Questions Answered


Woman Caught in Adultery by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (“Guercino”) 1591-1666.

Question: The Pope has declared this year to be a “Year of Mercy.” Can you give me an explanation of what mercy is, and how it relates to justice?

Answer: The intention of the Pope in declaring this year a “Year of Mercy” seems to encourage the Church to address the issue of evangelization of those who are perhaps estranged from the Church. Mercy is the companion to justice. It recognizes justice but, since it is based on sorrow at the undeserved evil of another, mercy goes beyond justice.

The vice which is contrary to “mercy” is not “injustice,” but rather “envy” which is sorrow at the real good of another simply because it rivals one’s own. Envy, as a vice, is contrary to both a real sorrow at the evil of another (mercy), and what the Greeks called “nemesis” which is a sorrow at the undeserved good of another. As a sin against the order of reason, envy denies both of these tendencies which are both good, and accord with the natural law.

In Christianity, however, the concept of “pity” or “mercy” takes on a more urgent and central aspect. Charity, which is love of God, is the primary virtue at the basis of all virtue, whether acquired by human practice, or infused by God. The companion of charity, when it comes to others, is implemented principally in mercy. This is even true of the “love of neighbor,” which is expressed through external works of mercy. Thomas Aquinas says: “The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works; but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy to our neighbor.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 30, 4, ad 2) The reason mercy is the prime Christian virtue is because it is not only other-oriented, but it is characteristic of the way God treats every human being. Charity is greater because God is above us, but supplying the defect of someone who is suffering comes next. Here, we apply the attitude of God towards his creation because God is higher and better than all created things he loves in supplying what is deficient in his creation because his nature is to share the bounty of his goodness.

“Forgiveness” is obviously one of the primary applications of mercy. There is a tendency in the Church today to say that one should always forgive, no matter what the disposition of the person forgiven is and, in a sense, pretending that there is no offense. This is simply not what is meant by mercy. Justice without mercy may be cruelty, but mercy without justice leads to dissolution. What would justice require when it comes to the divine mercy? The necessary response of the soul to the reception of mercy and forgiveness (if it is to benefit the one who receives, and not just the one who gives) is repentance and conversion.

Mercy without (any requirement for) conversion is not divine mercy. It is mistaken pity of an incompetent and/or weak physician who contents himself with bandaging wounds without treating them. (Carlo Cafarra, Mercy and Conversion in Eleven Cardinals Speak), Ignatius Press, 2015, 7)

Though God wants to forgive everyone from his infinite goodness (indeed, this is the reason he died on the cross), to do this without requiring conversion of heart is contrary to the order of truth. Creation came forth to manifest divine love and the sharing of his goodness with creation. This was ratified in the first gift of grace to Adam and Eve, which allowed them to arrive at heaven. It was completed in the greater mercy shown by God in the Incarnation of his Son, and completed in Jesus’ death on the cross. But, as is evident in the words of John the Baptist, and in the first proclamation by Christ of his mission: “Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), the proper response to this mercy is the recognition of the sinner of his sin, together with a sincere desire to amend his life. To accept human beings as they are in their sins, with no judgement about the need to repent, is contrary to the demands of the objective order of nature, and to the axiom of non-contradiction. It is tantamount to saying that the love of God can exist together in the soul of a person who is objectively in the state of sin. A conscience formed with the idea that mercy means no change or repentance is merely a license to sin. This is tantamount to saying that there are no objective evils.

Christ manifested mercy many times to people who were considered heinous sinners in his time. But he did not justify their sin. He did not tell the woman caught in adultery to just keep sinning. Instead, he told her to avoid that sin. Thomas Aquinas comments on this:

But our Lord does not love sin, and does not favor wrongdoing, and so he condemned her sin, but not her nature, saying, Go, and do not sin again. We see here how kind our Lord is because of his gentleness, and how just he is because of his truth.” (Comm. On John, pt. 2 cc. 8-21, quoted in Cafarra, Cardinals, 10).


Question: What is the real problem with the renewal of the liturgy after Vatican II?

Answer: The renewal of the liturgy after Vatican II was probably, up until the present, the most controversial implementation of this Council. As is well-known, Pope Benedict XVI has made no bones about the fact that he thinks that the basic problems in the post-Vatican II Church are caused by difficulties in the liturgy.

I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today results, in large part, from the collapse of the liturgy. The liturgical reform produced extremely grave damage for the Faith. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, quoted in “Restoring the Liturgy: How We Must Proceed, part 2), Inside the Vatican, May 2005, 95)

The Pope has written several books on the theology of the liturgy in an attempt to deal with this ecclesial crisis: Feast of Faith, The Spirit of the Liturgy and A New Song for the Lord. According to the Pope, the change in the Roman Missal published in 1969, while valid and possible, represented an unprecedented event in the history of the Church. The problem was not so much a new Missal, but the attempt to detach it from the prior Missal. This was accompanied by an attempt to suppress all prior liturgical expressions.

There is no doubt that this new missal, in many respects, brought a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm. (Ratzinger, Milestones, 148)

The difficulty stems from an attempt on the part of experts to produce a liturgy without having it grow spontaneously from the experience of the faithful. The liturgy, in fact, is the expression in prayer of the orthodox faith. Just as faith, revelation, and grace cannot be a human product, so the liturgy cannot be merely the product of human initiative responding to a given temporal situation, but must be an expression of a mystery which is beyond human power.

As the traditional expression “lex orandi, lex credendi” goes, the words and works which we use in prayer, especially public prayer, must express the truth which God has revealed to us.

The question of liturgy is not peripheral: the Council itself reminded us that we are dealing here with the very core of the Christian faith. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, 120)

The whole theory of the faith is evidenced in how a person views the public cult of the Church.

If the faith is a divine, transcendent mystery, which truly expresses the communion of the Church in the Holy Trinity which is a mystery, then the liturgy is central to the experience of divine revelation. The language must be majestic, filled with the very rich theological content which elevates man, and expresses the eternal. All the gestures, architecture, clothing, time, and music must equally express a mystery beyond words.

Since this very eternity reflects the divine worship of the Trinity through the risen and ascended Christ in heaven, then the ritual is a human attempt to express his sublime action. It cannot be modified merely to reflect some passing problem of the present time. The whole Church must determine these rituals, in both word and action. The only organ which can speak for the whole Church in this regard is the Pope and the bishops together. No one, not even an individual priest or bishop, can modify the ritual to suit his private taste of the moment.

On the other hand, if the Catholic religion is merely the result of human reasoning, which is an interpretation of people’s lived experiences, then man himself creates whatever is transcendent about it. In fact, it should only reflect man’s present difficulties and needs. This way of looking at religion became prevalent in the Church in an attempt to detach theology from a Scholastic philosophy which was based on the knowledge of unchanging natures. The denial of real universal ideas led to the strange existentialist position that man creates his own reality in the midst of an absurd world.

When these ideas were applied by some to the liturgy, the result was disastrous. Of course, this was not the intention of the bishops at Vatican II. But the attempt to deny eternal realities for the sake of lived experience had already begun twenty years before the Council met at the outset of the movement for liturgical reform. Louis Bouyer, a brilliant participant in the reform of the liturgy, reflects in his Memoirs on the fact that the original movement to renew the liturgy in which he participated in France before the Council was plagued by this difficulty. This was so extreme that he withdrew from the original liturgical movement in the 1950s. He explains:

It was, therefore, already quite clear that the majority of the priests who took an interest in the new movement came not at all to give back to the traditional liturgy all of its hidden meaning, and all of its life-giving reality. They intended gradually to substitute for it another liturgy or, as the expression went, a “para-liturgy.” This was to be more in conformity with the tastes and mental habits of what these nice folks called “modern man,” who actually stood in for a homo clericalis more or less cut off from the roots long before what was to be termed “openness to the world” was set in opposition to conversion to the Gospel. {…} It foreshadowed only too well what Bernanos would later call the confusion of apostolate with apostasy. (The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer, Angelico Press, 2015, 160-161)

Man creates the reality, and so each community may take the liturgy generally approved in Rome as a sort of working model. But each community, indeed each individual priest, remains free to modify or change elements of the liturgy to fit the needs of the present. One should note that though Bouyer was a part of the committee which produced the original reform of the Roman Missal under Paul VI, he was troubled greatly by the hasty and, in some ways, manipulative way in which things like the Offertory prayers were constructed. Though he also thought a reform was good and necessary, a faulty philosophy was at times at the root of some of the things discarded and adopted by this committee. This is why Pope Benedict went to such great pains to state that there was only one Roman Mass, and to stress a “hermeneutics of continuity” in which interpretation of the prayer life of the Church should always favor what was already established over an innovation.

When liturgy is self-made, however, then it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our own product but rather our origin and source of life. {… } Then, the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless.” (Ratzinger, Milestones, 148-9)

The reaction of Catholics to such a man-centered, and self-centered, creation of the Mass is a sort of spiritual starvation. This has led many to forsake the Church as the source of union with the living God.

One shudders at the lackluster face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality, and its lack of artistic standards {…}. (Ratzinger, the Ratzinger Report, 121)

For the Pope, the solution is first a return to the connection of the worship of the Church to the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The problem is more one of philosophy than the actual texts of the present Missal, though the final resolution of the reform still seems a work in progress. This can only be accomplished by a return to a more realistic and objective philosophy, more attention to the traditional liturgy as the whole resourcement movement in Vatican II pointed out, and a recovery of some of the traditional emphasis on sacrifice in the Mass by, for example, a reassessment of the Offertory prayers.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Sounds eerily similar to those who express a need for ..”a new language” with which to address the Church’s teachings on same sex marriage and communion for those in irregular marriages. The intention expressed to make the teachings more understandable to those engaged in such, the reality being a watering down of the teachings, confusion and doubt on the part of practicing Catholics.

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    In the play ” Merchant of Venice ” Portia says mercy drops from heaven like gentle drops of rain ” SO the Holy Spirit gives mercy to persons who ask for it. Mercy is shown when one uses the sacrament of Penance/reconciliation, the mercy of God is there. Or when one asks for forgiveness from another person. Jesus Christ in the attractive picture of mercy desires that all persons live the good life of love, justice, and forgiveness.