Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Yes, but what is Mercy?

We make a mistake if we attempt to read Pope Francis as a philosopher in the manner of Pope Saint John Paul the Great, and likewise err if we attempt to read him as a theologian in the manner of Pope Benedict XVI. However, we similarly make a mistake if we consider our reigning Pontiff to be soft, weak, ignorant, or naive. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

Which is why I propose that we rename this year from the Jubilee Year of Mercy to the Jubilee Year of Jesuit Cunning.

The question was raised recently in discussion, "why not the year of Justice and Mercy?" Given the general assumption of a broad swath of both believers and non-believers that everyone goes to heaven and there is no need to be in union with the Church, does spending a year focusing on Mercy miss the point? Why are our hands being tied when we try to talk about right and wrong, and the consequences of persisting in sin? Is the Pope in fact doing further harm to the Body of Christ by watering down the Church's perennial message?

First, no. We are now living in an age in which most non-Christians - and many Christians - do not actually grasp what the Church teaches. Whether it be Evangelical Protestantism which abandons the roots of the Deposit of Faith in favor of sermon-centric worship services, or the unchurched who have never been exposed to any sort of catechesis, the Catholic sensibilities which used to permeate society have faded into obscurity in the public conscience. Even the Protestant notions which undergird much of the United States' self identification as a Christian nation have largely faded in the public sphere.

In their place, we have this vague notion of Jesus as a nice guy who re-iterated the Golden Rule, an even vaguer notion of Christianity taken as nice altruism, and a world so lost that even the Atheists are establishing their own "churches."

We've got a world out there who knows something's not right, but years and decades and centuries of perversion of thought and language have prevented them from expressing their dissatisfaction in a meaningful way, and prevented them from understanding the words of hope they so desperately want to hear.

And so Papa says: Mercy.

But what does that mean? What is Mercy?

Full disclaimer: I don't like this logo. I don't like the artistic style. Whatever. But no, it is not a three-eyed creature, but rather it seeks to combine imagery of the Good Shepherd, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the parable of the Forgiven Debts. In one image, it expresses our reliance on God, how we are carried by Mercy, how we are the sheep cared for, the son forgiven, but also in the blending of the two persons we see the identity of the Son with the Father, and that if we would seek this Mercy we too must be merciful, lest we be condemned.

But what is Mercy?

Here is where the cunning of our Jesuit Pope is apparent. Our culture doesn't know what Mercy is, but wants it. Craves it. This creates an environment where these religiously-illiterate seekers are drawn in to dialogue, to encounter. Who doesn't like Mercy?

But what is Mercy?

There is commonly thought to be a tension between Justice and Mercy, as if you could not have one without the other. In fact in the second objection of Question 21: Article 3, Aquinas states the problem: Mercy is a relaxation of Justice, and so it is in mainstream perception.

"But no," Aquinas replies, "God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice..." He goes on to elaborate that Mercy is a gift which respects the demands of Justice, but in which the one who is owed satisfaction instead accepts the penalty.

A phenomenal example of this can be found in Les Miserables, shortly after Jean Valjean is released on parole. He is found huddling on a doorstep in the cold, and is invited in by the Bishop, fed, and given a place to stay. In repayment, Valjean steals the Bishop's silver and runs, being apprehended quickly by the constabulary, all the way Valjean protesting that the silver was a gift, which brings us to this clip.

(If you don't want to watch the video, the transcription can be found here).

One might be tempted to see in the Bishop's actions here the relaxation of justice, but note that Justice demands there be consequences, the Bishop simply takes the consequences upon himself. Valjean claims the silver is a gift and so the Bishop agrees, giving "not only your cloak, but your tunic as well," per Christ's admonition. Justice simply means that the silver should be in the possession of its rightful owner - the Bishop in his mercy declares Valjean to be that owner, at his own expense.

But note that it is not simply silver which the Bishop gives, but an admonition:

You must use this precious silver to become an honest man ... I have bought your soul for God.

Mercy respects justice, indeed fulfills and goes beyond, meaning that it presupposes justice. For his malice, Valjean owes some recompense, and the Bishop tells him what that must be - acknowledge your sins and reform your life.

To receive Mercy, you must ask for Mercy.

To ask for Mercy, you must acknowledge that you are in need of Mercy.

To acknowledge my need for Mercy, I must acknowledged that I have sinned against my Heavenly Father whom I should love above all things.

This, I think, is the Jesuit genius of Pope Francis. The word mercy is attractive to our brokenness and our broken culture, but it also forces us to contemplate our sinfulness. Mercy requires that

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

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