Misericordiae Vultus: Mercy Without Repentance?

On the Second Sunday of Easter (April 12), Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis released his bull Misericordiae Vultus, proclaiming the coming “Jubilee Year of Mercy,” commencing on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in December.

The document contains many praiseworthy passages and welcome references to traditional modes of Catholic spiritual expression. It will no doubt be seen as a quintessential statement of Francis’ papacy, with its strong, even exclusive, emphasis on God’s inexhaustible love and forgiveness, with hardly a condemnatory note.

Indeed, Francis posits “mercy” as almost the essential truth of the Christian Faith.
Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.
This seems a rather broad understanding of the concept of mercy. The term could be replaced by a number of others—the Incarnation; the Resurrection; Grace; Love—any of which would ring true in these various sentences. As usual, however, Francis is less concerned with precise theology than he is with conveying a message of pastoral care and loving tenderness.

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And there is no doubt that Francis believes that this manner of message is necessary in order to evangelize the modern world. He specifically notes that the Year of Mercy will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, and he extols the Council’s ushering in “a new phase” in the history of the Church wherein the Church recognized the need to speak to modern man “in a more accessible way.” Francis sees the Council as tearing down “walls which had too long made the Church a kind of fortress” so as “to proclaim the Gospel in a new way.”

So, with the Year of Mercy, Francis sees himself as carrying on the great project of engagement with the modern world, glossing over the actual experience of the Church in this 50 years of the purported spiritual springtime. It is this vantage point of Francis—determined to advance the discredited notion of the “Spirit of Vatican II”—that explains the odd and incoherent nature of Misericordiae Vultus.

For Francis extolls the glory of God’s mercy, but with nary a mention of the reason man needs his mercy—sin. In order to call man to embrace God’s mercy, it is necessary first to call him to repentance. The people came to John to be baptized not to revel in the sunshine of God’s love, but to turn away from sin—to be “reborn,” as the Lord would later describe the experience of conversion to Nicodemus.

Francis spends considerable time citing examples of Christ’s mercy, and certainly these are beautiful manifestations of the Lord’s loving and compassionate heart. And Francis rightly emphasizes the Lord’s insistence on forgiveness as an essential act of Christian discipleship. But Francis avoids mention of the consequence of the failure of man to show mercy to man—Divine punishment, and even condemnation.

He discusses the parable of the wicked servant, whose master, moved with pity, forgives the servant’s debt, while the wicked servant refuses to do likewise to his own debtor. Yet, he declines to mention the Lord’s depiction of the fate of those who, like the unforgiving servant, are merciless.
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.
Thus, mercy has no meaning without a consciousness of sin and of God’s judgment. Fear of God’s judgment has always animated Christian life, and the Gospels are replete with the Lord’s warnings of punishment for cruel and unrepentant sinners.

While it is true that the Church not need engage the world with dire messages of eternal punishment, She has a duty to preach the Gospel undistilled. She has a duty to call man to authentic Christian life, the key to which is a humble self-conception of himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Only those who know the need for God’s mercy can appreciate its wonders. They are like the blind man of Jericho, crying out daily, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”; they are like the publican who begs “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Francis wishes to share the great love and joy he experiences in discipleship with the world, and this is an admirable goal. But this zeal can inadvertently devolve into a kind of mania for good public relations, a determination to show that the Church is not downer, a “fortress,” but is, in the buzz words of the secular moralists, “inclusive and welcoming.”

We should indeed celebrate the Year of Mercy. But it will be a missed opportunity of the New Evangelization if it is not presented as a call to humble repentance, a long Lent, that urges modern man to recall that he is a sinner who needs, and who has, a Redeemer.

Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pope Francis (left) hands out copies of his papal bull. (Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano)


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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