With all the fanfare over the start of Pope Francis’ declared, “Year of Mercy,” BCI is getting increasingly frustrated by all of the articles and homilies reported to us that, frankly, convey an incomplete or flawed picture of what the Catholic Church actually teaches about mercy. We wish more priests would either skip over mentioning what Pope Francis has said on this topic that is flawed, or find a way of clearly setting the record straight. Instead, we see faithful Catholics being led by priests they think are solid and credible to believe something that is not correct. It’s happening everywhere–in parishes, the Boston Pilot, and mass media.
First, what the Catholic Church teaches on something and has taught for 2000+ years is more often than not these days NOT the same as what Pope Francis is saying publicly or writing in his various documents. Hopefully, everyone realizes that by now. And if Jesus Christ, the Bible and the magisterium of the Catholic Church during 266 papacies have all said one thing about particular Church teachings, and Pope Francis says something radically different, a reasonable person should ask, “Which Pope is wrong? Francis, or all of the others?”
So it is that we get to the topic of mercy. We draw inspiration for this post from both Msgr. Pope’s excellent Reflection on the Modern Error of Preaching Mercy Without Repentance as well as a review by Boston’s Fr. Daniel Moloney’s review of Cardinal Kasper’s dreadful book, “What Mercy Is” (a book Pope Francis said publicly had a big influence on him). Readers should read the entirety of both pieces, but here are a few excerpts from Msgr Pope’s piece:
“God’s offer of mercy and healing love stand, and are offered to everyone. But these magnificent gifts must be accessed through repentance. That is to say, we must come to understand the seriousness of our condition, turn to God, call upon his mercy, and begin to receive the glorious medicine he offers: the medicine of his Word, of the Sacraments, of prayer, and walking in fellowship with the Church, which he established as his ongoing presence and voice in the world (cf Acts 2:42).
But of course it is not enough for us simply to hear of this new way of thinking, we must actually come to it, decide for it. Repentance is to actually embrace this new mind, and this unlocks all the blessings the healings, the mercy, and the salvation that is promised. We must allow the grace of God, interacting with our freedom to effect an actual change, a decision in our life that changes the way we think, the way we act, and puts us into a saving relationship with the Divine Physician Jesus.
Like the patient above, we must be brought to understand the seriousness of our condition, come to know that there is saving help available, and then by positive decision, rooted in grace, actually reach out to lay hold of that help.
Repentance is the door, is the key that unlocks mercy.
Yet too often today mercy is preached without reference to repentance. Too many who preach and too many who hear have come to see mercy as granted without any human engagement. One simply has it automatically, no matter what.
Yet that is not what Scripture teaches. Most notably, Simon Peter on Day One of Pentecot and the going for of the gospel preached a sermon laying out who Jesus is, and how we, in our sin and rebellion killed the very author of life. The text from Acts says,
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)
Thus, when asked what they are to do, Peter does not say, “Don’t worry, all is well,God is mercy. He says, “Repent and baptized.” In other words, come to a new mind, come to your senses, reject your sins, be washed clean and come to Jesus. And this will unlock the supreme blessing of the Holy Spirit of God, who is the mercy of God, the love of God the very life and grace of God!
And how is this accessed? Repentance.
Isaiah had said, The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD (Is 59:20).
And to the Disciples in Emmaus Jesus said, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)
And thus preachers and teachers in the Church, who are Christ’s witnesses, must proclaim repentance that unlocks the forgiveness and mercy of God.
St. Paul warns, In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Thus those who preach and teach mercy without repentance are deceivers and likely themselves deceived. And those who think of mercy without reference to repentance are deceived.
Faith and repentance are the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open. Repentance must be preached to all the nations because repentance, by God’s grace opens the door
Here is a passage from Fr. Moloney’s piece
Thomas Aquinas famously warned that a small mistake at the beginning of an argument leads to a large one at the end. For Kasper, most of the time, his weaknesses as a systematic theologian cancel each other out. He frequently uses the terms love and goodness and mercyinterchangeably, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the first two terms but not the third can be proper divine attributes. The upside is that readers can go along with all the nice things he says about God’s love, as Pope Francis apparently did, and not be sticklers for the details.
If Kasper’s understanding of mercy is wrong, what’s the right way to understand it? Mercy’s political origins are important to remember, because it’s very easy for a flawed application of mercy to lead to grave injustices in real life. The crime waves of the 1970s and early 1980s across England and the United States came in part from the introduction of a false concept of mercy into criminal punishment. Prominent experts at the time suggested that crime was really a form of mental illness that demanded therapy rather than incarceration. Judges developed or were given a variety of sentencing options, including expanded parole and out-of-prison furloughs, aimed at reintegrating criminals into society so that they would feel more connected. Prisons were reoriented around the idea of rehabilitating criminals rather than punishing them. Therapy, leniency, reintegration, and rehabilitation were implemented in one jurisdiction after another—and crime went through the roof. Soon voters were demanding stricter laws.
Around the same time, the Catholic bishops tried to replace canonical punishments with therapy, leniency, reintegration, and rehabilitation. In the 1970s, priests who were reported to be abusers of children were quietly sent for psychiatric treatment to be treated, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into parish ministry, rather than punished according to canon law. This was, among other things, an attempt to show mercy to the priest—by protecting his reputation and allowing him a second chance. In many places, including my own Archdiocese of Boston, psychiatrists pronounced the priests cured and fit for ministry even after several “relapses,” and the bishops did not second-guess the psychiatrists. Neither did they apply canonical penalties. Today, the bishops do not permit themselves even the possibility of granting mercy to a priest who has been accused of such a sin or committed it only once.
Is my bishop, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, merciless for enforcing the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, with its famous “zero tolerance” for abusers? I’m quite sure that Pope Francis doesn’t think so, since he just appointed him to head the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Probably most of America would think likewise. But why? Why does the Boston Globe’s readership think that it’s a scandal for the Church to show “mercy” to priests who committed one serious sin of abuse forty years ago but that it’s a sign of the wonderfulness of Pope Francis that he’s reportedly considering showing “mercy” to a man who dumped his wife and kids for a younger woman, also forty years ago? A consistent principle of mercy is lacking, and Walter Kasper has not helped us find one.
This brings us to our gripe. BCI has heard complaints that a number of priests in Boston preached on “mercy” this week and specifically quoted Pope Francis’ recent comments on the topic, published in The Pilot and around the globe in secular media:
“How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy,” he said. “We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy. In passing through the Holy Door, then, may we feel that we ourselves are part of this mystery of love.”
What’s missing here is that mercy requires moving away from evil, and there is no mercy without there first being truth. To leave out the need for repentance is the equivalent of spiritual malpractice. It’s simply not correct and is not at all what the Catholic Church teaches. As discussed recently in First Things, “St. John Paul II: No Mercy Without Truth”
Mercy is not moral peek-a-boo. Mercy requires moving away from evil: “Where [mercy] enters in, evil effectively gives way. Where evil does not give way, mercy is not there—but we also add, where there is no mercy, evil does not yield. Mercy does not accept sin nor looks upon it as if peeking between one’s fingers, but only and exclusively helps in conversion from sin…. Divine mercy goes strictly in tandem with justice”
We take issue with one piece in the Pilot which, though it mentioned the need for repentance, also encouraged readers to read Pope Francis’ “The Face of Mercy,”(called in the article, a “great resource” (even though it neglects repentance and drew inspiration from Cardinal Kasper’s drivel). And the author merely regurgitated Pope Francis’ line about why we needed a year of mercy, when the handwriting is clearly on the wall about why Pope Francis is on this bandwagon and the false teachings behind it. A far better piece in the Pilot is What is Mercy — And What are Some False Conceptions of it , where author, Matt Hadro quotes Dr. William Mattison, a moral theology prof at the Catholic University of America saying:
“If my kid is obstinately avoiding treating his mother respectfully, there’s a time for mercy, but there’s also a time to recognize that things are what they are and they need to be punished. The goal of punishment is not an end in itself. The goal of punishment is to correct the will of the sinner to be restored into right relationship.”
If a priest you know preached on what Pope Francis said without giving the full truth, or a friend or family member is talking about mercy without repentence or judgment, we suggest you send this blog post to them.