The cardinal is right: the law and mercy are one and the same

Cardinal Nichols (Photo: CNS)

Last Sunday evening the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster visited Farm Street and preached at the evening Mass. This evening Mass is sometimes referred to as “the gay Mass”, though of course it is no such thing. But it is a Mass at which several members of the gay community and their friends are present.

A report of the cardinal’s visit and the full text of the sermon can be read here. I myself have only just got round to reading the sermon, and if you have not done so already, please do so now. The sermon is most extraordinarily good.

Quite apart from being an excellent discourse, the cardinal’s words are actual and very much to the point. In particular, to focus in on one aspect alone, the cardinal had this to say:

“Those who counterpose the mercy of God and the commandments of God misunderstand both mercy and commandment. The commandments of God are given to us precisely as a mercy. They are not, in some strange way, more important than mercy. They are not rules imposed from the outside that above all else have to be obeyed. They are given to help us to live the pathway of our true dignity and highest calling. As Pope Francis says, commandments are not restrictions on our freedoms but indicators of our freedom. Understanding the true purpose of the commandment helps us to see how much we need God’s mercy.

“God’s mercy is misunderstood if it is taken as something which enables us to overlook those commandments or somehow imagine that we are excused their calling. Rather it is the eternal restlessness of God’s love calling us again and again to raise our eyes beyond the horizons we have set for ourselves, the limits of what we believe we can manage, the limits of what we think can reasonably be asked of us and to reach out again for the fullness of his love, opening our hearts again to its light and joy. Mercy enables us to start out again. It does not enable us to stop where we are, comfortable in a sense of being accepted just as we are.”

These words are completely in coherence with the teaching of St John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, and with many of the pronouncements on morality made by Benedict XVI. In short, the God who loves us and God the lawgiver are not in opposition, but are the same person. The law and mercy are one and the same, for the law is given to us as mercy. Funnily enough this exact point is made in the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ, edited by Fr Robert Dodaro, OSA, which carries contributions from five of Cardinal Nichols’ confreres in the Sacred College. That book makes the memorable point that Jesus’s law on the indissolubility of marriage is a blessing for humanity, not some sort of vile restriction designed to ruin our happiness.

I particularly like the way our cardinal makes an allusion to St Augustine and his famous words from the Confessions about the restlessness of the human heart until it comes to rest in God. The cardinal goes even further than the saint, pointing to the restlessness of the Divine Heart which constantly calls us to Himself. What a wonderful image, and what an antidote to the dry and sometimes sterile legalism that sees morality about fulfilling the minimal requirement of a set of rules to which law is sometimes reduced: it is so much more than that – morality is about fulfilling the divine invitation to love, which has no upper limits.

At this point I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a dear Jewish friend, which occasioned this thought. God heard the cry of His people, oppressed by slavery in Egypt. So He showed them His love and His mercy: He led them out of Egypt and He gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, which was and remains His crowing mercy, the perfect sign of His love. He has given us His Law because He loves us so much. There is no contradiction between love and law, as the Jews have long known. We need to learn that too.