Adam’s Reach

The teaching of the Catholic Church, as any true and authoritative teaching, does not need a bold defense when it is not under attack. It need only be remembered and repeated.

Similarly, the rule of law can be taken for granted, sometimes for long stretches, when it is not challenged. Nor is the law itself something that needs feisty discussion, except when hard cases are systematically presented to bring into question the principles on which it rests.

Mercy itself – in both the transcendent religious sense, and in the small conventional senses – is not an issue under normal circumstances. A wrong has been done, and that wrong is confessed; some restitution is sincerely offered, and mercy is asked for what cannot be repaid.

The case is considered prudentially. Can mercy be granted, in a way that does not undermine the law? That does not invite further abuse, or persuade others the wrong may now be committed with impunity? The courts must deal with this all the time; the reckoning is seldom smooth.

Gratitude is a natural product of genuine mercy, methinks. The wrongdoer knows he received better than he deserved. He ’scaped hanging, as it were. This does not make him pleased with his crime. Instead, he is relieved of some part of the burden of punishment, like the balance of a debt, cancelled. It was that: a “relief,” not the shame lifted, whatever the form of his absolution. The wrongdoing was never made “okay.”

If there was good in him, this culprit resolves to take his lesson. He will not “go there” again. At the least he will not do again, what got him in terrible trouble – interior as well as exterior, we can hope. If only from the knowledge that his plea for mercy will not be heard again, he will be more cautious.

Yet recidivism happens.

“Once is a misfortune; twice is a coincidence; three times is enemy action.” This was among the mottoes blazoned on the office walls of a magazine I once edited. One suffers the first; the second awakens vigilance. The third requires an unambiguous response.

But who is counting? It was a trite formula, meant to sound trite, but underneath was a sounder principle. Mercy does not mean you are allowed to do that. Mercy means you get another chance: little though you may be deserving.

I am not dealing here with mercy at its most profound, in Catholic doctrine. Instead I am dealing with the common, everyday. Which, as every Catholic should know in his bones, will not be found ultimately in conflict with the most profound teaching. God gave us horse sense in addition to the Divine Law. He gave us reason, with which to work out the ramifications of horse sense.

God_and_Adam - 1

Michelangelo’s famous fresco, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, provides a fine illustration of this. I refer specifically to the “Creation of Adam,” where the hand of Man touches the hand of God: that point of contact between two fingers. And the hand of God, and the hand of Man, are presented on the same level: for this is not Allah, ruling by arbitrary decree.

God did not create man as a cipher. He created us instead in His own image. We reach to Him, He reaches to us, and there is an intersection in Christ Jesus. Yet even, as it were, before Christ, we were endowed with this spark of the Divine. We were capable, from the beginning, of that reach of Adam, by God’s grace.

He (Adam) did not fail through ignorance or stupidity; he failed by a culpable Act. In the fullness of time, came the Mercy of Christ. But the Act was not overlooked.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This great insight into human jurisprudence is often repeated without perfect understanding. It involves an acknowledgement that justice itself may command mercy, but does not cease to be justice on that account.

The law stands, must not be undermined. And yet in the circumstances it confronts, where motive is at the very heart of justice, the fallible human’s failure to discern, under stress, between two impressive but conflicting goods, is taken into account. The punishment is lessened for this reason, within the range that the law allows.

This last is crucial. The law itself must not be subverted, or in the end “the law is a ass” – because men are now amending it by whim, on their own authority, as they go along. Which is tyranny, by the way. They have opened the door on the cage of reason; on Pandora’s box.

All of my instincts (I hope Catholic) are engaged in horror when I see this happen: when I see in motion old Adam’s impulse to make his own rules, to his own pleasure.

Rather, the man who has offended in a hard case, admits to his offence freely, and throws himself at the mercy of the Court. He does not wait there smugly for the law to change.

Of course, it is possible that a law is unjust, and needs amendment because an injustice has been discovered. But this is a different matter.

From time out of mind, the law has been in its nature “a science,” more than “an art.” The universal principles of justice are “discovered” in their application to specific cases, by long experience in the passage of time. They are not humanly “created” from scratch, for that is beyond human capacity. Wisdom does not attempt what is beyond man’s reach. It proceeds incrementally, and skeptically, carefully avoiding contradiction with what was discovered in the past. It is not a schnook.

All this might have been taken for granted, in some former time. There is evidence that it has been, for long periods. But this is a revolutionary age, when what we need (from Rome as elsewhere) is not more revolution. Rather, a return to the sane.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: