Today is Divine Mercy Sunday in the Year of Mercy. It seems as good an occasion as any on which to write about mercy.
I must say that I’ve always been wary of the Divine Mercy ‘thing’. I’m uncomfortable with any kind of emphasis on special ‘revelations’ to individuals, which strike me as being in danger of detracting from God’s final Word, spoken in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and present in the Church, its celebration of the sacraments, and its proclamation of scripture. Then my inner liturgy geek – which, if we’re honest, is quite often also an outer liturgy geek – dislikes the Divine Mercy Novena cutting in to the Easter Octave. And I worry about the, bad, retributional, theology of atonement that seems to be present in a lot of presentations of the Divine Mercy Novena: God has a kind of split personality, his Mercy is at war with his Justice, but if we plead with him enough, Mercy will win out and he’ll not throw us into Hell. (This isn’t just a matter of abstract theology: if we believe that God is best thought of as a temperamental but bribable judge, it will affect our prayer and our action).
I may be wrong about some, or all of this, and I don’t doubt that part of of what’s going on is the devotion not being to my personal taste. In any case, the Church does not (and cannot) require that any of us accept the revelation to Faustina, or to anyone else who has lived since the last apostle died. What I do think, however, is that we certainly need to hear a lot more about mercy, and that the Year of Mercy is timely.
The reason for this is that we live in a very unmerciful age (the spirit of this age inevitably infects the Church, whose members live in the world, and so the cynicism with which the year has been greeted in some supposedly ‘traditional’ quarters is entirely unsurprising). This isn’t simply a way of articulating the complaint that people don’t care very much about each other, although that is far too often true, and one aspect of what I’m talking about. What is more insidious is the moralism of the modern world. Far from being the amoral free-for-all at once feared and fantasised about by a certain kind of politician and a certain kind of revivalist preacher alike, it is in fact thoroughly awash with a morality of a particularly damaging sort (and one documented by some of the more perceptive modern ethicists). This morality is founded on prohibition, functions by guilt and exclusion, and reassures a majority of their worth only at the cost of scapegoating a minority, who (we can smugly tell ourselves) deserve it. What does not enter into the picture at any point is human fulfilment, an omission that would have startled genuinely traditional thinkers about the ethical, such as Aristotle and St Thomas.
We see this moralism, of course, in the tabloid press, in moral panics, and political appeals for ‘values’, ‘standards’, and whatever else. It is not the preserve of cultural or political conservatives, though. The contemporary left, a current for which I have the loving disdain only possible for family members, is shot through with it. It is one of the most important gains of recent decades, for example, that we have taken proper account of issues around race, gender, and sexuality. It is both unfortunate and counter-productive that the way in which this is increasingly manifest is a culture of ‘calling out’ individuals: a phenomenon whose actual function is to make those on the right side of the ‘calling out’ feel good about themselves, rather to undo injustice, a cause it actively damages by allowing people who ought to be reassessing their attitudes avoid reflection by wallowing in a sense of victimhood. Here as elsewhere, a lack of mercy is injurious to justice.
What is mercy anyway? Following Luke’s gospel, the Pope has taken ‘merciful like the Father’ as the motto for the Year of Mercy. Whatever we are supposed to be being this year, then, it is ‘like’ what we say of God when we say that he is merciful. Caution is needed here, because whenever we say that any virtue of our own is ‘like’ God we need to add an account of the ways in which our creaturely virtues are unlike the perfect being of God, who is his own fulfilment (the sole exception here being the supernatural virtue of love, which just is the divine life communicated to us).
More of that in a moment. God’s mercy, says St Thomas, consists in his endeavouring ‘to dispel the misery of [an] other as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy’. This neatly brings together two aspects of what we call ‘God’s mercy’ which might, from a human point of view, not seem to obviously belong together. God forgives sin: appropriately, today’s gospel is the passage from John where the Risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins. God also cares for us in a more general way: wanting us to be fulfilled, to heal our ills, and to co-operate with his loving plan for us. There is a danger of tying these two together under the theme of ‘mercy’ in a way that makes individual suffering a kind of punishment for individual sin (a view that John has earlier rejected). Once we realise, with the Catholic tradition, that sin is an absence of human flourishing, and therefore a form of misery, the thomist understanding nicely captures the dual aspects of mercy without giving in to this temptation.
Thomas considers the objection that God cannot be merciful since mercy is a relaxation of justice, and God cannot go against his own justice. Against this, he says that God in acting mercifully does not go against his justice, but beyond it. He not only gives us what we deserve (as justice demands) but gives us gifts we do not (and could not) deserve, out of sheer love. Indeed, for God, who is perfectly simple, justice and mercy are one. It is of God’s very nature to go beyond himself in love. Not because God is compelled to do so, either by anything outside, or by anything internal – like an emotion. God does not have emotions; indeed St Thomas stresses that God’s mercy, unlike ours, is not a matter of being ‘sorrowful at heart’. Against the kind of soppy theology that insists on attributing feelings to God – a faddish movement which, ironically, undermines God’s identification with genuinely human feelings in the Incarnation – God doesn’t show mercy because it just feels too bad to live with our hardship, but out of the sheer gratuitous love that is his very being.
Now, we are not God (we need reminding of this from time to time). Empathy is our characteristic route to mercy. That is no bad thing, but it comes with dangers, in particular that of mercy collapsing into sentimentality. More treacherous, however, is the fact that justice and mercy are not one in us. We are, by virtue our human nature, unable to live in a fully human way without living justly, and we can come to realise this by purely rational reflection upon our life together. We are, moreover, by the divine nature in which we participate by baptism, unable to live in a way that reflects our new creation without living mercifully. Yet no more than nature and grace are the same thing are justice and mercy, for us, the same thing. There is a temptation, from a Christian perspective, of running justice and mercy together, of speaking of what is properly a matter of justice as a matter of mercy
A bit of this has happened in the response to the Pope’s call for a Year of Mercy. I’ve noticed this particularly in church responses to the sufferings of refugees. In rightly demanding that governments provide asylum and housing for refugees, Catholics have (perhaps naturally, given that mercy is ‘in the air’) used the language of mercy. Understandable though this is, it is a mistake. Providing for peoples’ basic needs is not an imperative of mercy, but of justice: it is providing what is owing to them in virtue of the basic fact of their humanity. The danger of talking about the refugees in terms of mercy, other than it somehow sounding patronising and condescending, is that once we do that as Christians, we inevitably talk in theological terms – mercy is what God shows us in the history narrated in the Bible. We thereby rule out the possibility of a natural, purely human, conversation about the refugees with all people of good will. This is urgently needed.
We are called to be both merciful and just. In so doing we will show ourselves to be children of the Father, sharing by adoption in the life of the one who is the first child of the Father. He is the model for living out mercy and justice, and if nothing else it is appropriate that we celebrate his mercy on the day when we recall his Risen Body bearing the wounds inflicted when, out of mercy, he allowed himself to fall victim to our twisted ideas of justice.