For the past three days, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter has been reviewing Cardinal Walter Kasper's book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. The book is significant because the Cardinal gave a talk on it in preparation for the Synod on the Family that is occuring soon. I decided to combine the comments on the comments over the last three days into one article. I recommend the book and will read it myself. As always, read the articles by MSW first to get the gist of why I am bringing up the topics I address below. You can find them at http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/mercy-part-i, http://ncr... and http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/mercy-part-iii.
Kasper makes a nice start, but does not go far enough. The key scripture when considering the mercy and justice of God is when the Lord says "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30)" In other words, the justice of the Lord is not for the Lord, it is for us. The justice of the Lord is the Mercy of the Lord. It is how we live our human lives best. More importantly, where a moral precept has been made and it is not merciful it is also not just. That must be true with divorce and with who can get married.
God never says, sorry, you are out of luck - you must suffer. It is both just and merciful to say that a physically abuse marriage is ended or that a long time companion whose husband lay dying is the legitimate next of kin when others would exclude him from making the appropriate decisions a spouse makes. The perfection of God is His love for us - for the law is for us, not for God. God is necessary for us, but we are not necessary for God. He is not offended when we err - but when we likewise show no mercy to the other. Indeed, all the requirements to do right by the poor are acts of mercy and also justice - for no one owns the bounty of the Lord, it is given to us all and must be shared by all. That is true in ancient agricultural societies and in modern Capitalism - and woe those who do not deal mercifully with those who depend upon them.
Let me add that we need to get justice and mercy out of the world of sin and confession. The desire to set up sins that people must confess to or be damned is pathological.
The most important thing about the nativity story is not that we believe it, but that Jesus believed it. That is why he could speak with authority about forgiving sins and curing on the Sabbath. As important is that he said the Sabbath is for man (in other words, not for God) and that this can be applied to all our moral teaching, including that about the family and including those individuals we don't consider to be families - but are. What caused Jesus the agony on the cross was that he at some point had to tell his mother that he is dead (Gods don't die), giving up his divinity by giving her to John's care and giving John the mission to care for her, not baptize the world just yet. This emotional pain, only possible after the physical torture, had Jesus cry out to the Father for mercy - which was granted as he finally drank of the fruit of the fine before dying.
If the Passion is a divine vision quest, not a bloody divine sacrifice, the whole idea of mercy must be turned on its head - probably a bit more than Kasper intended in his treatment of substitutionary attonement. God felt what we feel, so we can now go to him, and his altar, to escape our sin. Ironically, it is easier for many in the Curia to except two dudes getting married than this change. Of course, one implies the other. All morality must be looked at through the lens of Jesus suffering to understand our suffering and as a balm for our souls, not a ransom. Morals which do not serve that purpose are not, therefore, from God. Damnation is not part of the afterlife as much as it is part of this one. Jesus is the answer and should not be the cause of greater alienation through unbearable moral precepts. The harder thing, of course, is for both clergy and faithful to follow the example of mercy, to bring happiness where there is pain, especially the pain of divorce.
Having been shown mercy, we must show the same - both in person and in politics (Social Security arrangements are part of this - something I still have arguments with libertarians about. Mercy is equated with Love (or Charity) as found in Corinthians Chapter 13. In other words we must enounter others with love (and pay our taxes in the same spirit. Kasper mentions the corporal works of Mercy, as found in Matthew 25, which we must accomplish joyfully, while bemoaning their lack of a central place in the current Cathecism. The seven deadly sins are seen as a more productive way to examine the conscience then the Commandments, which often yield an examination of conscience that is self centered rather than other centered - which is exactly the wrong way to go. He also does not use Mercy as a way to avoid any conscieness of sin - like abortion and assisted suicide (he does not entertain the thought that either might not always be sinful - which to me is a failure of imagination if death is certain or likely to occur in a dangerous pregnancy).
The ultimate end of mercy is not some moral excellence, or enhanced compassion, but the finding of Christ in our acts of mercy - so it is revelation rather than just morality (as often as you do these things you do them for me). This is not about Heaven, but life here on earth. MSW writes that this plays into our tendency to reduce morality to ethics - that we must keep God in the center. This, of course, dances with the words of St. Francis to preach the Gospel, using words only when necessary - about the most succint way of integrating morals with our inner light. It is a light we must share (not hide under a basket). It is not for only our own conversion, but also the conversion of others. For the whole Church and world, not just for self development. Kaspar also argues against Mercy as a source of cheap grace to avoid the confessional (maybe - but arguing about the sinfulness of certain acts is not necessarily denial if they have been mischaracterized by the Church).
Kasper also brings in social justice (back to that whole tax and spend thing the Acton Institute rejects as part of Catholic teaching). Kaspar has taken heat lately because he sounds like Pope Francis - and it seems there is some pent up and unsaid frustration about the Holy Father. Of course, this book is not about Kasper, the Pope or even Pope Benedict - all of whom say the same thing about this subject. These words are from Christ - which is bad news for those who would slay the messenger when Jesus is the message.
One important point. Mercy takes humility - and for the bishops and the Curia, this includes the willingness to admit error in moral teachings when the teachings are a burden, not an act of either justice or mercy. This thinking that they are never wrong where morality is concerned is the height of hubris, especially given that we now know that Leviticus was the product of exiled rabbis in Babylon rather than dictation from God to Moses.