If God is love and love is mercy, which seem to be two keys ideas of the teaching of Pope Francis, then mercy is all around us. It is at the heart of every truly human relationship.
Yet the Catholic Church seem to have churchified it, as if it only happens in an ecclesiastical context.
Certainly mercy ought to characterise the official Church’s dealings with its members. But that is only part of the story, and by no means the most important part.
A proper theory of mercy would embrace the whole of life. Employment, the law, politics, community relations – all need a dash of mercy if they are to function successfully.
Possibly the reason why the recent synod in Rome missed this point is simply down to language. The word mercy itself can easily sound sanctimonious. So in ordinary conversation we don’t talk about mercy as such.
But that does not means it is absent; it means we call it something else. We probably call it acceptance and tolerance of other’s faults and failings, cutting people a bit of slack, not bearing grudges, turning a blind eye, demanding less than a pound of flesh.
We don’t say to an errant child “I hereby exercise mercy towards you and forgive you for what you have done.” Even the word “forgive” is a bit churchy. We say “Better pull your socks up, that wasn’t good enough” or “We all make mistakes but the point is not to repeat them.”
So parents exercise mercy every time they say “We’ll let it go this time but don’t do it again.” Punishment is merciful if it is aimed at teaching a lesson, as it should be.
More importantly, it is at the heart of married love. It makes possible a deep and lasting connection between two imperfect people. One of the great insights of Dr Jack Dominian, the Catholic psychiatrist who almost single-handedly revolutionised the Church’s understanding of marriage, was that sexual intercourse in marriage had the profound capacity to restore a damaged relationship.
Maybe this ability to heal is its most important aspect, more important perhaps than the traditional emphasis on procreation. You could even say it makes marriage possible, as all such relationships are liable to be damaged at any time, just a bit or maybe a lot, and there has to be some way of continuing on afterwards, some kind of healing, some form of roadside maintenance.
It involves, to be churchy for a moment, a mutual but unspoken exchange of forgiveness whenever that is required, as it frequently is.
Without mercy there would be no loving families to bring children up in. So sex isn’t just for making babies – it is for creating a channel of mercy so babies (and others) can thrive in loving families. I don’t remember that in Humanae Vitae.
Everybody understands what Jesus meant when he told us to say “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”, and we don’t think he was talking about breaking church rules. He was talking about the way we all treat each other in ways we shouldn’t, and that the trick is to let go of the hurt as soon as possible.
Realising that “none of us is perfect” is the key. We are all sinners, but again the language of “sin” is not what we ordinarily use in our everyday relationships.
So while the idea of forgiveness of sin, mercy, is essential to those relationships, we don’t have an acceptable vocabulary for saying what we mean. The Church has stolen it in order to use its for its own internal conversations. These vital words have become the specialist jargon of a priestly cult. – Clifford Longley – ‘The Tablet’
The two final paragraphs in this ‘Tablet’ article (highlighted by me), which was composed by the Religious Affairs writer, Clifford Longley, decries the fact that a Church (not only Roman Catholics but other Churches that arrogates exclusively to itself, the charism of sacramental forgiveness) would seem to have lost sight of the therapeutic nature of this important mechanism of human behaviour that was laid upon us all by Jesus in the Gospel.
I believe that the commission of Jesus to the Disciples declaring that: “Whosesoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven; and whosesoever sins you retain they are retained”, may not have been meant solely for the official use of a priest in sacramental confession; but, what is more likely; for all human beings created in the divine image and likeness.
It seems to me that this is what the Roman Catholic Church, and other liturgical and sacramental Churches are having great difficulty with: insisting that the facility of ‘forgiveness’ is the prerogative of the clergy, reserved for the reconciliation of ‘sinners’ to the discipline of the Church.
As confession is good for the soul, so is forgiveness a necessity for the working out of the need for reconciliation of people to one another in an every-day functioning community. This is something that Pope Francis seems to be enunciating in his call for Mercy in The Church. Sometimes the administration of doctrinal exigency can seem more like an embargo on the exercise of private conscience, than an avenue of grace to fulfil one’s full human potential. After all, Christ has already opened us for us the way of salvation, and the task of the Church is to declare and administer that salvation – not create obstacles for its reception.
It is also the intention, surely of Jesus, the Son of God, when he asks us to pray in the ‘Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – giving each of us the responsibility of administering the grace of forgiveness to others, in the very same measure that we would like to be, ourselves, forgiven. The Church, at its best, is an agency of God’s Mercy, Love and Forgiveness. Let is not be the sole instrument of moral judgementalism. – “The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain from Heaven, It is thrice blest” (Wm. Shakespeare)
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand