This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald on 11 March, 2016.
The Year of Mercy is undoubtedly a cause close to Pope Francis’s heart. When he speaks about the need for a more dynamic, evangelising Church, he is clear that the message to be carried out to the world is that of the love and mercy of God, which applies equally to everyone, regardless of their situation. To carry the mercy of God to a world which, as Catholics, we fundamentally believe needs it, and needs it badly, is at the core of the Church’s mission.
Yet this simple and positive message seems to cause a great deal of confusion and debate, both within the Church and without. For many, there is a fear that an overly simplistic presentation of the concept of infinite divine mercy comes dangerously close to implying total licence. And, indeed, there are those who seem to think that mercy can be deployed as some kind of theological wild card that trumps any concern or circumstance.
Mercy is a simple concept, but it is not an independent one. It can only be truly understood within the context of its place in the whole divine nature. Devoid of this context, it can be easily misunderstood, or even deliberately misapplied. As Thomas Aquinas argues, mercy
without justice, which is its necessary explanation and rationale, is the mother of dissolution.
From the fractious discussions during the family synod to the disappointing number of pilgrims making their way to Rome for the Year of Mercy, it does seem that the concept of mercy is failing to capture the hearts, or save the souls, of the faithful on the scale the Pope would like. Part of the reason for this is simply that mercy, as taught by the Church, is not widely understood. It needs explanation and context – it needs a Year of Justice.
One of Francis’s favourite metaphors is that the world is a battlefield and the Church is a field hospital, where the mercy and love of God is administered to the wounded casualties of our society. It is a striking image and one which has a lot to recommend it. But doling out divine mercy unframed by a personal experience of divine justice is actually quite analogous to offering treatments around a hospital without looking at a patient’s chart, or writing prescriptions for people who do not fully understand that they are sick.
A Year of Justice would offer the chance to make the context of mercy, and the reasons we need it, a priority in pastoral care. It would clear the space for understanding the personal nature of all our failings and the seriousness of the universal call to holiness. It could do much to end the current abhorrent way in which mercy is often treated and discussed as something to be applied to “them over there” – little groups in the Church conspicuous in their frailty, like the divorced and civilly remarried, or gay people, instead of something of which we are all in desperate need.
If a Year of Justice would be pastorally beneficial, it would be a godsend from a structural and hierarchical perspective. Justice is something we could all do with seeing a great deal more of within the Curia and global governance of the Church.
The wilful rejection of the basic principles of crime and justice in the Church, in favour of a warped sense of mercy without judgment, directly contributed to the horrific child abuse scandals which the Church has faced in the last few decades. The current disaffection which has been expressed by more than one member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors gives a damning verdict on how the victims of such abuse feel about the justice they have received. Conversely, bishops in some places, eager to avoid further bad publicity and expensive lawsuits, have allowed innocent priests to be smeared, their good names forever ruined, and run out of ministry.
Justice is sadly a bit of dirty word for most Catholics. It smacks of condemnation and moralism and seems at odds with the supposedly more positive message of hope and love conveyed by mercy on its own. Yet as Benedict XVI said, a society without laws is a society without rights, and rediscovering the significance of the Catholic understanding of justice is a central part of the Church’s understanding of human dignity and the right ordering of society.
In fact, justice is a central theme of Francis’s pontificate. He has spoken strongly and often about the rights of the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised. On his recent trip to Mexico, he prayed at a cross which has been erected on the border between Mexico and the United States as a silent act of solidarity with those millions who live in legal limbo as illegal immigrants. It was part of a trip during which the Pope also spoke powerfully about the need for stronger political and episcopal leadership, and about the dignity of a generation of young people left at the mercy of economic and criminal exploitation.
Francis has often drawn considerable criticism for wading into what some see as the exclusively secular sphere of global politics and economics. In fact, the Church has been speaking, and speaking with authority, on these issues for centuries. More explicitly embracing the Church’s mission for justice in the world, and its centrality to the internal life of the Church, would enhance Francis’s message and allow him to draw upon the enormous intellectual arsenal left by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and St John Paul II in Laborem Exercens.
In the end, it is almost impossible to conceive of Pope Francis inaugurating a Year of Justice; it would be immediately seized upon by many and portrayed as a reversion to the “bad old Church” of judgment and condemnation. But, with most of the Year of Mercy still to come, there is time yet for the Church, at every level, to embrace the fullness of the meaning of God’s mercy, which necessarily includes justice and without which it does not make any sense. The benefits would be enormous.