By Sister Marianne Watts, OP “CHANGES”

As he was researching his book, Mercy, Cardinal Walter Kasper (“the Pope’s theologian”) made a surprising discovery in the Church’s dogmatic literature: the trivialization of mercy. In a section of his book named “Mercy: Criminally Neglected,” the Cardinal speaks of his efforts to present mercy as the central topic for theology in the 21st century:

In Cardinal Kasper’s view, Church scholars over the years have built their writings on the “traditional metaphysical starting point of the doctrine of God.” Apparently on the basis of God’s perfection, dogmatic theology has difficulty speaking of a merciful God, one who can and does suffer with creatures who are not perfect. The Cardinal calls this reticence “a pastoral catastrophe.” Can a perfect being become truly involved in the ordinary lives of people? The Cardinal believes that “the proclamation of a God who is insensitive to suffering is a reason that God has become alien and finally irrelevant to many human beings.”“As soon as one tries to do this, we make the astounding, in fact shocking, realization that this topic, which is so central for the Bible and so relevant for the present experience of reality, appears at best in the margins of the . . . handbooks of dogmatic theology. . . . In the more recent handbooks, mercy is often completely absent.”

I remember my college metaphysics course and its abstract vocabulary: form and matter, substance and accident, the four causes of anything, essence and existence . . . . I also remember our professor who, it was rumored, had a part-time job washing dishes in a restaurant to add to his college salary to support his growing family. We students, of course, saw no connection between the metaphysically correct subject matter he taught and the human hardship he endured in his after-hours job. What would the suffering of his lifestyle have to do with the basic characteristics of metaphysical reality? What indeed?

Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio points out that mercy comes to us from the historical self-revelation of Jesus. “Jesus emphasized the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones. . . . Jesus consistently opted for the human person against the claims of legalistic religion. . . . Throughout the New Testament we see the explicit contrast between mere interior religiosity that is fixed to laws and abstract ideas, and the love that makes whole, uniting humans to humans and humans to God.”

Jesus was God and Jesus suffered, yes. But to those of us who grew up in the Catholic tradition,did the suffering of Jesus translate into God’s compassion? Did it make him like the Father or did the emphasis on God’s perfection make Jesus unlike the perfect, unknowable, unfeeling God of our Catholic education? (Are such abstractions still taught? One God, two natures, three persons, four marks of the Church, seven gifts and twelve fruits of the Spirit . . . . )

Cardinal Kasper’s view of mercy is neither sweet to the point of sentimentality nor soft regarding the demands of justice. He points out that “God’s justice is not God’s punitive justice but rather God’s justifying justice, which includes God’s mercy.” What does such mercy look like? Less like a reprimand than an encouragement. Never like a turning away and always like a welcome. Not a split, but a coming together. Ilia Delio calls Christ a “whole-maker,” the one who puts together what was separate.

In other words, a God of mercy.

What would happen to our world if Israel and Hamas, for example, learned to see each other not as objects to be destroyed but as persons needing mercy? But maybe that strange idea of loving one’s enemies has to begin not on the level of countries and religious movements but with individual people.

Remember G.K. Chesterton’s statement that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”