What Mercy Is and Is Not

When we speak of mercy, we surely need to think of repentance


Faith Virtue

So often does Pope Francis speak of mercy that some wonder whether mercy has become an unconditional and universal absolution. It is not. Definitely not. Whatever his limits might be, Francis’s words about abortionists and arms merchants are anything but exculpatory.

Indeed, St. John Paul II’s encyclical on mercy, Dives et Misericordia, highlights the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the son who repented before his father forgives him. In this same account we meet his brother who resents their father’s forgiveness of the prodigal. Righteousness gone wrong is a bitter irony.

St. Thomas Aquinas, not surprisingly, writes of mercy. Two of the Common Doctor’s points are especially striking. The first is that it is in the “exercise of mercy” that God most particularly “manifests his omnipotence.” Not even Creation shows it so exorbitantly! The second point is that, for Thomas, “of all the virtues that relate to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest.”

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s speech on mercy echoes Thomas’s words. Mercy, she avers, “is enthronèd in the hearts of kings / It is an attribute to God himself; / And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” After all, as sinners, we cannot suppose that justice will exonerate us. Thus Portia tells the pleading merchant “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.” One of the simplest of prayers, The Jesus Prayer, locating us before our Savior, speaks to our condition. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And at the start of the liturgy we repeatedly pray Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison.

We need mercy because we are sinners, and sometimes it is our very righteousness that betrays us. When with our teachers we speak of mercy, we surely need to think of the repentance that mercy calls for. John the Baptist preached repentance in order to make straight the way of the Lord.

Yet John was a voice crying in the wilderness, and our time is much like his time. More and more, the Church is a voice crying in the wilderness. In Herod, at least, John found someone interested in listening to him. But in the end Herod, to avoid embarrassment and worse, asked for John’s head. Herod cared nothing for justice nor mercy.

How should we speak out in our own wilderness? There is no formula for doing so, but speak out we must. The writer Flannery O’Connor, who has somehow broken into the secular canon, offers us advice that I often call to mind. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do,” she writes, “you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Startling figures can take different forms. But two forms, both shocking, demand our attention. Operation Rescue confronts abortionists and those who are complicit in their deeds. Plowshares confronts the stockpilers of nuclear arms and those who are complicit in their deeds. To be sure, neither abortionists nor the managers of nuclear arms are likely to read the New Oxford Review. But might some of our contributors and readers pass by and ignore these heinous deeds, even to the point of risking complicity in them? If so, we need the repentance to which God prompts us and that leads to the mercy with which He restores us.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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