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A Curious Sort of Mercy

by Christopher A. Ferrara
January 29, 2015

While one might like to refrain from continual commentary on the doings and sayings of Pope Francis, this is impossible, unfortunately, from the perspective of Fatima. It is precisely in light of the Message of Fatima that we see how the Pope is the single most important member of fallen humanity, for in his office resides the power literally to renew the face of the earth — by the papal Consecration of Russia, of course, but also by papal governance of the Church, as we see with such Popes as Saint Gregory the Great. Conversely, in the same office lies the power to inflict terrible damage upon the Church and thus humanity at large.

Which brings me to another of the Pope's recent doings: his publication of a book whose title declares that The Name of God is Mercy. Actually, no. The Church has never given God that name. Rather, as Saint John so famously tells us: "God is love (1 John 4:8)." To quote John Paul II in this regard: "Before all else, it is Love that judges. God, who is love, judges through love." But since the Council, John Paul admitted, "preachers, catechists, teachers… have lost the courage to preach the threat of hell." (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 183, 187).

God's love embraces His justice as well as His mercy, His punishments as well as His rewards. The divine love embraces the entire universe and the operations of everything in it, which we call the eternal law. This is why Dante speaks even of the divine love that "moves the Sun and the other stars." It is absurd to declare that God is simply mercy for sinners who have offended Him, and that mercy is His name.

Moreover, this book confirms the sense that there is something very peculiar about Francis' notion of an all-encompassing mercy that is practically equated with God and somehow overwhelms and voids His justice. It seems a rather lowly and human conception of mercy — an attempt to outdo God Himself by declaring Him to be "more merciful" than even He had revealed before Francis renamed Him.

We see this in a vignette from the book cited in a review by the liberal Catholic web journal Crux. The book recounts Francis' account of a Capuchin priest who once told him: "I go to our chapel and stand in front of the tabernacle and say to Jesus: 'Lord, forgive me if I have forgiven too much. But you're the one who gave me the bad example!'" Francis records his reaction thus: "I will never forget that. When a priest experiences giving mercy to himself like that, he can give it to others."

This anecdote is immensely troubling:

First, Francis is impressed by a priest who wisecracks to Our Lord that it was He who gave a bad example by "forgiving too much." Granted, the comment is ironic. The priest can't have meant that Our Lord erred in His judgment, that His example really was bad. On the contrary, if a sinner repents of his sin, experiencing what we call "perfect contrition" — that is, he is sorry because he has offended God, not merely because he is afraid of eternal punishment — then it is impossible for God to forgive "too much" as all sins thus repented of are forgivable, no matter how grave. The woman taken in adultery is the most famous example of this.

Second, the sacrament of Confession confers a precious gift on Catholics, extending the divine mercy even further: the penitent whose contrition is imperfect, meaning that his repentance is motivated by the fear of divine punishment rather than love of God, is forgiven nonetheless — by God acting through the priest — provided he has a firm purpose of amendment.

That being so, how is it possible for any priest to forgive "too much" in the confessional if the sinner is contrite and has a firm purpose of amendment? After all, it is God who forgives — not the priest, who only administers the Sacrament of Confession and grants absolution in God's name if the sinner meets the Church's requirements for absolution. The only way the anecdote would make any sense is if the priest quoted was overly lenient and required no showing of contrition or firm purpose of amendment. But that would mean that the priest did intend to say that Christ had literally given a bad example by doing likewise, when we know that His forgiveness of sin always came with this admonition: "Go and sin no more… Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you." (Cf. John 8:11; John 5:14)

Lastly, what are we to make of Francis' statement that "When a priest experiences giving mercy to himself like that, he can give it to others"? Since when is the mercy that one receives from God Himself in the confessional dependent on whether the priest has "given mercy" to himself? What is that supposed to mean?

The priest confessor is an intermediary between God and the sinner, and as such he must, according to the constant practice of the Church, grant absolution according to the Sacrament unless it is apparent that the sinner before him is neither contrite nor resolved to amend his life. There seems to be a kind of hidden quasi-Donatism at work here, which makes absolution a function of the personal mercifulness of the priest or lack thereof.

How ironic that in renaming God as Mercy, Francis somehow manages to obfuscate the infinite mercy that has always been available through the Sacrament of Confession to any Catholic who is rightly disposed, no matter what the personal character or virtues of the confessor. With Francis, the Sacrament recedes into the background and "mercy" becomes a discretionary human activity whose "quantity" would be in proportion to the "mercy" of the priest in the confessional.

Chalk this notion up to a pontificate that is determined to leave its peculiar stamp on the Church — a stamp whose impression is blurry and all but incomprehensible, obscuring the simple truths on which it is almost daily imposing itself.