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What is (and isn’t) Mercy?

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In a new essay for the Catholic World Report, Samuel Gregg discusses why it’s dangerous to to overemphasize any one facet of Christian teaching at the expense of a different teaching. No matter what is overemphasized, this will distort the Gospel. The focus of this essay is “mercy” and how mercy leads “to the ultimate source of justice–the God who is love–and thus prevents justice from collapsing into something quite anti-human.”

Gregg describes the three ways mercy can be distorted: as sentimentalism, as injustice, and as mediocrity. When describing mercy as injustice, Gregg warns that “it quickly undermines any coherent conception of justice.”

Back in 1980, John Paul warned in Dives in Misericordia that “In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness” (DM 14). If that sounds tough-minded, that’s because it is. Remember, however, that the Jesus Christ who embodies mercy isn’t the equivalent of a divine stuffed animal. Whenever the Scriptures portray Christ offering mercy to sinners, his forgiveness is always laced with a gentle but clear reminder of the moral law and the expectation that the sinful acts will be discontinued.

To take the point even further: if sentimentalist conceptions of mercy are allowed to drive the use of reason out of Christian life, it would become impossible for the Church to denounce any form of injustice in a coherent manner. Why? Because the criteria of justice would no longer be stable.

That would make it difficult for the Church to speak in any rational way about, for example, injustice in economic life or the difference between just and unjust wars. Instead Catholics would be reduced to making the same utilitarian and emotivist arguments that characterize liberal religion and secularism or simply joining the already long line of contemporary populists whose preferred mode of public engagement about questions of justice is demagoguery.

From this standpoint, we see how the spread of counterfeit mercy throughout the Church doesn’t just undermine Catholics’ ability to identify right and wrong forms of personal relationships. Its logic makes justice itself and its application in all aspects of life an exercise in applied sentimentalism. And that is no form of justice at all.

Read what Gregg says about mercy as sentimentalism and as mediocrity in “Three Counterfeits of Mercy.”

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Sarah Stanley

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