Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Principle of Mercy: Jon Sobrino and the Catholic Theological Tradition

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Principle of Mercy: Jon Sobrino and the Catholic Theological Tradition

Article excerpt

"Everything--absolutely everything--turns on the exercise of mercy." (1) In this statement Jon Sobrino anticipates the underlying spirit of Pope Francis's pontificate and expresses his conviction that mercy (2) is the fundamental reality that structures the action of God, the person of Christ, the perfection of the human person, and the mission of the church. It is the reality seen in God's freeing of the oppressed and welcoming of the prodigal, and it is the demand placed upon all who seek to authentically love their neighbor. Recalling both the scene of the last judgment in Matthew and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Sobrino insists that we never forget that both our transcendent salvation and our moral life in history depend upon our exercise of mercy. Mercy is "the first and the last." (3)

The theme of mercy has gained prominence in recent years in the Church and Catholic theology. Ecclesiastically, this theme has been important in the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and most notably, Francis. John Paul II's second encyclical, Dives in misericordia, richly explores divine and human mercy; and one should recall his institution of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2000. Benedict takes up the theme in Deus caritas est, among other places, and perhaps no other theme has so dominated Pope Francis's theological reflections. Indeed, one could rightly see Francis's papacy in terms of John XXIII's opening speech at Vatican II, where Pope John called for the Church to engage the world with the "medicine of mercy." (4)

Jon Sobrino remains one of the most influential voices in Latin American liberation theology and is one of the most insightful and perceptive interpreters of the theme of mercy in the contemporary church. Mercy is a theme that stands at the heart of Christian revelation, and, as has already been gestured at above, it plays a central role in Sobrino's thought. In this essay I argue that Sobrino's conception of mercy should be understood as an important and necessary development within the theological tradition, both in terms of a more faithful response to and representation of God's revelation and a more adequate conceptualization of the Christian life in response to the suffering of the poor, weak, and vulnerable. Sobrino's theology of mercy neither abandons the theological tradition nor leaves it where it is. Accordingly, an argument for development demands a demonstration (and not just an assumption) of how Sobrino is in strong continuity with earlier thought--otherwise we would have rupture or departure--but also an account of how and why he advances the theological tradition. These advances, as I will show, are at times simply a matter of drawing out what is dormant in earlier thinkers; at other times the development is more extensive and should be understood within the general contribution of liberation theology to contemporary thought. Either way, I intend to show that Sobrino's account of mercy is one of the most important for moving us forward in ways that maintain fidelity to the Christian tradition and respond to the contemporary world.

My argument proceeds in three steps. The first section provides an account of a "traditional" theology of mercy by means of an engagement with the theme of mercy in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Many other thinkers and sources--including the Cappadocians, patristic and medieval commentaries on Matthew 25 and Luke 10, traditional reflections on the works of mercy, and Catholic social teaching--could be used as the center of gravity in this section. I engage Aquinas not because he is the embodiment of the tradition, but rather because he provides one of the most robust and influential accounts of mercy in Christian history. Aquinas's account is particularly well developed, attentive to biblical and patristic sources, and influential on later thought--making it ideal for its role in this article. Furthermore, focusing most centrally on one traditional account of mercy provides greater rigor and precision for the comparative work with Sobrino. …

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