The Limits of Mercy

Year of Mercy Francis

‘May the balm of mercy reach everyone’, says Francis as he proclaims Holy Year

On the Second Sunday of Easter, alternatively termed Divine Mercy Sunday since the canonization of Saint Faustina in 2000 by Pope Saint John Paul II, the current Holy Father Pope Francis issued Misericordiae Vultus, decreeing 2016 to be a year dedicated to the theme of ‘Mercy’.


God’s mercy is a hot topic amongst theological circles of late, especially with the recent Synod on the Family, to be concluded next October, and the question of ‘divorced and remarried Catholics’ receiving Communion, a category which may be broadened to include politicians who support abortion, those living together before marriage, those who miss Sunday Mass, those addicted to pornography and so on.


This debate is only partly about the Eucharist, for the underlying question is about the relation between the mercy of God, and the state of the souls of individuals who, as the Code of Canon Law states “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin”.  The argument is that we as a Church must be a symbol of this infinite mercy of God, which extends even to those who persist in might appear to us as ‘grave sin’, but may not be so to them.  Or, perhaps, they are not able to give up their sin, for whatever reasons that are outside their control.  After all, as many have quoted the Holy Father (out of context, as it turns out), ‘who am I to judge?’.


If we dig even deeper into this question, we find hazily in the background the theological opinion of the early Church Father Origen of Alexandria (+253/4), termed apokatastasis, (an opinion later decreed heretical), which proposed that every rational and intellectual being will in the end be saved.  We will all meet merrily in heaven, slap each other on the back, tussle in a big group hug, and laugh over all those ‘misunderstandings’ that a mediaeval Church and a misunderstood God once called ‘damnable sins’, offenses that ‘cry out to heaven for justice’.


Such a theory would make any sort of moral struggle in this life more or less futile, but it does raise the question of what and whither indeed is the mercy of God?  Mercy requires that there be some offense committed, and that one ask for pardon, or for a mitigated punishment, or at the very least be open to either of these.  The sinner who persists in his wrongdoing, who is contumacious, who refuses forgiveness and pardon, by definition cannot receive mercy.  Even if set free, he will punish himself by his very wrongdoing, for the very effects of sin are the punishment.  In Scriptural terms, like Pharaoh and others of his ilk, his ‘heart is hardened’, his conscience blinded.  As Christ warned, “if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”.


I heard or read a story once of a zealous Christian who spray-painted on large rock-face by the side of the highway “Jesus saves”.  Someone less zealous later added below, “From what?”.  As I have quoted Pope Pius XII before, the greatest sin of our age is the loss of the sense of sin.


This is the only sin that God cannot forgive, the refusal to admit our sin, the resistance to His mercy, the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’.  These are the souls that Pope Benedict alluded to in his 2008 encyclical Spe Salvi:


“There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love within themselves.  This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.  In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.


In the mystery of His providence, God created beings in His image who could, and must, choose to love Him freely.  The primary intent of the mercy of God in this life is to prevent souls from choosing the fate of refusing love, so that they might turn back to the Lord, to goodness and truth, and repent of their sin.  Mercy is an act of love, of agape, of willing the good of the other.  Sometimes, God’s mercy can seem cruel and harsh, even ‘evil’ from our point of view.  But as Pope John Paul II made clear in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, the only definitive evil is the loss of heaven and beatitude, that is, to choose eternal separation from God.  It is from this evil that Christ came to save us, not from all the transitory ‘evils’ of this passing age, which in fact can produce great spiritual good.


It is in this context that we should interpret the Church’s law to withhold Communion from those who ‘persist in manifest grave sin’.  The Church is trying to prevent such individuals becoming hardened in their sin, closed not just to the mercy of the Church, but to the mercy of God Himself.  The Eucharist signifies, at its deepest reality, communion with God and His Church.  To offer such a sign of ‘mercy’ without repentance would, in effect, be a lie, told perhaps with good intent, but with potentially disastrous consequences.  At the very least, we must be aware of, have sorrow for, and confess  our ‘grave sins’, so that we can clear the path in our souls for God’s mercy and grace to work.


None of us knows our ultimate eternal destiny, nor even definitively our current state before God, which is why Pope Benedict says we must live in hope, but one that is well grounded in the infinite mercy of God (I, for one, with Saint Peter a self-confessed peccator, am relying much upon such hope and mercy!).  I am also hoping that we can all indeed meet merrily in heaven, but we can only do so if we open ourselves to the forgiveness of God.  Let us pray that many souls do so in the upcoming Year of Mercy and beyond.


April 17, 2015

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha