Life & Soul

What ‘mercy’ actually means

Benedict XVI embraces Pope Francis in St Peter's Basilica (AP)

Treason, as a French revolutionary said, is just a matter of dates, and so once again I can bless my poor, benighted RE teachers who, when they might have been teaching me about Diwali or the evils of plastic carrier bags, were cruel enough to teach something called the Catechism.

I have heard Catholics of a certain age lament this instrument of oppression and indoctrination for its temerity in teaching the content of faith as fact rather than opinion, coupled with a perverse pedagogical obsession that a right answer was the desired outcome, rather than a creative or subjectively meaningful one. The regrettable consequence of this tyranny is that with the opening of the Year of Mercy, I know what the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are without having to look them up. Learning things ‘‘parrot fashion’’ stays the distance, and attests to the desire on the part of my teachers to instruct the ignorant, which, as any smug parrot knows, is one of the spiritual works of mercy.

It seems axiomatic that if the Year of Mercy is to be effective, one needs a sense of what that mercy is. In a Church large parts of which are suffering from the collapse of systematic or effective catechesis, the concept is open to misinterpretation.

The corporal works of mercy seem straightforward enough. (Even the old-fashioned-sounding one of ransoming the captive now has a contemporary relevance). These are practical and start from the natural law, that one should do to others as one wishes to be done to. This, in the Christian, is informed by supernatural charity so that the compassion for others and desire to alleviate their distress is also the graced response of one who loves God and sees Christ in his brother and sisters.

So mercy is just love in action, practical love? Not according to St Thomas Aquinas, for whom mercy is something more than charity. The desire to alleviate the suffering of another, especially when the condition of the other is in some sense involuntary, relates to the virtue of justice which regulates the relationship of people to each other and to their own dignity. The difference might be expressed in the terms of the saying: love might give a man a fish so he can eat for a day; justice would teach him how to fish so he can always feed himself. The works of mercy have as much to do with justice as with charity. In practice we make this distinction habitually. When someone knocks at the presbytery door asking for money for food and smelling of alcohol, mercy does not give him money, but offers to make him a sandwich.

The distinction becomes even more important when dealing with the spiritual works of mercy. The Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that spiritual works of mercy ‘‘deal with a distress whose relief is even more imperative as well as more effective for the grand purpose of man’s creation,’’ than the more obvious and tangible corporal works. There is, I think, in an un-catechised age, a danger that the spiritual works get forgotten, in particular, the first three spiritual works of mercy, namely to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful and admonish sinners. Or worse, they will come to be regarded as incompatible with a new kind of relativist sentiment mistakenly called mercy, which is moved less by compassion for another’s weakness or error than by the desire to indulge it for the sake of one’s own self-image and a quiet life, in the same way that one might give an alcoholic money out of a misplaced belief that mercy is acquiescence to any expressed need.

One cannot make weakness the criterion of morality. Such “mercy” would become the virtue of treating every sincerely held view and lifestyle as of equal benefit to human flourishing. St John Paul II puts it thus: “From the very first proclamation of Jesus, Christians realise that there is a disproportion between the moral law and human capacity. They equally understand that the recognition of their own weakness is the necessary and secure method by which the door of God’s mercy may be opened.”

At the end of our lives, we hope God’s mercy will save us by not by indulging what we thought we wanted, but by giving us what God knows we need. In that way God’s mercy fulfils the requirements of divine justice by offering us only what he wishes for himself, a share in the Trinitarian communion of love.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (11/12/15)

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