The Quality of Mercy

Note: We’re entering the heart of Advent and looking now towards Christmas – the time when we celebrate God’s sharing of his very life with us in the person of Jesus. Our gifts to one another are signs of our participation in that divine charity towards each of us. We’re also getting nearer to the end of our fundraising for 2016. I can’t say enough: we need your help to make sure, quite literally, that The Catholic Thing, continues to come to you in the new year. So please, click on that Donate button and select one of the several ways you can help us in this work. We really appreciate your immediate gifts, but many of you have also been choosing to donate $10, $25, or more via automatic monthly payments – which spread the amount over the course of the whole year. Others prefer checks. Whichever is most convenient for you, time is growing short and the need remains. Make your tax-deductible contribution by clicking here right now. – Robert Royal

You wouldn’t want to bet on what anyone knows these days, but there was a time when almost every literate person recognized the lines that Shakespeare gives Portia in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I even heard Cardinal Marx, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, quote it – in English – at the 2015 Synod on the Family.

The quality of mercy, what true mercy is and does, has unfortunately led to no little dispute and even bitterness and backbiting during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. We’ve all heard enough of that – and more than enough – for the moment. Maybe, as a counterbalance, it might be good to focus precisely on the unforced, gentle quality of mercy.

I promised from Rome, a few weeks ago, a final reflection on the Jubilee, which too many travels and time zones have kept me from. Perhaps that’s to the good. And now that we have a little distance from it, we can pay greater attention to the positive things that the Jubilee of Mercy brought into the Church and the world.

Beginning with the fact that many people around the whole world were repeatedly reminded that there is such a thing as mercy: that not everything among us is bare calculation, loss and gain, strict accounting, not even naked justice.

Portia goes on about Mercy:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

“Seasons,” not replaces. One of the most difficult things about exercising mercy is to discern when what someone needs – as we all at times do – is some gratuitous generosity, some sheer divine forgiveness, that will lead to greater justice than justice itself.

But mercy is also difficult because it’s not sentimental indulgence. Sometimes mercy is severe, as Sheldon Vanauken recounted in his classic (if now mostly forgotten) memoir of his wife’s early death A Severe Mercy. Many of us remember most fondly the parents, friends, teachers, mentors, coaches, pastors, confessors who cared enough sometimes to be hard on us to the right degree, at the right time.

Portia by E.J.S., late 19th-century costume [Folger Shakespeare Library]
Portia by E.J.S., late 19th-century costume [Folger Shakespeare Library]

Aquinas speaks of Mercy in the context of Charity, which he regards as the greatest virtue: “Hence, as regards man, who has God above him, charity, which unites him to God, is greater than mercy, whereby he supplies the defects of his neighbor. But of all the virtues which relate to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest, even as its act surpasses all others, since it belongs to one who is higher and better to supply the defect of another, in so far as the latter is deficient.” (ST IIa-IIae, 30)

All such classic distinctions are worth noting and studying carefully. But if we stop there the pope reminded us throughout the Jubilee – we’ve failed. Recall that poignant line at the beginning of The Imitation of Christ: “it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it.”

It’s here, I believe, that Pope Francis provided what will be most lasting about the Jubilee of Mercy.

My wife has convinced me that the most valuable thing many of us have in developed societies is our time. That over and above material needs – which modern welfare states have mostly taken over now – there is an even more valuable mercy that consists in spending time, personal face-to-face time, with the lonely, sick, annoying, imprisoned, outcast.

Let me confess: this is what made my own conscience most uneasy this past year. I try to tithe and support good works of various kinds. But Francis has rightly said: a check is not enough.

People in my kind of work spend most of their time handling ideas and trying to understand what needs to be encouraged or discouraged in the world. Rarely do we – who praise the work of a Mother Teresa and defend her from her critics – do the kinds of things she did.

One of the most striking acts towards the end of the Jubilee was when 6,000 homeless were invited to go through the Holy Doors. Some, embittered about Pope Francis’s other acts, see such gestures as moral grandstanding. (We may safely leave such reckoning to Judgment Day.)

But how fabulous it must have been for the homeless to participate in that exercise of mercy. I wish I’d been there. Only a Chesterton could do it justice.

Homelessness has complex causes – poverty only one among them, and not the most common. Lots of homelessness stems from drug abuse, alcoholism, mental and emotional disorders, etc. We’re all amateur sociologists now, and know all that – from a distance. But the various Church agencies that help the homeless deal with it. Daily. They, after all, must have been the ones who rounded up the 6,000, since you can’t put an ad in a newspaper or send out a blast email to the homeless.

During the Jubilee and throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has given us multiple examples of actually reaching out and doing something, person-to-person, for others, whether it’s through established Church organizations or individual initiatives.

If you have, as I have, lamented that many (even many Catholics) think that ever greater government programs, impersonal as they are, are the only way to deal with social problems – and have done nothing concrete yourself – maybe it’s time to re-examine the quality of your own practice of mercy.

It’s done that to me.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.