What Is God’s Mercy? Part I
Fr. Daniel Moloney is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston as am I. He and I went to the same seminary though seventeen years apart. Ordained in 2010, He holds a doctorate in Philosophy from Notre Dame University. Prior to his ordination he served as the associate editor of the magazine First Things.
He just published a book on Mercy (Ignatius) and I was so fascinated by it, I offered to interview him for Writings from the Catholic Abbey to the Secular World. This is the first of two (maybe three) parts. My words are in italics or in brackets except when referring to a book title.
So you write about mercy in very interesting ways. One of them I was fascinated by is that mercy is not as much a quality of God but it comes from God’s love and goodness. Can you tell me a little more about that?
When you realize that mercy is primarily about when things go wrong, you realize it can’t be something that has to do with just God himself. It is not like the Father just has to pick up the skinned knee of God the Son.
Everything within the person of the Trinity is perfect, so mercy cannot be something just within God. God’s mercy has to be about fixing something in a fallen world. But since the teaching of the Church is that God created the world freely, it was not a side effect of him being God. It was not like the world just showed up. It emanated from him in the classical description.
But, I said, He created it freely and He created it good. Which means that at the beginning there was nothing wrong and, therefore, there was no need for mercy. So mercy has to be something that brings the question: ‘What is it about God in his perfect state by himself that is the root of what we call mercy?’
The Christian tradition kind of has two ideas. The older one is God’s goodness. God’s goodness makes things better. Better means ‘more good’. There is a later chapter in the book when I talk about the Jansenists. When you started to have people who said that God’s justice was kind of cruel and harsh. One of the responses of the Church — and this is one of the upshots of the devotion to the Sacred Heart for example — is to emphasize God’s love. So justice and mercy are a pair. Mercy and love became closely associated emphasizing Jesus’ heart, emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. Both in the sense of Him being man and that He is humane.
These became parts of the devotion in the Church and that is why one of the things people will find surprising is that for a long time, love was not associated with mercy as His goodness was. God’s goodness was more associated with His mercy than His love. But if you read St. Teresa of Lisieux, it is all about love, love, love, love, love. So I think she actually is important for the phrase that God’s merciful love just comes flowing out of our mouths.
And I loved what you said that one of the reasons why Jesus had to come and redeem us is that without salvation, if we were in Heaven we would not enjoy it.
I quote Saint Anselm of Canterbury [1033–1109] who makes this point in his treatise of why God became man. It is a powerful point and I think it helps explain that passage in Isaiah. He is standing looking at the angel singing the Sanctus in Heaven and he says “Woe is me, I can’t sing with them.” I think that is almost if you wanted to find purgatory: it is wanting to sing in the Heavenly choir and not be able to because of your sins, but wanting to.
As you mentioned, already you spoke about Jansenism; you wrote about Jansenism. Some of the way you describe it kind of reminds me of what I see on the web today. There is this faction that is just God’s justice and your chances of getting to heaven are a little bit more than zero and people literally seem to be celebrating the Massa Damnata. [A teaching that the vast majority of people will go to Hell. It is a Latin phrase that literally means the damned masses.] Would I be wrong saying that there seems to be this Jansenist streak that is popping up in some of these ministries?
I think so, but I think if you want to understand Jansenism, you want to think of it as a universal call to holiness. Like ‘holiness is difficult and holiness requires extraordinary effort and extraordinary obedience to God’ — a hatred of lukewarmness. The people who have that sort of nasty tone on the web are the heirs of the Jansenists. I don’t know if they would have the same doctrines all the way down, but what they don’t like is a kind of wishy-washy ‘everybody goes to Heaven’ quasi universalism. It is super easy all you have to do is put a flower in a soldier’s gun and you go to Heaven. That kind of stuff. The hippie stuff, the lukewarmness, that it is easy, the broad path takes you to heaven. So that is the spiritual insight that the Jansenists had, they were reacting against that kind of thing.
It is that they did it in ways that made mercy into something they did not like. They almost actively poo poo’d mercy. And so, part of that is again one of the big themes of the book is that a lot of our ideas about mercy are basically wrong. Basically, you could almost use it as an examination of conscience: if I think that my notion of mercy is impractical or if I think that my notion of mercy is against justice or against God’s order or something like that then I have to take a look at my theory of mercy. And so if you fix mercy into being opposed to justice then mercy would be unjust. And that is kind of how the Jansenists looked at mercy.
You have that great passage in St Teresa Lisieux’s Story of a Soul where there was this kind of Jansenist strain that was going on in the Carmelites in France. They would make this oblation of themselves to God’s justice and take upon themselves the punishment on the non-elite, non-Carmelite regular folk. They would suffer the punishment and they would have all the merits of their good deeds that would be given over to the regular people — that notion of God.
So, there was a kind of solidarity going on there where ‘I the Carmelite nun will take the punishment that God has to give to the world.’ ‘I’ll take the hit and you guys go forward without me.’ It is kind of like a soldier in God’s army wanting to jump on a grenade but St. Therese of Lisieux almost instinctively reacted against that saying: “No I don’t think God needs to punish that way.”
So, again, Therese did not diminish mortifications because of this. She did not say ‘well it is easy to get to Heaven.’ It is very hard to be little and to love. Because love makes you hurt; love makes you vulnerable. The ones that you love, if they suffer, you suffer with them.
She really entered into Jesus’ suffering and Jesus’ loving suffering and talked about it that way. So, there is nothing easy or soft in her giving herself over to God’s mercy. It wasn’t out of God’s need to punish.
Fr. Daniel Moloney’s Book: Mercy, What Every Catholic Should Know is available through Ignatius Press
Next week: Mercy and Government