Mercy–In Context


One aspect of the recent World Youth Day that has gotten a lot of attention is Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy, especially in some of his comments in that famous in-flight press conference he gave while travelling back to Rome.  The pope spoke of ours as a time for mercy, and he also made a perfectly humane and reasonable remark that he was in no position to judge gay persons who accept the Lord and have good will.  Liberal commentators–both secular and Catholic–have highlighted these remarks, using them to suggest that perhaps the present pope is offering a marked change in emphasis from other recent pontiffs.  In response, more conservative commentators have sought to provide a context for the pope’s remarks, noting that they certainly do not amount to a change in Church teaching.  And, in response to this, at least one more liberal-minded commentator has accused such conservatives of trying to qualify and water down the pope’s meaning.

Well, while I appreciate mercy as much as anybody (and need it as much as anybody), my sympathies are more with those who think that a little more context is called for on this issue.  Here is my effort to provide some of it.

Pope Francis 3

First, I have seen some say that we should leave the judging entirely to God or to Jesus and recognize that our business is just to show mercy.  This is a good inclination, but to insist on it in a too unqualified way might obscure something important about the Church.  Certainly it is the job of the Church to communicate God’s mercy.  But at the same time the Church itself could not disclaim all powers of judgment without betraying its own roots as an institution created by Jesus.  For, according to the Bible, and to age-old Catholic teaching, Jesus gave the Church a certain authority to make important judgments.  Jesus told the apostles (whose successors we believe the bishops to be): whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.  As individuals we should certainly not be judgmental.  Moreover, we should not expect or want the Church to be overly censorious.  But if we think the Church has no business making judgments at all, we have gone too far.

Second, if it is true, as some people have been emphasizing, that God will do the judging, then it certainly would not be wrong of us to remind others, and even more ourselves, that this judgment is coming.  It would even be an act of mercy to do so.  I think that sometimes calls to leave the judging to God can be misinterpreted as calls to just not worry about the question of judgment.  But all faithful Catholics would have to admit that God’s judgment is just as much a part of the reality we have to face as His mercy.  And if this is so we are doing good in warning of God’s judgment.  Admittedly, warnings of God’s judgment can be perverted: they can be tools of self-righteousness.  But talk of God’s mercy can also be perverted into a tool of moral complacency.  We would have to exercise the same prudent self-examination in either case to make sure that we are not misusing or misrepresenting either of these important truths.

Finally, at the most general level, we should remember that the idea of mercy is unintelligible except in relation to sin and judgment.  God is merciful, we say; he will show us mercy.  Right, but mercy for what?  For our sins.  When one is said to show mercy, it necessarily presupposes power or just authority to punish.  We say a conqueror shows mercy when he does not slay the conquered, or that a judge shows mercy when he lessens the sentence of the condemned.  Presumably the first kind of mercy, the kind used in relation to mere power, is not the kind we are attributing to God; because while He certainly has absolute power over us, we don’t think of him as even capable of using it despotically to destroy or save on a kind of whim.  Therefore, when we speak of God’s mercy we are speaking of a mercy exercised in relation to a just judgment, a rightful condemnation for our sins.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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