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Since the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Church has been engaged in a kind of focused conversation about mercy. In 2014, we began preparations for the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family – discussions in Rome centering on the meaning of mercy in the context of the family. A great deal of good has come from those conversations.
But two false notions of mercy have emerged from these conversations. They are very dangerous and very popular; and they’ve become real factors in pastoral practice. They both centre on a false divide between truth and mercy. They both, ultimately, end up as a kind of relativism.
If we want to be missionaries of mercy – if we want to “render the deeds of mercy” – we need to be acutely aware of error, and be prepared to respond to it. Instructing the ignorant, however uncomfortable, is among the spiritual works of mercy to which we are all obliged.
The first false idea is that conscience is an absolute source of moral truth. This idea suggests that if we want to act rightly, we only need to “listen to our conscience.” But our conscience is only effective when it is formed correctly, when it strengthens us and guides us to live according to reality and moral truth.
When people talk about following their conscience, they often mean that what really matters is how we feel about what we do. If we don’t feel guilty, then we must not actually be guilty. That if our choices feel right, they are right. This kind of talk implies that God’s mercy is a kind of revocation of our moral responsibilities; that because God is merciful, he won’t hold us accountable.
To form the consciences of believers, the job of pastors is two-fold: first, to inform the conscience by teaching the truth authentically, and then to help men and women make practical judgments, in particular circumstances, that reflect that truth. This work is done in the confessional and spiritual direction: heart to heart.
The second false notion of mercy is the idea that our daily choices really don’t matter very much at all to God. That if we are fundamentally oriented to God and to goodness— our daily actions, even outside the boundaries of revealed truth and the natural law, will be good.
The only true kind of mercy is predicated on truth. God’s mercy is operative when it makes us better men and women, not when it makes excuses for depravity. God’s mercy gives the capacity for goodness, and justice, and heroic virtue.
We are all called to be missionaries of mercy. We are called to witness to truth, and to redemption. And the best way to teach others the path of mercy is through the choices of our own lives. If we hope to be missionaries of mercy, we must be merciful.
If we hope to teach truth, we must be witnesses to its effects. – Bishop James Conley (full text @ firstthings)