Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is Mercy?

Papal Bull on Mercy, Part 1

Two posts ago I wrote a piece on the Pope's recent Bull of Indiction on the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. It was cited by the important Catholic blog One Peter Five and thus shared and picked up by at least one other Catholic blog. The idea for it (though not the responsibility for any errors it may have contained) was given to me by Rorate Caeli's initial analysis on the Bull.

Without false humility, I think my post had its moments, and made some important points, albeit, strongly. But it was also flippant and shrill. I do not think I made any factual or theological errors, but in the heat of the argument, so to speak, some things were not explained or set out as clearly as they deserved to be.

And whatever one thinks of the Bull, or for that matter, the Pope, it deserves a more lengthy and calm analysis.

I want to spend a number of posts over the next few weeks doing (or trying to do) exactly that.

Hold onto your hats...these are not going to be as exciting (or excited) as the first post.

But I hope they will perform a useful service.

I'll begin with the most obvious question:    

What is Mercy?

The word is mentioned in the Papal Bull 167 times but it is never explicitly defined. That's not a criticism. The Papal Bull is not a dictionary or a work of analytical philosophy. Even so, it will be useful to begin the discussion with some sort of definition.

According to one dictionary, mercy is
kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly, or 
kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation.
Curiously, the initial one-sentence definition given by the Catholic Encyclopedia, omits the notion of forgiveness (though it will be featured in the expanded discussion--see tomorrow's post):  
Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one's will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another's misfortune.
Since we're talking about mercy in a Christian or a Catholic context, being "treated harshly", being in a "very bad or desperate situation", and the concept of "misfortune" can be applied both to this world and the next. Or if we define mercy as alleviating suffering, we might be referring to corporal suffering in this life or spiritual suffering, either in this life or after natural death. Obviously, the worst sort of suffering we can imagine is the eternal suffering of the damned, therefore mercy must at least in part mean doing what is possible to save people from that.

Mercy from whom?

There are at least two categories here:
  1. God's mercy to man, in general and as exercised in history and recorded in the Old and New Testaments.
  2. Man's mercy to his fellow man.
The Pope is quite correct to imply that there are similarities and differences. On the one hand, Christ's actions are a model for us:
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:37-38).
On the other hand, God can do things that men cannot, first and foremost to forgive the sins of men, such that in so doing they can avoid eternal damnation.

Now there is a third category, that of mercy as expressed and exercised by the Church. In a sense this straddles, so to speak, both categories. When we go to Confession, we aren't confessing to and being forgiven by a man behind a screen. Rather, we are confessing to and being forgiven by Christ through a man behind a screen. Of course, even though it is Christ who is forgiving us, the Church on earth has influence on the process. If the man behind the screen is only, in practice, available for fifteen minutes a week, or if, say, the Church is negligent in informing people that Confession is available and/or necessary, then this will have real spiritual consequences.

What does the Papal Bull say about the mercy of God? Many things, as one might imagine in a 9,000 word document. Let me cite one oddity, though. The Pope writes of mercy as expressed in the Psalms:
Another psalm, in an even more explicit way, attests to the concrete signs of his mercy: “He secures justice for the oppressed; he gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:7-9). Here are some other expressions of the Psalmist: “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds … The Lord lifts up the downtrodden, he casts the wicked to the ground” (Ps 147:3, 6).
I emphasized a few words of the above text not to point out some, in my opinion, hitherto neglected aspect of mercy, but to highlight an aspect of mercy (apparently) that the Pope himself references, and that I wouldn't have thought was an aspect of mercy. I didn't include those parts of the Psalms. The Pope did. Now, it may be that the Pope doesn't think of, say, casting the wicked to the ground as an aspect of mercy, but only included it so as not be accused of "cherry-picking" quotes from the Psalms.

In the remainder of the Bull, these things are not given further mention. But, logically, either they are a part of mercy, or the Pope is acknowledging that for God, mercy is not the only thing--there is some sort of line that separates mercy from, perhaps, just punishment or unavoidable punishment or whatever. Since damnation is presumably at issue here, I think an explanation is required.

We are told that God's mercy is limitless. As a Christian and a Catholic I believe this. But as a Christian and a Catholic I also believe that some will be damned. God will bring the wicked to ruin, after all. Since I also count myself as a sinner (and thus, wicked, in at least some sense), I have more than a passive interest in the question of how to resolve what might seem this apparent contradiction.

Of course, I and other Catholics have found the answer in the Catechism and Church Tradition, in the words of previous Popes and Councils, in the claims of Catholic saints, philosophers and Church Fathers, and of course in the Bible, as interpreted through the Church.

But in the Papal Bull and elsewhere, the Pope has declared that he's saying something new, or at least restating something that has been neglected or even forgotten by the Church:
The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal.
With respect (for once), criticizing others (other Catholics? other Popes?) isn't good enough. Decreeing, as the Pope does in the Bull, that a door in every major Catholic church will be left open for a full year (to symbolize God's mercy), sending out Missionaries of Mercy (whose precise role is still unclear) and declaring that at the end of that year the "entire cosmos" will be entrusted to Christ, whose mercy will then descend upon us "like the morning dew", is not good enough. Is this the same message that I learned in Catechism, or is it different?

Holy Father, can you tell us, precisely, please?

Or maybe just asking the question means I just don't get it.

That's perfectly possible, of course.


  1. Beginning any post with definitions is an excellent idea. Only a Thomist approach will pin down those neo-modernist wascally wabbits.

    Good luck and welcome to the club.

    PS Before I relocated, SJC was my adopted parish. Remember when there was 3 of us at the 12:30 High Mass. How things change. :)
    PPS What's the mood like with the new archb. down the street. He likes to close down TLM's, especially during Lent.

  2. Thanks, S. Armaticus!

    I don't remember those times since I only started going six years ago. But I've heard Fr. Phillips talk about them. At the Easter Vigil, the closely-packed crowd of families was bursting out of the smoky vestibule (unfortunately they light the fire inside now), and Fr. Phillips recounted his first Vigil with ten old Polish ladies.

    I've seen no effect yet. Fr. Phillips and perhaps some of the other priests would obviously know more but I would be afraid to ask.

    Are you still in the Chicago area?

    1. Maybe it's better that we don't know what the "thinking" is down the road.

      As to my location, no. I reside at an undisclosed location in somewhere in West Virginia. Actually, I live across the street from this guy:


      A bit off topic, but you should see this guys pad. A salmon pink renaissance palazzo with a Michael Archangel water fountain in the middle of coal country. Only Michael has a baseball bat instead of the usual sword or spear. Paul says it's a Napoli thing ;)

      But kidding aside, my parents live in Chicago, so when I'm at home, I attend the 12:30 HM.

      Anyways, best of luck with your blog. I understand that you are new to this space. For what it's worth, there is a real nice blogger community at present. And growing like SJC. Were actually able to deploy a "couple hundred" blogs in the recent Vox Cantoris scrape with the Vatican press people a few months back, and it turned the tide. So remember, you are not alone.

      Pax Christi,