The Other Side of Mercy

With Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy), God’s mercy has come into sharp focus – and rightly so. But, at the same time, are we obscuring its reverse side – the reality of Divine Justice ?

After quoting the Bible profusely to prove that God’s intrinsic nature is Mercy, the Pope goes on to cite his predecessors – first, John XXIII, who at the beginning of the Council said, “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity…”; and second, Paul VI, who at its conclusion stated that a wave of affection and admiration flowed from the Council over the modern world of humanity. Errors were condemned, indeed, because charity demanded this no less than did truth, but for individuals themselves there was only admonition, respect and love. Instead of depressing diagnoses, encouraging remedies; instead of direful predictions, messages of trust issued from the Council to the present-day world.”

These words may have been evocative fifty years ago, fresh as the world was from the cruel acts of the two Wars and their convulsive aftermath; whether today they can be taken literally is debatable. Hasn’t the mass of humanity and individuals per se changed beyond belief? In fact, many an assessment of the Council points to a weakening of our religious faith and practice. Closer to our times, John Paul II, influenced by Sister Faustina, reiterated the theme of mercy, in Dives in Misericordia. But meanwhile, there was a further shift in modern man’s world view. Probably, this stemmed from the line of least resistance that the Church had adopted against the world’s vile tendencies, as is evident from Paul VI’s words on the said occasion: “The modern world’s values were not only respected but honoured, its efforts approved, its aspirations purified and blessed…”

Before long the entente with the world went awry. The new sense of freedom eventually brought about loss of the sense of sin (as the present Pope himself has elsewhere pointed out); so now we queue up quicker for Holy Communion than for Confession! That newfound freedom has spiralled into amoral, immoral, and blatantly anti-Catholic stances on the part of some of our ill-advised co-religionists; it has erected a sheer façade of spiritual health and a make-believe atmosphere of well-being, even while the community’s moral and spiritual fibre is weakening.

Will merely soothing words help restore the balance? Will not ‘Mercy’, used loosely – much like ‘Love’ that is now more readily seen as eros than as agape – eventually be a casualty? It probably will, if we continue to proclaim it from the rooftops without the least contemplation of Justice. In Misericordiae Vultus, Justice finds a place after nineteen sections extolling Mercy; even then it is equated with a tendency toward legalism. Finally, the reminder that, “for his part, Jesus speaks several times of the importance of faith over and above the observance of the law”, may have put many on the back foot.  

But presently we would only stress the importance of gazing at the face of Justice. Aren’t many ills of the contemporary world a consequence of the neglect of the divine law and justice? Much like our school children nowadays accustomed to ‘automatic promotions’, only to be shocked when confronted with the spectre of the Board examinations, leniency in spiritual matters could have a like effect even for believers. Would it therefore not be better to have our senses so sharpened that we take to justice like fish to water? The wheels of society would then be well oiled and running smoothly; we would live with honour and in peace.

In Immortale Dei, Pope Leo XIII notes that “there was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel.”  Today, in stark contrast, secular and atheistic philosophies have resulted in heterodox and muddled thinking. The teaching authority of the Church has to step in firmly and help the faithful swim against the tide. The aid thus received would be useful in practical, day-to-day matters, and vital from the perspective of the Judgement. Unless we are used to the idea of justice, will the certainty of the Judgement sink in?

To conclude: Favouring Mercy to the detriment of Justice would be a disservice to God and Man. The two are not antithetical; in fact, justice without mercy is cruelty, said St Thomas Aquinas; but mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, he added. So let’s talk of Mercy and Justice in the same breath, and then have a faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will”.

(Published in The Examiner (Bombay), Vol. 167, No. 14, 02-08 Apr 2016)