Mercy Is Not Sentimental

Commentary: The secular world does not understand what mercy means.

(photo: Shutterstock)

The secular world is constantly trying to absorb the Catholic Church into itself.

Recent misunderstandings of what Pope Francis has said concerning the virtue of mercy have generated the rumor that the Church will soon invite divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist. After all, that would be the merciful thing to do.

But the secular world does not understand what mercy means. It equates mercy with sentimentality. The latter, however, is not a virtue, but an emotional indulgence. Tolstoy drew a clear image of sentimentality in referring to fashionable Russian ladies who are moved to tears by a theater performance but remain oblivious to their own coachmen sitting outside waiting for them in the freezing cold.

Sentimentality begins and ends with emotion but is not in harmony with justice or the needs of others.

Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Catholic Faith, has reminded the world that mercy is not absolute. In a lengthy article appearing in the Oct. 23 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, the archbishop stated that "God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church" ("On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civily Remarried and the Sacraments").

This single sentence is most illuminating. It affirms the value of God’s mercy as well as the value of being faithful to his commandments and the rules of the Church. But it also indicates that mercy does not have unbridled priority.

Mercy is indeed a lofty virtue. As the poet Robert Herrick has said, "Mercy the wise Athenians held to be/Not an affection, but a Deity." Nonetheless, it cannot remain a virtue if it contradicts another virtue, specifically the virtue of justice.

St. Thomas Aquinas remarks that mercy "does not destroy justice, but is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice." "Mercy without justice," the "Angelic Doctor" goes on to say, "is the mother of dissolution," whereas "justice without mercy is cruelty."

The Latin word for mercy is misericordia, composed of miserum (sorrow) and cordial (referring to the heart). The merciful person is one who has a "sorrowful heart." He is eager to dispense his mercy, but only when it can do some good.

There is no advantage in dispensing mercy to someone who has not repented and remains committed to a wrong way of living. Such a person needs care and guidance before he is eligible for mercy. This point is dramatically brought home in Heinrich von Kleist’s play The Prince of Homburg.

The Prince, having disobeyed a military order, is sentenced to death. His father, the elector of Brandenburg, wants to save the life of his son, but cannot offer him mercy as long as the Prince does not see the justice of his sentence and remains unrepentant: "If I must argue with him for my pardon, I’d just as soon know nothing of his mercy."

The play ends on a high note, however. After considerable reflection, the Prince formally acknowledges the justice of his sentence, an act which makes him eligible for his father’s mercy. Justice is acknowledged, mercy is applied, and the play has a happy ending.

Mercy should not be confused with generosity. Generosity can be directed to a happy man and transcends the demands of justice. Mercy is directed to one who is suffering. But it must abide by the rules of justice.

According to C.S. Lewis, "Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety."

Mercy is humane only when it crowns justice. It is not an independent virtue. Its humane aspect is clearly evident because it is based on an acute sensitivity to human weakness. If we are not merciful to others, we deny our own fallibility and, consequently, our own need for mercy.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tied these two points together very well when he wrote: "Being all fashioned of the self-same dust,/ Let us be merciful as well as just."

Sentimentality wishes that things could be better, but without taking the necessary steps to make them better. Mercy is not sentimentality. It positions itself exquisitely between justice and the one who is suffering.

It is, as the Church has been teaching for two millennia, both Divine and human. It is prudent enough not to upset the order of morality and humane enough to tend to the sorrowful with loving care.

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.