The Holy Father has had his “Year of Mercy.” Now it’s time we had a Year of Justice.
Of course, a Year of Justice wouldn’t be the antimony of the Year of Mercy—but, rather, its necessary corollary. A person is said to be merciful, Aquinas observes, when he knows sorrow in his heart (miserum cor) over the miseries of another, and then tries to dispel those miseries as if they were his own. Given His nature, God doesn’t sorrow over human woes, but our own sorrows move Him to “dispel that misery, whatever be the defect we call by that name.”
Although the Successor of Peter will never be able to remedy the mutilations and desolations that mark the lives of so many abused, he might alleviate the miseries of the deed by treating sexual abusers and the bishops and prelates who cover for them with an exacting, proportionate justice.
Yet Pope Francis might not be able to perceive the connection between mercy and justice—which may explain why the cabal of sexual predators and active homosexuals was allowed to operate right under his nose.
Pope Francis’s decision to declare the Year of Mercy owes much to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. Immediately after his election to the Chair of St. Peter, the Pope told those gathered for the Angelus that he had “been reading a book by a Cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a clever theologian, a good theologian—on mercy. And that book did me a lot of good.”
In Mercy, Kasper argues that mercy is “much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules.” In Kasper’s confused explanation, justice becomes synonymous with these so-called “demands of our rules.” Kasper goes on to characterize “justice alone” as “very cold,” whereas mercy “sees a concrete person.”
By his reasoning, there is (quite literally) no such thing as a just man. Justice is a property of mere abstract and contrived “rules.” Only mercy becomes a virtue which human beings can embody and exercise.
As Nicole Winfield reported in 2017, Francis “quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders.” Former Vatican spokesman Greg Burke has insisted that Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy applies to even those who are guilty of heinous crimes: “The Holy Father understands that many victims and survivors can find any sign of mercy in this area difficult. But he knows that the Gospel message of mercy is ultimately a source of powerful healing and of grace.”
And yet justice, too, is a source of healing. Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor, remarked: “While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important.” She worries that, “if there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse.”
So Portia exclaims that “earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice.” The key word here is seasons. All too often, justice is drowned in mercy—or, rather, what’s called mercy, but which bears the hallmarks of mere sentimentality. This pseudo-mercy looks only to minimize hurt feelings and avoid unpleasant confrontation. It’s moral cowardice, and it can never satisfy the hard demands of justice.
Collins’s comments touch upon a problem that has permeated the Francis pontificate. In spite of his outspoken concern for economic and ecological “social justice,” he defines justice against mercy. Again, we have Aquinas: “It seems that not in every work of God are mercy and justice.”
Now, one could say Pope Francis’s reduced sanctions against pedophile priests satisfies both: while the priests are still penalized, the retributions are mercifully reduced. But consider the case of Fr. Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of molesting boys in the confessional, and who placated his victims by promising that God wanted him to molest children. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith advised that the priest be defrocked; Pope Francis “mercifully” reduced his sentence to “a lifetime of prayer” and removal from public ministry.
Misericordia is a virtue insofar as it is practiced justly—that is, according to reason. When Pope Francis reduces sentences, his “mercy” is so severe that it undermines justice. Were a man with these inclinations to be charged with the governance of Hell, he would not stop at alleviating the suffering of the damned: he would simply confine those denizens of the Inferno to more amenable housing—a kind of spiritual rehab, perhaps. Or maybe he would arrange so that they would simply disappear.
Of course, justice can’t be reduced to ready-made “rules.” Especially if one lacks the virtue of prudence, it can be terribly difficult to determine the exact proportion of two virtues which must be practiced simultaneously. (Take, for instance, humility and magnanimity—firmness and mildness.) But the solution isn’t a malnourished misericordia, the proper exercise of which requires a higher perfection of prudence.
Especially given the Church’s prolonged tilt toward misguided compassion, we need a corrective: a time to incarnate the truth that a prisoner can receive both punishment and pardon at once. God enacts His mercy by “doing something more than justice.” We can’t do something more than justice when justice itself is caricatured and denied. Our sorrowing hearts are moved to beg the Supreme Pontiff: in your mercy, declare a Year of Justice.
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