(The Last Judgment—Fra Angelico)
Mercy has been the theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and it has been badly misunderstood. Many people see Mercy and Justice as polar opposites, thinking that an emphasis on mercy means a belief that God will not punish and that the Pope will change Church teaching and no longer call sin a sin. The people who hold this view fall into two camps—those who think this is a good thing and those who think it is a bad thing. Neither group asks whether they got it wrong in the first place.
We call God merciful because He constantly calls us back to Him, always willing to accept our repentance, even if we struggle with habitual sin. But he doesn’t violate our free will in doing so. That’s where justice comes in, giving a person his due. The person who spurns God’s mercy or acts presumptuously by assuming God will forgive whether we repent or not will eventually face judgment for refusing to heed God’s pleas and warnings.
As each of us is a sinner, each one of us needs God’s mercy. As God tells us that the merciless person will not be shown mercy (Matthew 18:33, James 2:13), we need to show mercy to each other when we are wronged. We can’t turn a person away who seeks our forgiveness. If we want God’s mercy to be limitless, we cannot put limits on our own. But there is another side to the coin. Mercy involves forgiving the repentant and providing a way for the sinner to turn back. But it does not mean excusing the sin as if it was not a sin.
To seek mercy is to humbly recognize one’s wrongdoing and intend to change to the best of their ability and assisted by grace. If we refuse to admit we do wrong, we’re not seeking mercy. We’re demanding that the Church condone our actions. It’s saying “I’ve done nothing wrong—you’re wrong for insisting on this teaching!” Since we Catholics believe the Church only teaches on right and wrong because of the mandate and responsibility Our Lord gave, to demand the Church change her teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin” is to reject God’s teaching (see Luke 10:16).
And that’s where God’s justice comes into play. He offers us every chance to change our ways, and every grace to do so. But if we refuse the opportunities and the graces, if we refuse to listen and choose to do what is evil in His sight, we will answer for it. We have an immortal soul. After we die, we will eternally go some place. If we have sought to be faithful to him, cooperating with His grace, and do not have unrepented mortal sins on our conscience, we will go to Heaven (whether directly or through purgatory first). If we put ourselves first and willingly live against His commands, we will go to Hell. That sounds blunt, but our Lord put it bluntly too:
25 You say, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair? 26 When the just turn away from justice to do evil and die, on account of the evil they did they must die. 27 But if the wicked turn from the wickedness they did and do what is right and just, they save their lives; 28 since they turned away from all the sins they committed, they shall live; they shall not die. 29 But the house of Israel says, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” Is it my way that is not fair, house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not fair? (Ezekiel 18:25–29)
Our ways are not fair because we want Cheap Grace. We want the right to live as we please and then go to Heaven. But that is an impossibility. If we want to go to Heaven, we need to live as God calls us to live. God will give us the grace to do so, and provides us with the sacraments—including the Sacrament of Penance for when we fall short. But He won’t force us to change our ways. We have to respond to His call and His grace.
So that brings us to the tension between the Christian and the world. We’re called to evangelize the world (see 1 Corinthians 9:16), bringing people knowledge of God and His gift of salvation, and how to follow His ways (Matthew 28:20). But because that involves telling people they do wrong, people respond with hostility. We’re bigots and judgmental in their eyes because we tell them what they practice is evil and not good.
Yes, some Christians do behave wrongly. They seem to relish a kind of vengeance where wrongdoers suffer, and they seem to take satisfaction in the belief that their enemies are going to go to Hell. They get outraged at the thought that the sinners might get to Heaven before they do (Matthew 21:31). But these are Christians who fail to do what God tells them to do. They are an aberration. But warning sinners to change so they are not excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven is not that kind of behavior.
If we want mercy from God, we must show mercy (Matthew 7:2). That means forgiving those who wrong us, and it means keeping the door open for people to reach God. Of course, this is something greater than we are. God is the one who brings people to salvation. But we can’t view ourselves as bouncers at the door, deciding who’s good enough to get in. The criminal, the unscrupulous politician, or (perhaps hardest of all) the person we can’t stand are all called by God. We should desire their salvation. That means speaking the truth with love. We don’t compromise on doing what is right, but we also don’t get so caught up in our own views, that we keep people away who are earnestly seeking God and want to turn to Him with their whole heart.