How to Recognize False Mercy, According to Ven. Fulton Sheen

Among Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s saintly insights and wisdom to keep us on the right path are his teachings on the mistaken notions of mercy.

(photo: Register Files)

From his television and radio shows to his many writings, Archbishop Futon Sheen shared one prophetic insight after another into the way faith relates to life.

He explained the time-bound in terms of the timeless. He did that in a convincing, direct way. Consider the subject of mercy.

“As the world grows soft, it uses more and more the word mercy,” he wrote back in 1949. The good bishop found this a “praiseworthy characteristic” on a particular condition: “if mercy were understood aright.”

Yet 70 years ago he was already seeing something amiss because “too often by mercy is meant letting off anyone who breaks the natural or the Divine law, or who betrays his country. Such mercy is an emotion, not a virtue,” he insisted.  He gave the example of mercy as the excuse to justify “the killing by a son of his father because he is ‘too old.’”  To avoid acknowledging and assigning any guilt to this act, the descriptions get reassigned language — “what is actually a murder is called euthanasia.” Sheen saw the writing on the wall long before the big push to legalize such “mercy.”

The good bishop pointed out that in every instance there is a major principle either ignored or forgotten: “the principle that mercy is the perfection of justice.”

So what does that mean? And how do mercy and justice always have to go together. No need to rack our brains because the eloquent Sheen with saintly insight makes it all clear for us as he explains the right order that needs to be.

“Mercy does not come first, and then justice; but rather justice first, then mercy.” Otherwise, “The divorce of mercy from justice is sentimentality, as the divorce of justice from mercy is severity.”

In other words, the two must go together. Why? “Mercy is not love when it is divorced from justice. He who loves anything must resist that which would destroy the object of his love.”

Although in this case he was “talking” to us via a book, we can imagine Sheen speaking to us during his TV show, looking at the camera but really directly at us and explaining with that convincing strength of his, “The power to become righteously indignant is not an evidence of the want of mercy and love, but rather a proof of it.”

Why? Because “There are some crimes the tolerance of which is equivalent to consent to their wrong. Those who ask for the release of murderers, traitors, and the like, on the grounds that we must be ‘merciful, as Jesus was merciful,’ forget that that same Merciful Savior also said that He came not to bring peace, but the sword.”

Sheen hones in on an example of parents acting mercifully but justly with their children. “As a mother proves that she loves her child by hating the physical disease which would ravage the child's body, so Our Lord proves He loved Goodness by hating evil, which would ravage the souls of His creatures.”

Same for a doctor. “For a doctor to be merciful to typhoid germs or polio in a patient, or for a judge to be tolerant of rape, would be in a lower category the same as for Our Lord to be indifferent to sin. A mind that is never stern or indignant is either without love, or else is dead to the distinction between right and wrong.”

How often today have we seen “be nice” raised to the level of high virtue?

On the other hand, “Love can be stern, forceful, and even fierce, as was the love of the Savior,” Sheen explained. “It makes a scourge of ropes and drives buyers and sellers out of temples; it refuses to give the courtesy of speech to moral triflers like Herod, for it would only add to his moral guilt; it turns on a Roman Procurator, boasting of Totalitarian law, and reminds him that he would have no power unless it were given to him by God. When a gentle hint to a woman at the well did no good, He went to the point ruthlessly and reminded her that she had five divorces. When so-called righteous men would put Him out of the way, He tore the mask off their hypocrisy and called them a 'brood of vipers.’ When He heard of the shedding of the blood of the Galileans, it was with formidable harshness that He said: ‘You will all perish as they did, if you do not repent.’”

And this next, which is so telling for today and for which Sheen would have considering using with examples drawn from the current horrendous scene: “Equally stern was He to those who would offend the little ones with an education that was progressive in evil: ‘If anyone hurts the conscience of one of these little ones that believe in me, he had better been drowned in the depths of the sea, with a mill-stone tied about his neck.’”

Television and movies were still mild during the 50’s and somewhat into the 60s when, besides already writing prolifically, Sheen had his television show. Most publications were still family-friendly. Even then, though, he certainly saw the writing on the wall as he continued, strongly reminding that Jesus told people “to pluck out eyes and cut off hands and feet, rather than to allow these members to become occasions for evil and the occasion of the loss of their immortal souls.”

“When one of His disciples asked to be excused from his apostolic work to bury his father, Our Lord said: ‘Do thou follow Me, and leave the dead bury their dead.’ While Martha waited on Him at table, he pointed out that something else was needed more than service. When His apostles slept, He awakened them ruthlessly and chided them for their want of prayer; and in spite of Thomas's full confession, He rebuked him for his want of faith. One of His looks was so soul-piercing, revealing the weakness and evil within, that a disciple was moved to tears.”

So what happens if mercy and justice don’t go hand-in-hand? Sheen explained, “If mercy meant the forgiveness of all faults without retribution and without justice, it would end in the multiplication of wrongs.” Otherwise it would be an abuse of mercy.

“Mercy is for those who will not abuse it,” Sheen explained, “and no man will abuse it who has already started to make the wrong right, as justice demands.”

The saintly archbishop again turned to what he saw happening as too much of society was already following the wrong path on mercy-justice in his day. He summed it up quite candidly:

“What some today call mercy is not mercy at all, but a feather-bed for those who fall from justice; and thus they multiply guilt and evil by supplying such mattresses. To become the object of mercy is not the same as to go scot-free, for as the word of God says: ‘Whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth.’ The moral man is not he who is namby-pamby, or who has drained his emotions of the sterner stuff of justice; rather he is one whose gentleness and mercy are part of a larger organism, whose eyes can flash with righteous indignation, and whose muscles can become as steel in defense, like Michael, of the Justice and the Rights of God.”

Sheen again timelessly shakes our ideas and reshapes them from society’s distortions into the two-millennia old correct Christian form.

One final thought. Personally, while our sins face justice, do not be shaken, but go to confession and ask God for his mercy. It’s there, as well as the justice connected to our penance and, if need be, the justice of purgatory, which also is coupled with the mercy of prayer, indulgences, and other ways to already here on earth mercifully shorten time there or wipe it out completely.