There are offenses that we as a culture consider unforgivable. Murder, child molestation, adultery: These are the three that come to mind right now. Crimes that seem to absolve us from the responsibility of offering forgiveness and reconciliation.
How do we apply “mercy” in these situations?
I’m not going to pretend I have a pat answer. I don’t. But too often our society as a whole or individuals within it make clear, by their words and actions, that some violations of human dignity place the offender irrevocably beyond redemption. And if we as Christians, and Catholics in particular, are going to be serious about this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, we have to wrestle with the reality that this isn’t how God would have us approach life’s hardest questions.
1: Capital Punishment.
The language of capital punishment is couched in “justice,” but it’s certainly not a Christlike vision of justice. Execution doesn’t bring a murder victim back; it only satisfies human desire for revenge. There are all the practical arguments about the gargantuan expense of automatic appeals, and then there is this:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
2. Sexual Abuse.
Child molestation is a hard case, and especially so within the Church, where we’ve seen abuse of power by some priests, and a tendency by the hierarchy to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the vulnerable. But don’t forget that molestation happens just as often, maybe more, within families, schools and other community organizations. In all these cases, a sincere desire to do good has gotten twisted into something ugly and damaging to both victim and perpetrator. But how did that twisting take place? People don’t become abusers in a vacuum. We reserve all our mercy for the children and act as if the perpetrator deserves none, even though many of them were themselves victims at one point. Are they not also in need of our mercy?
And then there’s adultery—considered by many as the one deal-breaker in a marriage, the only offense a spouse doesn’t have to forgive. Yet the vows we offer when we marry don’t include asterisks. It’s frighteningly easy for marriages to get clogged up with resentments, demands, and failures to communicate. Those inevitably flow in both directions, and they can drive people to betray the one they love most. In the aftermath of infidelity, there’s a hard choice to be made: Do you just throw away the years you’ve spent together, the love you have shared? Or do you try to address the problems and make a new start? It’s hard, painful work to reclaim a marriage, but I’ve seen it done, and it begins with mercy.
Mercy posts, I am discovering, almost inevitably double as “No Easy Answers” posts. Mercy issues a huge challenge to our human sense of justice. We don’t want to see gray areas. We want to classify people as bad guys and good guys, and see the good guys rewarded while the bad guys are punished. But if we are to be followers of Christ, we have to strive to see the world as he did, not as we would.