On Mercy and Mercilessness

In the Magnificat, we read: “He (the Lord) has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” Those who do not “fear” Him evidently do not come off so easily. Why not? It is no accident that mercy is bound up with fear. What is forgiven is worthy of the punishment that any disorder rightly deserves, whether forgiven or not. Mercy too has a component of intelligence designating what it is. Forgiveness of sin does not mean that what was forgiven was not evil. It means that it was. Mercy only comes into view when something that ought not to be actually occurs in the world through free agency.

The words “mercy” and “love” are not exactly the same. We love all being because, and only because, it is good. Mercy comes into view when something is not good, when evil is present in our souls. But if we do not acknowledge our part in an evil initiative and intend to correct it, mercy cannot gain entrance.

Chesterton said that the opposite of “funny” is not “serious.” It’s opposite is “not funny.” Similarly, the opposite of mercy is “merciless.” Mercy is directly related to justice, a good. A fully just world, in which everyone has what is “due” to him, has no need of mercy at all, though it does have need of the love that goes to the core of the good in a way that justice does not.

St. Thomas remarks that the world is not created in justice. If it were, that would imply that God “owed” something to someone not Himself. The world’s existence is a result of gratuitousness, not justice. The world has no cause in itself to explain why it exists other than the suspicion that good might freely diffuse itself in being.

Mercy is a more surprising and restrictive word than we might at first realize. We want the world within itself, of course, to be “just.” But if it is only just, which it isn’t, then all actual crimes and sins that occur within it must be requited according to the degree of their disorder. Unpunished sins are very unsettling. They make the world itself seem unjust, as Plato correctly saw. This is, indeed, why he proposed a “last judgment.”

Dante gazes at Mount Purgatory by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]
Dante gazes at Mount Purgatory by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1530 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]

Mercy is the forgiveness of what need not or ought not to be forgiven. Indeed, mercy follows after, not before, both forgiveness and punishment. Mercy was never designed to minimize the heinousness of sins or to eliminate their possibility. It was meant to affirm their disorder. But their disorder did not prevent God from forgetting them to allow us to begin anew. Thus, God does not just “forgive” sins because He is merciful. He forgives them in the context of our realizing and acknowledging their disorder. Mercy is designed to encourage virtue, not to undermine it.

Pope Wojtyla said rightly that God would forgive everything that could be forgiven. Evidently, some things even God cannot do. He cannot forgive what does not freely ask to be forgiven. If He could or would forgive everything whether repented or not, it would mean that we could wander about with terrible sins on our souls that were simply ignored. When God said that our sins would be “blotted out,” He meant those things that we identify as sins when we acknowledge that we committed them and recognize that we ought not to have done so. These are the sins wherein mercy becomes relevant.

Mercy, paradoxically, can, if we are careless, become merciless. How so? Suppose an all-merciful God forgives all sins, whether repented or not. Everybody thus saves his soul automatically. We do not have to worry about what we do. The “merciful” God has already taken care of us whatever we do. Notice: no input on our part is required. God’s merciful love is said to be unrestricted. It is not limited by the distinction of good and evil.

But if everything is forgiven with no indication on our part that we acknowledge what is wrong and intend to cease doing it, this awareness empowers the merciless to do whatever they want. They too are already forgiven. This misunderstanding of mercy has created a jungle.

The second Jesuit General, Diego Laynez, said: “The throne of justice must not be turned into the throne of mercy. To do so is prejudicial to grace. It results in the denial of purgatory.” Benedict XVI made the same point in Spe Salvi. He pointed out that purgatory makes a good deal of sense when we realize the heinousness of our sins and the need ourselves to repent of them even if forgiven.

If the forgiveness of sins is automatic in mercy, we have no need of fear or grace to help us to realize and acknowledge our own disorders that alone are the objects of mercy.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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