What Catholics get wrong about mercy
Thomas Merton says the saints weep for their sins more than we do because they remind them of God’s mercy. The regenerate St Augustine says to the Lord: “I count up your graces and your mercies, because you have melted my sins away as if they were ice. And whatever evil I have not done, that too I reckon as your grace.”
In both quotations it is clear that to speak of mercy is to orientate the sinner to think differently of sin, impelling them towards what we used to call perfect contrition, an appreciation of God’s goodness more than fear or self-preservation. The consequence of God’s mercy is paradoxically the realisation of my own frailty and weakness and gift of being able to see myself in the light of truth as a frail, sinful creature; yet loved, because it is God’s nature and choice to love me.
Mercy allows me to dare to believe that I am loved as I am. This same love opens my eyes to the blinding visions of what I could be with, or would be, without Him. I accept mercy or reject it according to whether I am ready to seek the Other in truth, or am merely in the business of cultivating my own bella figura. Mercy then is not an arrival, a having no more journeying to do, but rather a departure, a crossing over into the Other, leaving behind what I thought was my true self to have it revealed anew when I pass through the narrow gate that separates me from egotism and self-satisfaction. Mercy is the fiery furnace of God’s love in which, theoretically, I should perish, and yet in which I am refined into His likeness by the heat.
The more I understand mercy, paradoxically, the less I can take it for granted. It would be a terrible thing, therefore, if the result of this year were to encourage people to do so. But Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” comment has unfortunately become perverted into a mantra for an entirely false idea of mercy in some quarters, namely that there are no longer any objectively sinful acts.
If this were true, then mercy also ceases to exist. Mercy is the gift wherein God does not exact the punishment which justice requires for an action, whereby he does not let me suffer the consequences of what my actions deserve. It is the opposite of saying my actions do not matter. If they don’t, we are speaking of a God whose justice simply makes every behaviour equally meritorious, an amoral God who indulges his creatures’ every whim like a weak parent who dare not have expectations for his children.
This is not the God of revelation. Mercy, like all grace, is itself a judgment. It both requires repentance and invites it more deeply because it reveals my acts for what they are: great affronts to the love which made me, which only wants to matter to me more than all that damages me.
Only in a world which has forgotten the first three Commandments could it “not matter” what I do. For years as I priest I have heard people tell me that it doesn’t matter whether I go to Mass or not, God doesn’t mind what I get up to in the bedroom, Father, etc. Anecdotal evidence that this year must include serious catechesis to challenge the “God doesn’t care what you do” vision of mercy.
We must also beware a Calvinistic tendency to define mercy through a vision of human nature so damaged by the Fall that all we can hope for is that God won’t mark our guilt. In such a vision, it doesn’t really matter what the free person does, because everything depends on God’s mercy as an act of his sovereign will. This equates to the idea that if there’s no such thing as righteousness before the outstanding holiness of God, ergo, it doesn’t really matter whether you are living your faith or not, because you are either saved by God’s mercy or you’re not.
A Catholic vision of grace emphasises God’s mercy at work in a sacramental economy, which allows me to resist temptation and sin and live the life of sanctifying grace. In this regenerate state I may acquire merit, which is just a way of saying God makes me free to respond to love. It’s not just that God isn’t going to treat me according to what I deserve, it’s that I become less undeserving because his mercy gives grace in return for grace. Mercy then, in the beautiful phrase of Samuel Crossman, is “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.”