Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
June 24, 2016
One of the persistent, mostly under-the-radar controversies within this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy has been whether mercy involves a call to profound conversion or is simply an indulgence giving sinners a green light to continue sinning with the tacit, benevolent acquiescence of the Church.
Throughout this year, I’ve met priests and faithful who have expressed opposition to the Jubilee for precisely that reason, objecting to the ideas of those who seem to treat “mercy” as enabling rather than eliminating the very behavior that mercy, after repentance, is meant to absolve.
Pope Francis has been clear that mercy is for “sinners” — those who recognize they’ve fallen and need God’s forgiveness — and not for the “corrupt,” those who have become so hardened in their sin that they treat vice as virtue. He has repeatedly and fiercely called the corrupt to conversion precisely so that they might receive mercy.
Despite that papal emphasis, however, the idea continues that mercy basically means giving the alcoholic a six-pack, letting the thief keep his loot, awarding the plagiarist an A, and applauding the marriage-breaking adulterer as honorable.
That’s because, I think, many have confused being merciful with being amiable, soft, and nonjudgmental about everything, including behavior that is clearly objectionable. To insist that something is sinful — and therefore spiritually toxic — is to be mean, the logic goes. To suggest that there might a better way to live one’s life is to be a hater.
This is far from what God reveals about mercy.
When St. Paul speaks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-3), he specifies two that often seem like synonyms, normally translated as “kindness” and “goodness.” Even though closely related, there’s an important contrast in the Greek St. Paul employs that is relevant to this discussion.
Chrestotes is the first word and is normally translated as kindness, goodness, or sweetness. It generally refers to the way Jesus treated the sinful woman who anointed his feet (Lk 7:37).
The second word is agathosune, and while normally translated goodness, generosity, or benignity, the Greek term denotes a goodness that can give a fraternal correction, rebuke and discipline. Jesus showed this agathosune when he cleansed the Temple area of those who were exploiting the poor, when he reproached the scribes and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and on several occasions corrected Peter and the apostles.
Those filled with the Holy Spirit, those who are merciful as God is merciful, will feature both chrestotes and agathosune. They’ll be sweet and good, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who doesn’t await his son with a whip but with open arms. But they’ll also be capable of challenging people to live the truth and leave sin behind, courageous enough to risk rejection and even their life to try to save a sibling from harm or self-inflicted damage.
One of the problems today is many don’t think that mercy or goodness — as described by the fruit of the Spirit agathosune — ever involves tough love, kind admonition, constructive criticism, or even telling the truth. In the age of affirmation, saying something that might hurt the feelings or offend the sensibilities of a supersensitive neighbor is received as verbal sadism. Failure to accept and agree publicly with anything that person cares about is considered condemnable aggression.
We could examine the situation on colleges, where today many students refuse even to allow on campus highly accomplished speakers with whom they disagree because they cannot fathom being in the same zipcode with those whose ideas dispute their own.
We could look at what has been happening to those who oppose any elements of the LGBT cultural and political agenda; or who defend the institution of marriage as it’s always been understood up until recent times; or even those who think that there is a distinction between same-sex attractions and same-sex activity: how they’re treated as hateful pariahs who not only ought be punished with losing homes and businesses but who should be held ultimately responsible for the wicked terrorist atrocity in Orlando.
The cultural shaming and bullying directed against those who don’t — and out of conscience can’t — get with the zeitgeist is making the exercise of mercy in truth much more courageous, where today it almost borders on social, academic, and cultural martyrdom.
Are people, especially Christians, still strong and truthful enough to be merciful under these circumstances?
The area in which there’s the most urgent need for mercy featuring both chrestotes and agathosune is the present transgender delirium our society is confronting.
If there’s anyone who deserves our compassion it’s those who believe themselves to be transgender. To deem oneself to be a man trapped in a woman’s body or vice versa is a dysphoria no one would ever covet.
I’ve had occasion over my priesthood to meet with a half-dozen transgender men and women who have come to see me because of my work with Courage, which helps those with same-sex attractions live chastely as faithful Catholics. They didn’t know where else in the Church to turn. I sought to help them with their immediate struggles, answered their questions about the faith, defended some of them against the shame and pressure their family members were putting on them for things obviously beyond their control, assisted them to get solid psychological accompaniment, talked them out of getting gender reassignment surgery, tried to help them to grasp that they were not freaks but beloved children of God for whom the Lord would die on Calvary 1,000 times over 1,000 times worse, and sought to remind them that the Lord will be accompanying them on what may continue to be a steep Way of the Cross.
At the same time, I could never in conscience exercise the false mercy of “pretending” with regard to the psychological, metaphysical, and moral issues involved, in order somehow to help them “feel better.” It’s not charitable when everyone humors the Emperor by not mentioning he has no clothes. It likewise fails to respect the dignity of a person when everyone pretends that the Emperor is an Empress. Even though he sincerely may feel like one, he’s not and never will be. And we do no one a service by pretending that fantasy is reality. That’s not merciful. It’s deceitful, because life is not a game of make-believe.
Beyond all the issues dealing with bathrooms, pronouns, surgeries, athletic competitions, psychological and medical manuals and more, we have the pressing matter of whether we, individually and as a society, are going treat people with true or false compassion, with real or fake love, with sacrificial pity trying to help them get help or conspiratorial negligence playing along as if we really believe everything is absolutely fine and healthy.
The truth is part of mercy. Chrestotes and agathosune are a package deal if we’re living, thinking and acting according to the Holy Spirit. But are we courageous enough to allow the Spirit of Truth to use us to give the prophetic, authentically merciful witness our age demands?