Mercy, Part III

Today, I conclude my treatment of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.

We have seen how God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament points to God’s mercy as His own essence, His own most inner reality, and how He has showered His people Israel and the Church with mercy. This, obviously, makes claims upon those of us who claim to follow His son. “If God treats us mercifully and forgives us,” Kasper writes, “then we too must forgive and show mercy to one another. In our acts of mercy, God’s mercy for our neighbor becomes concretely realized. In out acts of mercy, our neighbor experiences something of the miracle of God’s royal dominion, which begins to dawn secretly. In this way, mercy connotes far more than a social security benefit or a caritative or sociopolitical organization (even though these are, of course, not excluded).” It is in mercy that we most fully realize the promises made at our baptism, that we most fully “put on Christ.”

Kasper focuses on the beautiful and well-known hymn to love in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. “In the end, everything else will pass away; only love will remain. Love is the greatest of all things (13:13). If only love remains, then too the works of love will remain. They are all that will be at hand at the time of eschatological judgment and they are all that we, so to speak, can produce in the face of judgment. They perdure in the continuing existence of reality; they are an essential element in the eschatological transformation of all reality. In the craziness of love, the eschaton is beginning to dawn now.” The Dies Irae need not be dreaded if we have shown mercy along the paths of life. God withholds His wrath and let’s His mercy animate our mercy. His sovereign desire to overcome even the demands of justice to be faithful to Himself becomes, must become, our sovereign desire to be merciful to those we encounter. Here, and really only here, our freedom finds its fulfillment.

There was a brief discussion when the catechism was being drafted about whether to employ the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and the seven deadly sins as the basis for the treatment of morality, or to continue to base that treatment on the Decalogue. We can only regret that the drafters of the catechism did not choose the works of mercy and the seven deadly sins when we read this passage:

In the case of the corporal works and especially the spiritual works of mercy, it is interesting to note that we are not dealing with the prohibition of violations of God’s explicit commandments. As in Jesus’ speech about the Last Judgment, no sinners who murdered, stole, committed adultery, lied, or cheated others are condemned. Jesus’ condemnation does not concern violations of God’s commandments, but rather failures to do what is good. Again it is a matter of the higher righteousness (Matt 5:20). Accordingly, one can sin not only by violating God’s commandments, but also by failing to do what is good, something that, unfortunately, is too-little heeded.

Indeed. Focusing an assessment of our moral life on the works of mercy and the seven deadly sins more adequately expresses the truth of Christian anthropology. As Pope Francis said when asked who he is, “I am a sinner.” So are we all. We all have some greed in us, some lust, some sloth, some pride. Even our good deeds often contain a boatload of pride within them. The works of mercy are about self-emptying, about being present for others and attending to their needs. The Decalogue invites an act-centered understanding of morality, that too often leads an examination of conscience to descend into an accounting exercise: I did five of these and three of those and fourteen of this other. But, we are sinners, sinners in our worst moments and in our best moments, always in need of the savior and of grace. Always in need of mercy. All of us.

Kasper undertakes the difficult, but necessary, task of seeking a sense of proportion and balance when the whole thrust of his book is that God’s ineffable and inexhaustible forbearance and mercy are the root of the matter. He notes, “A grave misunderstanding of mercy occurs if, in the name of mercy, we think we may ignore God’s commandments of justice and understand love and mercy, not as fulfilling and surpassing justice, but rather as undercutting and abrogating it.” He sees such a misplaced sense of mercy in any decision to help another procure an abortion or assist a suicide. Mercy is not sentimental but rigorous, it cannot contravene a just command – Thou Shalt Not Kill – but surpass the command.

Mercy not only goes surpasses the demands of justice, which can be minimally or generously construed and understood, it also surpasses our normal understandings of human compassion. Again, we could not know such mercy was possible if God had not revealed it to us:

Jesus’ words and all of the saints just mentioned show us ultimately what is at stake in mercy and the Christian love of neighbor. It is a matter not only of a general love of humanity, which is not at all objectionable if it doesn’t simply amount to hollow words, but becomes concrete in deed. It is also not simply a matter of compassion with the suffering, which is quite positive in comparison to hard-heartedness and egoism. It is not even a matter of ideas for making the world a better place. In this regard, the Bible is very realistic. It knows: “You always have the poor with you” (John 12:8). What ultimately is at stake in Christian mercy is the encounter with Jesus Christ himself in and through those who suffer. Therefore, mercy is principally not a matter of morality, but a matter of faith in Christ, discipleship, and an encounter with him.

Regular readers of this column will now how profoundly these words stir my heart. The reduction of religion to morality is my bete noire. It takes religion, which should be focused on God, and turns the focus to ourselves. It gains us Christians access to the public square as ethical experts, but requires us to leave our dogmas at the door. And, because this experience affects our self-understanding as a Church, we attenuate our commitment to the Church’s moral teachings from the Church’s dogmatic teachings. This worked for awhile, so long as the ambient culture embraced, more or less, the Church’s moral teachings. But, when the ambient culture changed, those moral teachings had been untethered from their doctrinal foundations and they could not withstand the whirlwind. This is the true story of secularization and cultural decline that many of my friends on the right tend to miss. We have been complicit in the process, very complicit.

The implications of mercy extend to the life and praxis of the Church. “Apostolic and pastoral service means, in the literal sense of the word, wearing oneself out and, precisely in such apostolic and pastoral suffering, letting Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection become present for others,” Kasper writes. He notes that since Bernard of Clairvaux “a subjectively internalized mysticism of the cross has developed that aimed to reproduce and internalize, via sympathetic participation, the love of God revealed in the suffering of Jesus.” This spirituality is found in some of the great mystics and, quite obviously, in Thomas a Kempis and Ignatius of Loyola. There is much to commend it. But, it, too, is not without dangers. Kasper writes:

Already in the devotio moderna and in Pietism, and then more completely in the Enlightenment, the imitatio Christology was released from its objective, sacramental, and ecclesial foundation and became an imitative Jesusology. Jesus became a role model worthy of emulation. What was originally grounded in the indicative of a sacramentally mediated salvific act now became the imperative of following Jesus’ moral path. Another danger was the reduction of the imitation of Christ to an individualistic understanding of salvation.

Again, all that is great and wonderful in the Christian life, such as our intense focus on the dignity of the human person, can be wrecked or at least threatened, when the personal becomes the individualistic, when the acceptance of God’s grace impels us not to wonder and awe, but to a manipulative moralism, usually tainted by neo-Pelagianism or, as is so often the case in the U.S., a modern variety of Jansenism. Even the most pure among us have need of the confessional. Even the greatest of spiritual writers cannot contain the fullness of God’s self-revelation. Dare one point out, as the Synod Fathers consider the Church’s pastoral care for the family, that no program, no theology, no canonical processes, can fully capture and embody the fullness of the Gospel, especially the essence of that Gospel that is mercy.

Those who paint Kasper as some bleeding heart liberal seeking to water down the Church’s teachings and praxis and make nice to everybody create a caricature. Admittedly, Kasper puts an impish question mark at the end of a sub-chapter heading: “Mercy in Canon Law?” But, in that sub-chapter he condemns, forcefully, any confusion of “mercy with feeble indulgence and a laissez-faire point of view.” He approvingly quotes Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace means the justification of the sin, not the sinner….Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; communion without acknowledging sin, absolution without personal confession.” And, while Kasper urges the “dismantling of a rigid, legalistic praxis,” he insists on the need for “simultaneously building up a new praxis of church discipline that conforms to the gospel.” He notes the clergy sex abuse scandal as an example of what happens when the very idea of church discipline is neglected or even disdained.

The book has its weaknesses. Kasper’s treatment of the relationship of mercy to the Church’s teachings on social justice lacks the rigor and depth of other sections of the book. There is more work to be done here. But, overall, this book is truly important and it is easy to see why it made such an impression on Pope Francis. Kasper writes:

This spirituality of standing up for others and taking their place could break up the inward-looking orientation of many communities in their current diaspora situation within a secularized world, and it could become a spiritual guidepost for both today and tomorrow. Love of neighbor, when lived in a radical way, thus points to the ecclesial dimension, a topic to which we must now turn.

One can easily see these words coming from Pope Francis’ lips, yes?

Those who criticize Kasper, of course, are likely to be also those who criticize Pope Francis. Indeed, in the past few months, Kasper has become a kind of proxy target for arrows shot at Pope Francis by those unwilling, or at least unaccustomed, to taking on a pope. But, Kasper’s key insight, that it is God’s self-revelation that shows us how His mercy trumps even His own justice, and requires a less philosophic and more biblical understanding of what God has done and what He demands, could be summed up in these words: “God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.” And, those are not Kasper’s words. They are not Pope Francis’ words. They are the words of another German theologian, Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est. Those hurling insults and argument at Kasper should think twice before dismissing what he has to say. Ultimately, if he is right about the need to place mercy at the heart of our theology and pastoral praxis because mercy is at the heart of God’s self-revelation, and I think he is, it is not a matter of whose words are used to bolster the argument. The words flow from the Word. And that is why Kasper’s book is not just incisive but exciting. When you put it down, you feel closer to God and far more in love with Him because Kasper has demonstrated just how much He continues to love us.






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