There are certain New Testament parables that, once heard, are very difficult to forget. For me, one such is the story of the Unmerciful Servant, found in Matthew 18. Jesus tells the tale of a man who is forgiven a huge debt by his master after pleading for mercy, but refuses to show any forbearance to a man who owes him a much smaller debt, and indeed has him thrown into prison. The master hears of this and angrily orders that the first man be jailed himself.
The message is clear: all of us have been forgiven our sins by God, and we must extend that forgiveness to others. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” as Christ puts it in Luke 6. “The measure that you use for others will be used to measure you.”
This insistence on the possibility and the necessity of forgiveness seems to me increasingly radical in our time. Of course, it has always been a radical call, given the sinful inclinations of fallen man: the impulse to stand on our dignity, to bear grudges, to take revenge. Forgiveness – the conscious decision to accept the contrition of someone who has wronged us, to not hold their sin against them, to go on together – has never been easy. What is different in our contemporary world is that the decline of Christian faith has made forgiveness unintelligible as well as difficult. We see this in the unrelenting one-strike-and-you’re-out harshness of “cancel culture”, where a single infraction against ever-shifting codes of speech and behaviour is liable to see you cast into outer darkness without any clear pathway for reconciliation and restoration. People criticise the Church’s moral teaching for being cruel, but what the faith does offer, that our modern world cannot, is to show a way back. No one is outside the mercy of God.
Sometimes it is this very insistence on mercy that people find scandalous. In his Choruses from “The Rock”, TS Eliot puts it this way: “Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?… She is tender where they would be hard.” I thought of this passage recently when the MP Neil Parish had to resign after admitting that he had accessed pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons. Without wishing to defend Mr Parish’s actions, it felt as though many people took an excessive and nihilistic delight in his fall, seeking a “scalp” without any apparent concern for what would be a reasonable and just punishment, or how he might make some proportionate restitution – perform a penance, if you will.
I wonder sometimes if there is an evangelistic opportunity for Catholics in opposing the ferocious and uncharitable atmosphere of denunciation and mobbing that increasingly marks our public sphere, driven by social media. Writers such as Tom Holland and Ed West have suggested plausibly that the present-day progressive movement, “wokeism” as it is sometimes called, is a form of Christian heresy. This is because it proclaims a demanding and all-encompassing moral code which is (purportedly) rooted in the equal dignity of each individual, and demands assent to certain beliefs. Where it differs from Christianity is that there is no redemption available. It is pure moralism. Offend against the code – an opaque and arbitrary code, enforced unevenly depending on the identity characteristics of the accused – and the mob will demand that you are sacked, silenced or otherwise punished, before moving on to the next villain. There is no concern for the wellbeing or spiritual state of a wrongdoer.
In the Church, by contrast, while we do have a large and demanding set of moral teachings, there is always a way back, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation – and what’s more, our precepts and laws are set down in black and white, a coherent and accessible body of teaching. There is a long tradition in Catholic theology of regarding the sacraments as a form of treatment for us poor fallen sinners. Even the sanction of excommunication is intended not purely as a punitive measure but as a medicinal one, to make the individual in question aware of the seriousness of the situation and to encourage their return to God.
We need to become better at communicating this, I think. Modern people, without religious faith, face a difficult problem. They cannot escape the knowledge and demands of the moral law, and they find themselves unable to follow it, but they have no way to process and come to terms with their failures, and to integrate them into a wider understanding of the purpose and meaning of life. The Church can help with this. We can give people an alternative to cancel culture and Twitter mobbing, a means of dealing with human frailty that is truly humane.
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