Another key issue is that whereas man should always forgive, recalling that he too is a sinner, God – the all Merciful – can only grant His ever ready mercy if the sinner is repentant and begs for forgiveness. Being Love itself, we can “imagine” that He almost “begs” the sinner to ask for mercy, because He is so eager to be merciful and to remit debts. But a sinner who refuses to do so, seals his own fate. Kierkegaard has seen this in his great work: “Sickness unto death.” Referring to a man threatened by despair and desperately in need of help, knowing that this help is in fact offered to him, he refuses it, preferring to suffer the tortures of hell than to be indebted to his benefactor. C.S. Lewis had a profound insight in mind when he wrote that “the doors of Hell are locked from the inside.”
Is this not the fearful situation of Judas? He knew that Christ was all forgiving. I recall vividly that while in grammar school, the nun brought to the classroom a little pamphlet that she had received from a priest working in the Parisian slums. This priest related to the little ones the fearful betrayal of Judas, and his abominable death. There was a deadly silence, and then a small little boy raised his hand and said: “Father, why did not Judas hang himself on Christ’s neck?” This story which I heard as a child, made such an impression upon me that I never forgot it. A small child coming from the slums was teaching us a sublime lesson: the alternative for all of us, sinners, is to hang ourselves on a tree, or on the Divine Savior’s neck. Wisdom is indeed given to the little ones.
Human “forgiving” is clearly incapable of cleansing a man from his sin. This is clearly stated in the Gospel: when Christ said to a man: “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” The Pharisees took offense and said rightly: “God alone can forgive sins.” But in their tragic blindness, they failed to understand that by the very fact that Christ did so, He was proving his divinity.
Alas, which one of us would dare claim that he fully partakes of Christ’s charity for sinners? The saints alone (“I live, not I, but Christ lives in me”) truly and fully love their neighbors; they alone are willing to suffer for the sinners’ sake, because they alone are real lovers.
What is dubbed “secular charity” is only a form of indifferentism to both truth and natural morality. “Let him live the way he chooses, if that is what makes him happy”, is something we hear ad nauseam.
While taking to heart the words of Good Pope John, we should realize that the Devil delights in hijacking whatever the Church says, does or recommends. This is grave indeed: when a Catholic prelate is legally prohibited to condemn homosexual practices in the pulpit, it should make us aware that we are on the brink of a moral abyss. When the President of a powerful country declares officially that he favors “gay marriages” in the name of justice and fairness, the moral death knell of a society has sounded.
Love is a many faceted Jewel, the beauty of which comes from God who is Love. Compassion is one of its facets, but when it is infected by secularism, it will inevitably degenerate into its caricature.
A comparison might shed light on this point. Let us assume that a patient is afflicted with a deadly disease. His doctor is a man with a “golden heart.” He spends hours at his bed side, shows his compassion, love, affection, holds his hands, shares his patient’s tears. But let us assume that in his long career, he has never succeeded in healing a single one of them. When a patient urgently needs an operation, he refuses to perform it, because the patient is “so dear to him” that he does not want him to “suffer.” Would we recommend him to others?
If a person has endorsed heretical views which he not only defends, but spreads, love (caritas) – while ardently praying for him – would betray its mission if it failed to warn the sheep of how dangerous his teaching is, and failed to warn the heretic of the spiritual dangers he is exposed to. (see St. Francis of Sales' “Introduction to the Devout Life,” Book III, chapter 29) Love is as strong as death, and if “compassion” ignores this factor, it is bound to degenerate into “sentimentality.”
This has been powerfully expressed by Paul Evdokimov in his book on “The Problem of Evil in Dostoievski.” Referring to the lovable figure of Prince Mychkine (this thoroughly “good” man) – the very incarnation of “compassion” – the Russian author shows that because his compassion is a crippled love, this “saintly man” only succeeds in harming those he intended to help; he triggers a series of disasters, and ends by himself falling back into madness. It is a danger confronting us today when love is confused with languid inaction, when action is called for. Not to condemn heresies and perversions is a lack of charity toward the heretic, the perverse, and all those they infect.
There are statements which sound so kind, so loving, so charitable, but are dangerously equivocal. The Zeitgeist tells us not to condemn, not to anathematize, not to challenge and refute. We are – in the name of humility and charity – urged to keep in mind that we conquer evil with mercy. Alas, Christ’s divine love did not save Judas from perdition. Yet, Christ died for him, as He did for all men.
Human mercy is but a pale copy of God’s mercy – it is limited: to “remit” a debt to an insolvent debtor. God alone can forgive sins. We should therefore be very careful in using the word “mercy.” To be merciful toward sinners is not man’s mission. Only God, the incarnation of Mercy can show his mercy toward sinner. Sin offends God and God alone. Man is called to lovingly pray for heretics and grave sinners, but neither heresy nor sin call for mercy. Mercy cannot be shown toward sin; but God always offers it to the sinner. He alone can remit the terrible debt that the sinner incurs by his sin. That divine mercy can be rejected by heretics and sinners is the mysterium iniquitatis that remains for us human beings, a mystery.
When speaking about heresies and moral perversions, mercy is totally inappropriate: there is nothing to be merciful about. The only appropriate word is: anathema sit, a blessed word which we find the New Testament, mostly in St. Paul, but also implicitly in St. John. (the apostle of love) He writes in his second Epistle that we should not even greet heretics. (2:10) The word anathema sit has been used in all the great ecumenical councils of the Church.
True, there are cases when a saint’s love and charity has been the instrument chosen by God to bring a sinner back to Him. I recall reading the story of a saint who lovingly urged a sinner to abandon his evil ways. The man’s response was to brutally slap him in the face. The saint’s response was: “beat me all you want, but do not offend God.” This was for this sinner the moment of grace and he found his way back to God. The saint was not “merciful” toward the sinner: he was practicing Christian charity.
Because “mercy” is essentially divine, it embraces all the perfections of both compassion and pity. When we feel a compassion for one who is suffering, we are not creditors, he is not a debtor. The good Samaritan, in lovingly treating the wounded man, was not “remitting a debt.” He did not know who the wounded man was.
Toward God, we are all debtors in various degrees, but knowing God to be immensely merciful we should never hesitate to appeal to His mercy. Simultaneously we should hope that all sinners would do the same. Which one of us would not be happy if we had even a faint guarantee that several political monsters produced in the terrible 20th century, had, at the very last second of their criminal lives, begged God for mercy. The message of Sister Faustina is luminous: “He will never turn down our request for forgiveness, Woe to us – daily beneficiaries of God’s divine mercy – if we refuse to remit the minimal debts that our neighbors have toward us.”
How deeply “mercy” transcends both compassion and pity (while including their virtues) is strikingly shown by the fact that whereas both compassion and pity can be shown to mammals, mercy does not and cannot apply to them: for not being persons, they cannot be in our debt; they cannot sin. This is true not because they are “above” man but because they are below him. Not being persons, they “cannot” sin. But we can and should show compassion and pity toward mammals – the highest animals in the realm of creation.
Toward sinful men we should be animated by a holy pity. (as opposed to an hypocritical condescending one) This holy pity challenges us to go on our knees and ardently pray for their conversion. This is the magnificent meaning of many penitential orders. They are based on the trust that God’s infinite goodness will listen to the prayers of the innocent for their guilty brothers.
Christ has delegated the merciful power to forgive sins to His Church. It is clearly a mark of the true Church.
The conclusion we wish to draw is that to identify compassion and pity with mercy is dangerously misleading. May this brief essay shed some light on this grave confusion.