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The quality of mercy

Matthew Schmitz has taken two swipes at Pope Francis in recent days, the first in a New York Times op-ed, and the second in a follow-up piece on the pages of First Things, where he is literary editor. There is nothing new in them, and they are neither substantial nor compelling. All the same, they require a response if only because they have become two of the mainstay arguments of the conservative Catholic opposition to the Pope.

The substance of the first swipe lies in Schmitz’s answer to the question in his title: ‘Has Pope Francis failed?’ In essence his conclusion is this. Catholic practice has continued to drop off under the current Pope, so all promises of a revitalising ‘Francis effect’ remain unfulfilled. And if anyone is responsible for this it is Pope Francis himself. He “has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads”, specifically by “trying to soften the church’s teaching”.

So, it’s about bums on seats then. What kind of metric is that for assessing the current pontificate? Matthew Sitman at Commonweal does a good job of pointing out Schmitz’s specious use of survey statistics, but truly the whole issue needs to be reframed. The Pope is a pastor. He is called to be a “source and foundation” of unity and to exercise his power in “the care of souls”. He has been given authority so as to be an effective servant of the servants of God. He is not a CEO. He is not building up a brand or looking to increase market share or seeking a better return on investment. Whether or not his pastoral work brings wayward Catholics back or draws in people from outside the tradition is not a measure of anything. That matter, you could say, is in the merciful hands of God.

And it is the merciful hands of God that Pope Francis has made the theme of his pontificate. He is convinced that mercy has been underplayed – under-proclaimed – in the Church’s reception of revelation, and he wants now to bring it to bear on the pastoral practice, the discipline and the doctrine of the Church. As an instance of tradition at work this is unexceptionable. It has often happened in Church history that a new pastoral need, a cultural shift, a fresh insight, or the discovery or recovery of a revealed truth has prompted the Church to review its self-understanding or the relative weight it has given to doctrines or disciplines.

Think of how the opening up of the new world in the 16th and 17th centuries obliged the Church to amend its understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, viewing it in a more generous sense, one quite foreign to Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam or to the Council of Florence. Or think of how the new pastoral needs identified by missionaries in the Americas during this same time led to popes altering the Church’s discipline – and even doctrine – concerning valid natural marriages. In certain cases they could be dissolved ‘in favour of the faith’. Why? Because “it would be very harsh” (durissimum est) on the Indian converts otherwise.

Consider too the difference it made in the 20th century when the Church paid unprecedented attention to the truth that every last human being is an imago Dei? Call to mind the impact this had on ecumenism, on interfaith dialogue, on the Church’s sense of solidarity with all humankind, and on its understanding of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

Then there is the rediscovery of the centrality of baptism in the sacramental dispensation, its priority over orders. This led to a thorough revision of ecclesiology, particularly the rejection of the notion of the church as essentially two-tiered, with the hierarchy (docens) on top and the laity (discens) below, which had for a very long time been taken to be the common teaching of the church. See for example, Vehementer Nos of Pope St Pius X. And out of this too came the reclamation of the doctrine of the common priesthood of all the faithful, eclipsed effectively since the 16th century, if not for a very much longer time. This in turn led to a new theology of the laity and a novel vision of the Church’s role in the world.

The same holds for the Church’s renewed attention to the consequences of God’s universal salvific will, again changing its attitude to non-Catholics, but also bringing us momentously to the point of having – for the first time in Church history – liturgies and rituals and pastoral practices which express the hope that unbaptized infants will enter heaven.

This list could go on and on. Two points, however, should be clear already. Firstly, what Pope Francis has done with the theme of mercy is perfectly in accord with the self-reforming spirit the Church has had from the beginning. And secondly, the effect of many of the developments I have recalled was to “soften the church’s teaching”, to relieve the anxieties of people (non-Catholics, Indian converts, laity, and the families of unbaptised children, for example) and to show them the love and the mercy of God. Is that a bad thing? Schmitz thinks it is. Not only does he believe that this has been precisely the pope’s mistake, but he also supposes that Francis has done it in a bid for popularity. Evidently we no longer have to turn to the anti-Catholic press for cynical slights on the Pope’s character.

How about the possibility that Pope Francis has made God’s mercy axiomatic because it really has been neglected, it really is misunderstood, it really hasn’t been allowed sufficiently to make all the difference? This brings us to Schmitz’s second swipe at Pope Francis. In his follow-up article in First Things, he lays out what he sees to be the disagreement between himself on the one hand and Pope Francis and his defenders on the other: “I view mercy and judgment as working naturally together; they tend to see them as being in conflict”. “Pope Francis himself,” he continues, “often speaks as though the two are opposed.”

This is quite extraordinary. Again and again Pope Francis has emphasised the salient points he has taken from Cardinal Kasper, that mercy is “God’s own justice”, that it is God’s truth and “faithfulness to himself”, that it is at the heart of the biblical message “not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it”. He has frequently said that “true mercy… demands justice”, that “God’s justice is his mercy”, that it is “the mercy of God that brings true justice to fulfilment”, and that “mercy does not exclude justice and truth…[but] is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth”. In other words, in keeping with scripture and tradition, Pope Francis never takes God’s mercy to be in opposition to justice – except, that is, in the same sense and spirit as St James, who says that “mercy triumphs over judgement”.

So, no. When it comes to God there can be no opposition. In the human realm, on the other hand, it may well happen that acts of justice would lack mercy, even where the Church is the agent. And this is precisely what the Pope wants to address. He wants the Church in all its actions to “be renewed by God’s mercy” so as to “make justice and peace flourish”. He wants human justice to be modeled on divine mercy. “We are called to show mercy,” he says, “because mercy has first been shown to us”. The Church, he adds, “is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel”. In other words, he wants, as has happened so often in the Church before, to return to a great theme of revelation and review the life of the Church in its light. What’s so exceptionable about this?

Schmitz offers an image he hopes could resolve the conflict between him and Pope Francis’s defenders. He takes it from a sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux. “Bernard describes mercy and judgment as the two feet on which Christ swiftly runs to meet us. ‘Beware that you do not neglect either of these feet,’ he says. Instead, we must be grateful for the imprints left by both mercy and judgment in the Christian heart.”

With all respect to St Bernard, this image of “Christ’s two feet” is an elegant homiletic device which might help to steer the faithful away from certain excesses, but it’s nothing more than that. I very much doubt Bernard intended it to bear any great theological weight. No more than St Patrick, for example, intended the shamrock to be a theologically perfect icon of the Trinity – it’s evidently far from that. He just wanted to give the native Irish a kind of visual aid for understanding the mind-boggling doctrines of this new religion.

We have to go deeper than St Bernard’s sermon. I suggest we turn instead to another sermon, to St Augustine’s disquisition on Exodus 3:14-15 in his sermons on the Old Testament. What we get here is a careful and refined distinction between the two complementary self-revelations of God. The first verse, Exodus 3:14, gives us the God of the philosophers; the second verse, Exodus 3:15, gives us the personal God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. “Who will I say sent me?” Moses asks. Ego sum qui sum, God replies: “I am who I am”. Esse est, Augustine adds succinctly. God is Being itself. This, Augustine says, is God’s nomen aeternitatis.

Given this name, the name of the eternal God, “what is much more interesting,” Augustine adds, “is that God was prepared to have a nomen misericordiae, a name of mercy”. This is the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Illud in se, hoc ad nos, he remarks: “The former name for God in Godself, the latter for us.” And so, Augustine concludes, “let us praise God’s essence and love God’s mercy”.

There is a great deal that can be taken from this brilliant exegesis. I only want to draw attention to one main point, as follows. It is immensely instructive that Augustine would see mercy rather than, say, love or omnipotence or immutability or sovereignty or goodness or justice, as the name of God “for us”. All of these are names of God, viewed from one position or another. But mercy, I would argue, is uniquely the signifier of a radical disproportion, of an excess that exceeds excess, which is the best that language can do to convey Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between the divine and the human. It is in ‘mercy’, more than in the other divine names, that we convey, in our own thick-tongued way, the unutterable gratuitousness of God’s gifts to us, God’s presence among us, God’s invitation to us to become one with God.

And it is in mercy and its cognates that all of Scripture is soaked – from the images of a faithful God committed to a covenant with a faithless people, to stories of indefatigable patience and unmerited forgiveness, to promises of liberation and consolation, to the self-emptying of God’s own son. It is this tradition, this saga, of God’s overflowing and uncontainable love-as-mercy that Pope Francis wants so much to be reflected in every aspect of the life of the Church.

Of course one does not intend, when drawing attention to the nomen misericordiae, to denigrate justice – or love or goodness – in any way. We are talking about a difference in aspect. And the aspect that most clearly manifests itself to us sub specie temporis is that of mercy. From this temporal perspective, as St Thomas has it, God’s mercy does not work contra justitiam but supra justitiam, above rather than against justice. Above it only in so far, of course, as mercy better names a relationship that lacks the equitable affinities implied by justice.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s way of putting this in Theo-Logic is that “Justice is intrinsic to God’s love in the same sense as his omnipotence. This love is always right, always perfectly equal to itself, and is therefore also the standard by which it measures itself and all things.” And it is out of this justice, this rectitudo, ‘rightness’, a term he takes from St Anselm, that mercy is born. And so von Balthasar moves towards his conclusion that justice and mercy are inseparable, each of them “an ontological modality of love” in its own right. There may be a conflict in human implementations of justice and mercy, but there is no conflict in God. There are no circumscriptions of any kind in God. God’s justice is infinitely merciful; God’s mercy is infinitely just.

With which gnomic conclusions we are taken into the heady, apophatic silence of the Church’s mystical tradition. Or, if we must speak, if we must be cataphatic, well, we have to speak without cease, in as many ways as we know how. We are committed to what Denys Turner calls “a verbal riot”, a naming of the divine that never stops, that reaches towards the excesses of God, the realm of God’s mercy – through theology and philosophy to be sure, but also through history and anthropology and the sciences, as well as through poetry, narrative, liturgy and song. And yes, also through the words and prayers of a Pope.