I love the image of Divine Mercy devotion. I’m delighted by Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy. I think the Year of Mercy is a great idea. The new church we’re building will house the Divine Mercy shrine of the Southeast. It will feature images and relics of the two saints of Divine Mercy—St. Faustina and Pope St. John Paul II, but I wonder if our own society sometimes hears our emphasis on mercy and gets the wrong end of the stick.
Rather than Divine Mercy maybe we need to remember Divine Justice, because there is no Divine Mercy without Divine Justice. Furthermore, hasn’t the Church in America emphasized nothing but mercy for a long time now?
I should say we have emphasized a false understanding of the Divine Mercy which is really universalism–that belief that everyone will one day get to heaven.
From what I understand, the majority of American Catholics have been receiving a feel good, easy going, wall-to-wall message of “let’s just try hard to be nice people because nice people will all go to heaven when they die.” The name for this watered-down Christianity is sentimentalist universalism.
This kind of religions feels good, but it is too good to be true. There is another side to the Divine Mercy, and that is the truth that some people will reject mercy because they will not repent and turn from their pride and sin to God.
So they take the soft option of sentimentalist universalism. They relax into the nice idea that God is too much of a nice guy to send anyone to hell, and what they really mean that he wouldn’t send them to hell.
Built into sentimentalist universalism is an incredible assumption of self righteousness. God would not surely send me to hell! At the very root of this belief is the overbearing conviction that I am a good person just as I am, and that fundamental misapprehension is surely the one sin, above all, that is unforgivable.
It is unforgivable not because God cannot or will not forgive it, but because the guilty person cannot see that there is anything to forgive. He does not, and cannot know his need of God, and is therefore not only likely to be damned, but he is first in line.
The other dangerous thing about sentimentalist universalism is its tendency to reduce religious and moral judgements to questions of good manners and respectable behavior.
The sentimental universalist finds it difficult to imagine God sending his golf buddy to hell because the fellow is such a nice chap, a member of the country club, supports the Rotary and goes to church every Sunday. Judgements are made on outward appearances, and the shallow universalist assumes that everyone, deep down, is just as nice and squeaky clean and wholesome as all those beautiful people in Coca Cola ads.
Sharp moral judgements, a keen eyed sense of sin and a stern sentence—first of all against ourselves—is what is needed. I worry that in our soft and indulgent American society the Divine Mercy devotion may confirm all the wrong sentiments.
Maybe along with the Divine Mercy what our society needs most at this moment is a reminder that Jesus Christ is not only the Divine Mercy, but also the Righteous Judge at the End of Days.