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In his masterpiece The Lord, Guardini has a revealing chapter on “Justice and That Which Surpasses It.” It’s worth reading as a clue to the Holy Father’s thought when he announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy. To quote Guardini at length:
Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life.
We should not read Christ’s mercy as a judgement against all judgements. Evil exists. Sin matters. The damage it does can be bitter and not easily undone—adultery being a perfect example. But the story does remind us that, apart from God’s grace, all of us are misshapen by the distorted desires of our hearts.
As Guardini wrote, “before one can be just, one must learn to love.” We live in a tangle of debts that we owe to others and that others owe to us, in a web of mutual hurts that pure justice can never undo. When we seek justice untempered by mercy, no matter how well-intentioned we are, we risk crushing others or being crushed ourselves by the punishments we deserve. On its own, the human race cannot achieve true justice or show true mercy effectively. As Paul says, we’re in bondage to sin and death.
The true character of mercy lies in what sets it apart from pity. God’s mercy is active. To save us, God assumes our human condition “from within” and becomes the most human of us all. In his crucifixion Jesus offers his life to the Father on our behalf out of love, in perfect innocence and justice. In doing so, he renders us “just,” refashioning a right relationship between human beings and God.
Mercy, like the virtue of charity (or love) from which it derives, is a virtue easily abused and misconceived. But even in our daily routines, we’re often tempted to use the language of mercy to dodge our responsibility to seek justice. We lie or dissemble rather than bruise the feelings of others whose behaviors are clearly wrong. This is a polite form of cowardice, not mercy. The moral law guides us toward choices that are life-giving, and true mercy is always intimately linked to truth. Indulging our own or another’s flawed choices in the supposed service of mercy defeats mercy’s true goal.
This mercy asks us to teach the truth but also to live it. It asks us to preach not ourselves but the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is news not of “affirmation” but of something more powerful, more desired by all of us—redemption. The Church in this Year of Mercy invites us to encounter anew the love of our Redeemer. – Archbishop Charles Chaput (full text @ www.firstthings.com)