scripture) but it’s hard to hold fast when the visible Church seems to constantly contradict them at every turn.