When Love, Mercy, and Dignity Lose Their Meaning

Love, mercy, and human dignity are all wonderful things, and it’s right for the Church to emphasize them. It’s also right to take them seriously, and try to understand what they are, what’s behind them, and where they point.

To do that we need to remember that on the Christian view—indeed, on any sane view—we don’t create ourselves, our nature, or our place in the world. So the dignity we have as human beings is not self-conferred or self-defined, but comes from what we are and our position in the scheme of things. The Catechism makes the point concretely: “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God; it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude.”

That understanding of humanity sheds light on what it is to love our neighbor. Aquinas and the Catechism tell us that “to love is to will the good of another.” Love of neighbor, then, recognizes that other people share our nature and dignity, and are oriented toward the same fundamental goods. By nature, then, we are all companions on a journey to the same goal, who as social beings would naturally assist each other along the way. When people don’t act that way something has gone wrong, and it makes no sense to add to the problem and stop doing what we can to help the situation.

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These considerations tell us how to love our enemies. To pick a current example, Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton evidently dislike each other a great deal, and each has grounds for doing so. As professed Christians, they should nonetheless will each other’s good and thus love each other. More specifically, each should favor, take seriously, and (if opportunity arises) promote the other’s health of body, mind, and spirit, love and knowledge of all that is good, success in the goal of public life, which is advancing the public good in accordance with practical wisdom, and ultimate beatitude.

That kind of love is consistent with a conviction that the other acts outrageously, understands very little, has serious personal flaws, and would be a disaster as president. Love of neighbor can go along with the belief that my neighbor will need to change his outlook and habits radically if he is ever to realize his vocation as a human being. It may require that belief, since love of neighbor means dealing with our actual neighbors and not sentimental illusions.

It’s not consistent, however, with Mr. Trump’s habitual use of abusive language for people he’s at odds with, or Mrs. Clinton’s description of half her opponent’s supporters as an “irredeemable” “basket of deplorables.” So it wouldn’t bring instant harmony to social life if we all exercised Christian love for each other. People would still differ profoundly on important issues, and have serious doubts or worse about each other’s competence, wisdom, motives, and personal qualities. But it would make social life less vicious, and leave more hope for the future by putting conflict in its proper setting and recognizing cooperation as a state of affairs that is not only desirable but natural.

Love of neighbor would also, of course, increase our personal happiness. Realism is a virtue, but hatred is a vice that makes the hater less happy by putting him in a world that is smaller, less interesting, and less engaging than the real world. But why diminish the people among whom we live? Why not see them as they are, what is good—which is more fundamental—as well as what is bad?

Christian love also has to do with mercy. People talk about that a lot today, but what is it?

“Mercy” is a dramatic word that applies in dramatic settings. We ask for mercy when we can’t bear the situation we’re in, can’t escape from it ourselves, and have no right to demand assistance. Otherwise, it’s not mercy we’re talking about but favor or payment of a debt. Asking for those things is often right and proper, but it’s not asking mercy.

The Christian concept of mercy is modeled on divine mercy, the grace through which God helps us escape the intolerable situation brought about by our bad conduct and resulting separation from truth and justice. So it’s a matter of bringing us back, in spite of what we’ve thought and done, into truth and justice, and thus into friendship with God.

So mercy means transformation of life. If God and his Church didn’t offer that, if they withheld what we need to arrive at a way of thinking and acting better than the one we’ve put ourselves into, they wouldn’t be merciful. But they do give us what’s needed, through grace, the teaching, disciplines, and sacraments of the Church, and the example of the saints. As God told Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you.” And as Paul was able to say, in spite of whatever “thorn in the flesh” may have plagued him, “I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me.”

The Christian concepts of love, mercy, and human dignity thus grow naturally out of a particular understanding of the world, and of human nature and destiny, that calls for transformation of fallen lives. As such they enable us to make sense, among people as we find them, of an aspiration for a radically better world. But suppose that understanding is taken away? Suppose—for example—people believe they have no natural goal or destiny but are simply thrown into a world in which the only meaning anything has is the meaning they choose to give it? What happens to love, mercy, and dignity?

What happens is that they come to mean what they increasingly mean in present-day discussion. What’s special about man, people come to think, is autonomy, the ability (in the words of the Supreme Court) “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” and to act on that concept. Respect for autonomy thus becomes the basis of human dignity. Love becomes acceptance and support for however we exercise autonomy—in other words, “the path of accompaniment.” And mercy comes to mean putting aside as a denial of love and an offense to human dignity any standard that condemns the path some people choose to take.

The contrast with the Christian understanding could hardly be greater. Where dignity was once based on features of human nature and destiny that are authoritative for us, it now lies in the assertion that we invent our nature and destiny. Where love once supported the other’s good, it now supports his will. And where mercy restored us to justice and truth, it now tells us we should follow our own justice and truth, whatever they may be.

Such views have made inroads even within the Church. It’s thought that they, or something as much like them as possible, will broaden her appeal by bringing her more in line with modern ways of thinking. In fact, of course, they would deprive the Church of her function by abolishing her specificity. Who needs the Church if she has the same message as pop culture? And why do people need to be saved if they are all OK already, and don’t need pharisees to tell them otherwise?

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” was painted by Francesco Bassano in 1575.

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