February 2019 Editorial: The Truth About Mercy

‘The Truth About Mercy’

Mercy, it has long been observed, is the self-serving proclamation of a church that isn’t willing to deal with its own sins. Up till recently, that observation was confined, as a stock protest, to the atheist left, for whom no stick was too good or too withered to be used as a cudgel against Christianity – especially Catholicism. It’s of greater concern to hear the same criticism from the Christian right (to use the term loosely), which I’ve done several times in recent months.

As a criticism voiced by Catholics who sincerely wish to live their faith and to see its values permeate society, this should not be too quickly discounted as spiteful or malicious. I would say that it is first of all an expression of hurt, and then, perhaps, at least as much a challenge as an assertion.

Only an ecclesiastical Pollyanna could deny that there is a good lot to feel hurt and dismayed about, and dismay, when it is articulated, should be heard. The countless clergy and religious who have stayed at their posts through the revelations and purifications of recent decades can testify that dismay doesn’t always speak fairly. It tends to generalise, and, like a badly hurt person whose love has been sorely tested, it wants to test back in its turn, to push boundaries. I think that some of the negative attitude faced by clergy in recent times is a barely-conscious testing of our commitment. If that is the case, then the half-conscious logic seems to be that if we are trustworthy, if we are well-motivated, then we can prove it, by holding our ground, in integrity, while hurt love is howling around us. Sometimes even what sounds like a theologically considered statement can be, at root, a howl of protest.

And if some thoughtful Catholics express reservations regarding the Church’s emphasis on mercy, if they feel that this emphasis could be self-serving in a time of disclosure and scandal, then it may be better to hear out their uncomfortable conjecture rather than to discount it as unreasonable.

There is, of course, no room for manoeuvre regarding mercy as such. Thank God! But human fallenness being what it is, even the core teachings of our faith can be – and at times have been – detached from the full witness of the Gospel and heard to say things they do not say. Heresy, as anyone who has ever opened a theology book knows, is never a lie: it is always a truth pursued in isolation from other truths.

When I hear concerned Catholics voice concerns regarding the exact place of mercy, I try take them at face-value, as people looking for insight, rather than as people who need to be decried or derided (full disclosure: I’m not always quite so poised!). Perhaps the foundational insight is that the call to conversion is not in tension with mercy, but is an expression of it. And perhaps those of us who presume to have anything to say to our congregations, week after week, might do well to keep that thought both in our hearts and at our ambos. The call to conversion is a call of mercy. Jesus’ first imperative in the first Gospel is ‘Repent!’ (Mk 1:15).

The Church’s insistence on mercy goes – must go – hand in hand with the call to repentance and conversion, without which the Gospel is hollowed out. This call is sounded by a Church that is itself in need of repentance and conversion, but that’s no secret, and the phrase semper reformanda is hardly new.

Talk of conversion is wont to be dismissed as a spiritualising away of the ‘real issues’ facing the church, and I would make two observations in that regard. First, those who make that objection do not, as far as I can see, raise the same concern regarding talk of mercy. Every ‘talk’ can be misconstrued. Second, there is no reason in the world why a careful insistence on the link between mercy and conversion should prevent any of us from acting well, from discerning and planning with care and wisdom. If an emphasis on conversion were to get in our way, then the game would be up, and we would be an NGO rather than a Church.

‘Repent!’ So says Mercy Himself, as he begins his mission of mercy. The word is not a threat, but an invitation. To the extent that it has slipped from the heart of our proclamation, it needs to be thoughtfully reinstated.

Chris Hayden