Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

What Mercy Is

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

What Mercy Is

Article excerpt

What Mercy Is Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life BY WALTER KASPER PAULIST, 288 PAGES, $29.95

Recently, there's been an odd conversation in Catholic circles about the nature of mercy. Francesco Miaño, one of the married attendees of the recent synod on the family, said it centered on the "tension between mercy and truth." In this debate, the "traditionalists" were in favor of truth (you can't receive Communion if you are in a state of sin; if you intend to have relations outside a valid marriage, you are in a state of sin; ergo, etc.), while the "progressives" were in favor of mercy (shouldn't those who have had a conversion after a divorce and civil remarriage be able to approach the Eucharist?). Since instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners are among the traditional "works of mercy"-not to mention that Scripture tells us that Jesus is both merciful (Luke 6:36; Titus 3:5) and the Truth (John 14:6)-opposing mercy to truth is an unfortunate place for Catholic discussions to be.

Cardinal Walter Kasper seems to be the reason why the Catholic Church has been speaking about mercy so frequently these days. Pope Francis, who chose God's mercy as the theme of his first Angelus address on the Sunday after his election, credited the influence of Cardinal Kasper on his choice of topic:

"In these days, I have been able to read a book by a cardinal-Cardinal Kasper, a talented theologian, a good theologian-on mercy. And it did me such good, that book, but don't think that I'm publicizing the books of my cardinals. That is not the case! But it did me such good, so much good. ... Cardinal Kasper said that hearing the word mercy changes everything. It is the best thing that we can hear: It changes the world. A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God's mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience." Ever since then, mercy has been on the Pope's lips, and in book titles-as in The Church of Mercy, a collection of speeches by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Kasper's scope in Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life is wide. Fie attempts to address the question of just what mercy is, in God and in man, in theology and in politics. He begins the book with the complaint that "this topic, which is so central for the Bible and so relevant to the present experience of reality, appears at best in the margins of the lexica and handbooks of dogmatic theology." He calls this "catastrophic," especially given the current moment, "when many contemporaries have become discouraged, without hope and without orientation." Mercy is for Kasper a pastoral virtue, meaning one that brings love (and Christ) to people where they are. Kasper thinks that to be "pastoral" is basically the same as to be merciful, and so failures in pastoral practice are failures in mercy.

Kasper thinks that the Catholic theological tradition doesn't talk about mercy enough and that the classical concept of God, which sees God as perfect and unchanging, is "pastorally ... a catastrophe." To most people, "such a God appears to them to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world, in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties of the future." To counter this, we need a new dogmatic theology of divine mercy: "What is now required is to think through anew the entire teaching about God's attributes and, in the process, to allow mercy to assume its proper place."

And its proper place is as the fundamental attribute of God, while all other divine attributes are in some way secondary. Even God's justice is to be made subordinate to his mercy, because mercy "surpasses" and "goes beyond" justice.

This sounds profound, but does not withstand examination. Mercy is a virtue that requires someone who needs mercy, someone with some sort of sin or other imperfection. The Father is not merciful to the Holy Spirit. …

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