If God is love and love is mercy, which seem to be two keys ideas of the teaching of Pope Francis, then mercy is all around us. It is at the heart of every truly human relationship.
Yet the Catholic Church seem to have churchified it, as if it only happens in an ecclesiastical context.
Certainly mercy ought to characterise the official Church’s dealings with its members. But that is only part of the story, and by no means the most important part.
A proper theory of mercy would embrace the whole of life. Employment, the law, politics, community relations – all need a dash of mercy if they are to function successfully.
Possibly the reason why the recent synod in Rome missed this point is simply down to language. The word mercy itself can easily sound sanctimonious. So in ordinary conversation we don’t talk about mercy as such.
But that does not means it is absent; it means we call it something else. We probably call it acceptance and tolerance of other’s faults and failings, cutting people a bit of slack, not bearing grudges, turning a blind eye, demanding less than a pound of flesh.
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We don’t say to an errant child “I hereby exercise mercy towards you and forgive you for what you have done.” Even the word “forgive” is a bit churchy. We say “Better pull your socks up, that wasn’t good enough” or “We all make mistakes but the point is not to repeat them.”
So parents exercises mercy every time they say “We’ll let it go this time but don’t do it again.” Punishment is merciful if it is aimed at teaching a lesson, as it should be.
More importantly, it is at the heart of married love. It makes possible a deep and lasting connection between two imperfect people. One of the great insights of Dr Jack Dominian, the Catholic psychiatrist who almost single-handedly revolutionised the Church’s understanding of marriage, was that sexual intercourse in marriage had the profound capacity to restore a damaged relationship.
Maybe this ability to heal is its most important aspect, more important perhaps than the traditional emphasis on procreation. You could even say it makes marriage possible, as all such relationships are liable to be damaged at any time, just a bit or maybe a lot, and there has to be some way of continuing on afterwards, some kind of healing, some form of roadside maintenance.
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It involves, to be churchy for a moment, a mutual but unspoken exchange of forgiveness whenever that is required, as it frequently is.
Without mercy there would be no loving families to bring children up in. So sex isn’t just for making babies - it is for creating a channel of mercy so babies (and others) can thrive in loving families. I don’t remember that in Humanae Vitae.
Everybody understands what Jesus meant when he told us to say “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”, and we don’t think he was talking about breaking church rules. He was talking about the way we all treat each other in ways we shouldn’t, and that the trick is to let go of the hurt as soon as possible.
Realising that “none of us is perfect” is the key. We are all sinners, but again the language of “sin” is not what we ordinarily use in our everyday relationships.
So while the idea of forgiveness of sin, mercy, is essential to those relationships, we don’t have an acceptable vocabulary for saying what we mean. The Church has stolen it in order to use its for its own internal conversations. These vital words have become the specialist jargon of a priestly cult.
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The synod just completed did seem to contain passing glimpses of this universal presence of mercy out there in the real world, particularly when bishops spoke of what the Church has to learn from family life.
Sadly, of course, bishops don’t have a family life of their own, so this has to be brought to their attention by those who do. They may have heard that a loving family does not exclude any of its members from the dining table because of who they are or something they have done.
That is because love is merciful. Indeed, without mercy it isn’t love at all.
Perhaps we now need to have an entirely lay synod, without priests or bishops, which will discuss how we really can witness to God’s loving mercy in a fallen world. Somehow the synod seems to have missed the point.