Mercy featured prominently in the polemics surrounding the recently concluded Synod on the Family. Mercy was frequently counterpoised to dogma as an appeal to dilute ecclesiastical practice, and admit to Holy Communion those who are now “remarried.” Cardinal Kasper went so far as to publish a book between the 2014 and 2015 Synod sessions: Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (New York: Paulist, 2014).
One might walk away from these events with the impression that, suddenly, the Church had discovered its vocation to mercy and was now busy making up for lost time when it was, presumably, unmerciful. Yet one should remember that St. John Paul II was the Pope who laid enormous stress upon Divine Mercy, emphasizing it as God’s premier attribute particularly relevant for contemporary man, and underscoring that focus by making the canonization of the “secretary of mercy,” Sr. Faustyna Kowalska, the first of the new millennium. If St. John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, laid out the programmatic focus of his pontificate as one of Christian humanism, so we should not forget that his second encyclical, Dives in misericordia—issued 35 years ago this November 30—focused on the God who is “rich in mercy.” So much for the myth of the Church just awakening to her mission of mercy.
In the course of remembrance, however, we should go back even further, to a probably largely forgotten text from St. John Paul II’s prepapal writings, “Problem prawdy i miłosierdzia” (The Problem of Truth and Mercy). That short text dates from 1957, and was one of twenty brief articles printed under the title “Elementarz etyczny” [The Ethics Primer] in Tygodnik Powszechny, the independent Catholic weekly then-published in Kraków. The articles in that series largely grapple with issues in modern philosophy having implications for faith and are distinguished by their succinct presentation of those questions in the light of faith.
“The Problem of Truth and Mercy” addresses a number of issues relevant to the current debate with regard to sacraments and the divorced in subsequent “unions”: mercy, conscience, and truth. Wojtyła notes that “religious ethics” is often the target of critics (one thinks particularly here of Kant) who see it as setting up a Divine Judge who does not really take good and evil seriously, since he can always cancel out evil using the trump card of “mercy.” In such a morality, man is the plaything of “‘supernatural’ powers” that decide his fate arbitrarily.
Wojtyła protests such a caricature, insisting that “God knows [man] fundamentally and probes him more deeply than he knows or probes himself.” As a morally self-determinative creature, man should rely on his concrete judgment of conscience, which God accepts, even if that conscience is invincibly erroneous. But because God probes a man more deeply than he does himself, and is aware of the baggage that man carries (even if man himself is not aware of it), the human is challenged to an ever deeper penetration of himself.
Mercy, likewise, 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” (all translations mine).
Listening to this year’s discussion over the question of admitting “remarrieds” to the Eucharist, one senses a very different notion of “mercy” at play. In that discussion, one gets the impression that mercy does exactly what Wojtyła insists it cannot—pretend that God’s Justice and Mercy are at loggerheads, the latter prevailing.
One also has the impression that the baneful effects of nominalism still contaminate thought and theology. To recap: William of Ockham’s exaggerated focus on one Divine attribute—omnipotence—led to an ethic grounding right and wrong in God’s Will. “X is wrong because God prohibits it,” runs a nominalist ethic, not “God prohibits X because it is wrong.” The metaphysics underlying this thinking deny, in effect, objective reality: things are the results of the labels God attaches to them, not intrinsically so.
The scrupulous nominalist Martin Luther imported this voluntarism into Protestant theology through his doctrine of forensic justification: man is always sinful and never righteous, he is merely declared righteous by God, grace changing nothing. Man is moral dung. Grace is snow. The snow covers the dung, but does not change it: don’t go tip-toeing through the snowdrops barefoot…
Nominalism’s impact has continued on Western thought, even as the latter has secularized. Instead of an omnipotent God whose Will determines reality, we now have “omnipotent” (albeit, unfortunately, not omniscient) man who affixes the labels, so that, yesterday, marriage presupposed sexual differentiation but today it cannot; yesterday, abortion was homicide and today a “choice,” etc.
Now, it seems that some of the Synod Fathers may be serving us up nominalism in Catholic theology in two ways. First, they would give us a “mercy” that ignores Divine Justice, that cancels out the “go and sin no more” addressed to the adulteress by “reckon with the possibilities of your Lebenswirklichkeiten [possibilities in life].” God’s attributes cannot be in contradiction, and “mercy” cannot pretend that living as husband and wife in conjugal relationship in an invalid union is not wrong. Second, they would give us a nominalism that divorces theological principle from pastoral praxis, ostensibly in the name of “mercy.” In theory, they would maintain the principle of marital indissolubility, just simply treat it as not binding in practical instantiations. Indissolubility might be an “aspirational norm,” an ideal to be reached for, but not a binding norm, a moral clam demanding observance.
Pace these voices, the Church has not been AWOL in its mission of mercy. The Church is, in fact, faithful to that mission when it mercifully calls those who freely committed themselves in marriage to stop acting as if they are married to those to whom they are not. It is not “mercy” to rationalize a pastoral practice that makes peace with the modern cultural collapse of marital indissolubility. Christ would not have been “merciful” by picking sides between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel in the debate over Old Testament grounds for divorce, much less by coming down on Hillel’s side of broad concessions to the Lebenswirklichkeiten of his world. He was merciful by calling man to what God intended for him “in the beginning” and enables him to achieve by grace. The Church must do likewise, in both its external and internal fora.