Anyone who has ever studied Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius will know that sometimes people can use a word to mean its opposite. Pelagius used the word ‘grace’ quite frequently, always acknowledging ‘the need for grace.’ As a result, many bishops gave him the benefit of the doubt. Augustine was not so convinced. He relentlessly pursued what Pelagius meant by the word ‘grace.’ He didn’t despair at how many were giving heresy a wide berth. He simply stayed with the question of grace, and finally exposed the truth that what Pelagius meant by grace was nothing other than our ‘natural capacities.’ In other words, Augustine utilized reason to help all his brother bishops see that when Pelagius used the word ‘grace’ he meant something like its opposite. It’s thanks to Augustine that we can now see how a tolerated opinion came to be understood for what it was, a damnable heresy.
In our day, many words are used to mean their opposite, and so our task is, in certain respects, more difficult. If someone talks about the “blessings of liberty,” you might well feel the thrill of freedom running up your patriotic leg. But if upon closer inspection you discover that what the speaker means by ‘liberty’ is really ‘license’ — the decadent deception of unbounded choice — then you’ll be more vigilant, and interested in how often that speaker uses liberty to mean its opposite.
We see this same dynamic with mercy, and its counterfeits. Mercy is a kind of sympathy for the sinner, but its counterfeit almost always takes the form of sympathy for sin. In the jargon of our therapeutic culture, mercy comes to mean something like “affirmation.” In order to show sympathy to a sinner, it is supposed that sin itself must be shown great sympathy. Under such a counterfeit meaning, mercy for the sinner does not entail freeing the sinner from actual sin, but only entail giving actual sins an opposite meaning — “woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”
In short order, the language of mercy can subtly, almost imperceptibly begin to mean its opposite. It becomes immediately absurd the moment it is identified. No one would ever seriously claim that the Lord’s time with prostitutes was really pastoral accompaniment with disadvantaged “sex workers” laboring under an unjust system! The absurdity! And yet similar absurdities are proposed frequently in the Church, and they arise when we are not attentive to what words mean. Grace is not nature. Liberty is not licence. Mercy is not sympathy for sin.
In Germany, quite against the will of the Holy Father, the bishops have been charging ahead with a program of counterfeit mercy. They want to liberalize celibacy not in order to sanctify the priesthood, but to remove a rule that orders sanctity. They want to change the teaching on homosexuality not because they have mercy for the heavy burdens of sin, but in order to say that sin is no longer sin. They want to embrace sex outside of marriage not because they are “sex positive,” but because they have rejected marriage itself as the institution which alone sanctions sexual behavior as intended by God.
Cardinal Rainier Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, is a very notable exception. The Church in Germany needs more bishops like him to stand up. He noted last Spring that those pushing for these changes have never even bothered asking themselves the most basic sociological question: “Why are Protestant Christians in Germany not flourishing?” Those who have already implemented all the proposals have found no mercy at all, but only fresh misery. Cardinal Woelki writes that despite having implemented everything currently proposed by Catholic bishops in Germany, the Protestants “are not in a better position—seen by their practice of faith, how few they recruit for pastoral ministry, and the number of people leaving their churches. Does that not indicate that the real problems lie elsewhere, and that the whole of Christianity has to confront a crisis of faith and understanding, rather than adapt to a ‘new reality of life’ that is presented as irresistible?” Precisely that.
My sense is that they do not ask Cardinal Woelki’s excellent question because they have no interest in the answer to it. They labor under a counterfeit definition of mercy which deceives them and their flock. This past week, the Vatican said that the German bishops plan for a “binding synodal process” was, in fact, “not ecclesiologically valid.” That is not subtle.
In June, the Pope himself warned the bishops: “Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.” That is also not subtle.
The bishops in Germany should start listening to the Pope rather than those who want to be pope. The Holy Father has given them a blueprint ordered to evangelization. Sadly, as with all counterfeits of grace, liberty, and mercy, the German bishops seem set on a self-destructive path. The ‘Priority of Evangelization’ that the Holy Father has called them to embrace for their synodal process may need to begin with the bishops in Germany themselves.
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