The Message of Mercy: What does mercy mean for the life and mission of the church?
The precept of mercy applies not only to individual Christians but to the church as a whole. Many ask: If God is always merciful, why is the church not the same? Or, why does the church not seem to be as merciful as God? The question expresses the uneasiness of many Christians.
They are right: The church defined itself in the Second Vatican Council as a sacrament—a universal sign and instrument of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. If the church is a sacrament of God’s love in Christ, it is also a sacrament of God’s mercy. Therefore the command for the church to be merciful is grounded in the identity of the church as the body of Christ. The church is not a kind of social or charitable agency; as the body of Christ, it is the sacrament of the continuing effective presence of Christ in the world. It is the sacrament of mercy as the “total Christ”—that is, Christ in head and members. Thus the church encounters Christ himself in its own members and in people who are in need of help.
But there is still a second aspect. The church is not only the agent of God’s mercy; it is also the object of God’s mercy. As the body of Christ, it is redeemed by Jesus Christ. But the church encompasses sinners in its bosom and therefore must be purified time and again in order to be able to stand pure and holy (Eph 5:23). Consequently, the church must self-critically and repeatedly ask itself whether it actually lives up to what it is and should be. Additionally, just as Jesus Christ did, so too we are supposed to deal with the flaws and failings of the church, not in a self-righteous but in a merciful way. We must, however, be clear about one thing: a church without charity and mercy would no longer be the church of Jesus Christ.
The message of mercy, therefore, has far-reaching consequences for the teaching, life and mission of the church. The worst reproach that can be leveled against the church—which in fact, often applies to it—is that it does not practice what it proclaims to others. Indeed, many people experience the church as rigid and lacking in mercy. This is why Pope John XXIII said, at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, that the church must, above all, use the medicine of mercy.
This can happen in a threefold way: the church must proclaim the mercy of God; it must concretely provide people with God’s mercy in the form of the sacrament of reconciliation; and it must allow God’s mercy to appear and be realized in its entire life, its concrete structures and even in its laws.
Mercy and the Poor
I will not deal here with each of these three dimensions. There are many things that should be said about the sacrament of mercy, which we have often undervalued in recent decades. But I will limit myself to an aspect that is very important to Pope Francis. The church as a witness of mercy is central to his program to be a poor church for the poor.
This program is not as new as it seems. It is Jesus Christ’s own program. He came to preach the good news to the poor (Lk 4:18). He not only preached; he who was rich became poor so that we could become rich (2 Cor 8:9). The Second Vatican Council took up this message in a chapter of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” that was often neglected after the council but that became important for the theology of the Southern Hemisphere. Pope Francis has now put it on the table for the worldwide church. We have often forgotten that two thirds of our Christian and Catholic brothers and sisters live in the Southern Hemisphere, and we have forgotten their needs, their problems and their claims. Materially they are poor, but spiritually they are vital and vibrant churches we should listen to. They represent the future of the church.
To be a poor church for the poor is, for Pope Francis, not primarily a social program but a Christological issue. Our poor brothers and sisters are part of the body of Christ. As the pope emphasizes, in the wounds of the poor and sick we touch the wounds of the poor Christ. Christ himself told us: What you did to them, you did to me (Mt 25). This was the experience of St. Francis of Assisi, who at the beginning of his way of conversion embraced and kissed a leper and had the sensation that he was embracing and kissing Christ himself. The same experience was reported by Mother Teresa when she wrapped her arms around an unkempt man dying in her mission in Calcutta.
From these saints we can learn about the sensitivity and the tenderness of God, a sensitivity and tenderness we should imitate with our neighbors. So Pope Francis is rooted in the best of Christian history. His gift to the church is to make an old tradition into an urgent message for us today. Mercy is the central issue of his pontificate and a great challenge, especially for our rich churches in the North.
Mercy and Canon Law
The question many ask is: What does this mean for the church itself and its behavior not only toward those who are poor in a material sense but toward people within the church who feel neglected, put aside, marginalized and excommunicated—if not in a strict canonical sense, then in a de facto sense—because they are not allowed to take part in the table of the Lord? Often one asks: What about people who are divorced and remarried?
First I want to note: the word mercy is often misunderstood and misused. This happens when one confuses mercy with feeble indulgence and with a weak, laissez-faire pseudo-mercy. The danger then exists of making cheap grace out of God’s precious grace, which was “purchased” and “earned” with his own blood on the cross, and of turning grace into a bargain-basement commodity. That is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he stated, without mincing words: “Cheap grace means the justification of the sin and not the sinner.... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”
Therefore, we have to ask anew about the meaning of church discipline. The primary New Testament word for church, ecclesia, contained legal elements from the very beginning. The idea of an original church of love that is supposed to have become later a church of law cannot be substantiated. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave Peter the power of the keys and gave to him, as well as to all of the apostles, the authority to bind and to loose, which means the authority to expel individuals from the community and to readmit them. Already Matthew established a clear rule for the exercise of this authority (Mt 16:19, 18:18).
So the breakdown of church discipline can in no way appeal for support to Jesus and the New Testament. But because church discipline is in keeping with the meaning of the Gospel, it must also be interpreted and applied according to the sense and spirit of the Gospel. For this reason, Paul makes it clear that the punishment of expulsion is meant to force the sinner to reflect on his or her conduct and to repent. If the sinner regrets his or her actions and repents, the community should let gentleness again prevail (2 Cor 2:5-11). Punishment is the last resort and, as such, is temporally limited. It is the drastic and final means used by mercy.
Such an understanding of church discipline as the bitter but necessary medicine of mercy conforms to a tradition that understood Jesus Christ, in light of his miraculous healings, as doctor, healer and savior; a tradition in which the pastor, in particular the confessor, is understood not only as a judge, but primarily as a doctor of the soul. This therapeutic understanding of church law and discipline leads us to the fundamental issue of how to interpret and explain church law. That is a broad field that we cannot treat here in a comprehensive way, but only from the perspective of the relation of church law to mercy.
Law and Spirit
So, canon law is not against the Gospel, but the Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other. Mercy shows that the individual is not only a case that can subsumed under a general rule. On the contrary, it is essential for Christian anthropology that before God we are not a “plural”; every person and every situation is singular. So we have to find solutions that are just and equitable at the same time. If we do not, then—as the Romans put it—summa ius (highest justice) can become summa iniuria (highest injustice).
What such reflections mean for the question of divorced and remarried Catholics is now under discussion in advance of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. I do not have a final answer on this question. It is the responsibility of the synod together with the pope to make these decisions. In my last consistory with the pope, however, I did with his agreement propose some modest reflections on this urgent issue.
No theologian, not even the pope, can change the doctrine of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. On the contrary, we all have reason to help and support people to be faithful to marriage for their own good and for the good of their children. So doctrine cannot be changed and will not be changed. But doctrine must be applied with prudence in a just and equitable way to concrete and often complex situations. For these situations are very different. There is no one typical case of divorce and remarriage; therefore there cannot be one standard solution for every situation. Discernment is needed, and discernment, prudence and wisdom are the main virtues for a bishop as a pastor. The best cannot always be done, but we should always do the best possible.
So the question is: If a person after divorce enters into a civil second marriage but then repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness? In the Creed we profess: “I believe in the forgiveness of sin.” When God gives a new chance, a new future to everybody who repents and does what is possible in their situation, why not the church, which is the sacrament of God’s mercy?
What is at stake is an adequate hermeneutic of application or, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught following Aristotle, an application of the practical intellect (distinct from theoretical or speculative intellect) to a concrete situation—in other words, the virtue of prudence: the practical wisdom to apply a universal principle to an individual and particular situation. This was the approach intended by some fathers in the early Christian church, especially Basil of Caesarea, carried out using the Orthodox principle of oikonomia and, in the Latin tradition, with epikeia. In early modern times St. Alphonsus Liguori proposed this approach in his system of probabilism. (He thus became the patron of moral theologians.) So if the synod were to go in this direction, it would find itself in the best church tradition. To be sure, these reflections do not open up a general approach for all situations; perhaps it may be for only a small minority; but it could become a way for those who are earnestly interested and willing to go the way of conversion.
This would be a way beyond the extremes of rigorism, which cannot be the way for the average Christian, and laxism, which would not correspond to Jesus’ claim for holiness. Finding a path beyond the extremes has always been the way of the church, a way of discernment, of prudence and wisdom—the way of concrete mercy.
Mercy From Below
The customary perspective in theology starts from above. We know a doctrine or a rule, and we start from there in order to apply it to concrete reality, which is usually complex and manifold. Mercy leads us to a different perspective, to start not from above but from below, to undertake a consideration of a concrete situation to which we are applying the law or rule. This is not situation ethics, because the rule is valuable in itself and is not constituted by the situation. This is the method taught by St. Ignatius Loyola in his spiritual exercises; this is how Pope Francis, as a good Jesuit, practices it. He starts from the situation and then undertakes a discernment of the spirits.
The same approach is shown to us by Jesus. When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he did not give an abstract answer. He told a concrete story, the story of the good and merciful Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37): “There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell into the hands of robbers.” A priest was going along that road and saw him, but passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite saw the man and passed by on the other side. But when a Samaritan came along and saw the man, he was moved with compassion. He bent down in the dirt and dust, treated the wounds and wrapped them with bandages. Jesus then asked the Jewish teacher: “Which of the three made himself neighbor to the man, who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The answer was correct: “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says: “Go then and do the same.”
This is exactly how God himself deals with us. God bends down in order to raise us up; to comfort us and to heal our wounds; and to give us a new chance, to bestow on us new life and new hope. And who would be so self-righteous as to think that he would not need such mercy? Mercy is the name of our God. Mercy is the call to be a human being, who feels with other human beings who suffer and are in need. Mercy is the call to be a real Christian, who follows the example of Christ and meets Christ in his suffering brothers and sisters. Mercy is the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life. Mercy is the best and most beautiful news that can be told to us and that we should bring to the world. As God by his mercy always gives us a new chance, a new future, our mercy gives future to the other, and to a world that needs it so much.