As we prepare to celebrate the Jubilee Year of Mercy, it is troubling to witness how much of our catechesis on Divine Mercy is hobbled by the linguistic perversions generated by Original Sin. The way these linguistic perversions can be developed to the point of degenerating our ability to live and communicate as human beings is rather serious. This was prophetically predicted in George Orwell’s book, 1984. In that book about a futuristic government’s total domination of its people, a major tool for this control was the manipulation of language, which was called Newspeak. Over the past several decades, a form of Newspeak has been imposed on our world and the Church in the form of a contrived arrogance and indignation called political correctness. Sadly, its crippling but subtle influence has even been manifested in the language and tone of some official communications from the Vatican.
The major dilemma we face here is the fact that sacred truths need to be communicated in the context of premises, perspectives, attitudes and language that are reverent, pure, faithful and docile to the Holy Spirit. Such teachings need to challenge minds and hearts to be open to dimensions of the truth, which tend to get aborted in secular parlance by the cynicism and despair spawned by Original Sin.
Unfortunately, though, in an attempt to be relevant to people’s lives, this basic principle of catechesis is often ignored or even ridiculed as being unrealistic. Those who do so, however, forget that people are actually seeking liberation from the strictures imposed by sin’s cynicism, depression and despair. And those strictures include the limits imposed by profane or perverse language on people’s ability to clearly discern, appreciate and embrace the splendor of truth. For example, in Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are urged to evangelize with zeal and conviction.
Yet, when some Catholic dares to decisively proclaim specific convictions of the Faith, which do not allow any concessions to demands for erotic fulfillment, they are often disregarded as being too strong on clarity and too weak in charity. Thus it is that pastoral praxis of the Church has at times been allowed to indicate a need to develop a new catechetical model of decisive ambiguity, which is merely be a new synthesis of “fundamental option” theology and moral relativism. Likewise, the norms for pastoral praxis have often based more upon expediency than upon accountability and conversion to the truth.
For example, twenty five years ago, the problem of sexual exploitation by clergy was addressed by intimidating or paying off victims and then covering up the sin, so as to avoid scandal. Now, however, we have a vigorous program to provide safe environments for our children in our churches and schools, while remaining silent as “family life programs” in our public school groom them for sexual experimentation and exploitation.
All this points out a further danger. The Church’s traditional appreciation of the manner in which Divine Mercy infuses into a soul the spirit of humble and contrite repentance has been tweaked. This has led many to seek salvation through a dynamic first evident in the Garden of Eden. There, our first parents sought salvation not through sincere repentance, but rather through a dysfunctional dynamic of excuses and resentments.
So it is that, today, those suffering from erotic addictions flaunt their perversions as a form of liberation. They even go so far as to demand that the Church must repent of her fidelity to the eternal truths proclaimed by Christ, so as to evolve into more positive and less judgmental attitudes toward sexual acts and lifestyles that are objectively evil. This perverted perspective of mercy is directed toward helping people feel good about themselves and their sexual lifestyles, rather than help them to appreciate and be true to themselves as God’s children. Basically, it asserts that what is objectively codependent should be redefined as compassionate. And, to use an analogy made famous by Johnny Cash, it seems that pastoral care merely requires that we help souls move from coach to the more comfortable first-class section of “that long black train” headed straight to eternal damnation.
Misericordiae Vultus also seems to downplay the fact that sin is not just the violation of God’s commandments. Sin violates and desecrates both persons and relationships. Sin desecrates and injures Christ, His Mystical Body and all of humanity. Thus we must ask, “What is so harsh or negative about telling a person, ‘You are sacred, so you must live in fidelity to your true dignity as a child of God’?” In contrast to this basic truth of the Gospel, many people may get the false impression that Luther was right, when he asserted that we are merely dung heaps and the best we can hope for is to have our unrighteousness covered over by the “snow” of Christ’s divine righteousness. But the Church has always proclaimed that there is a need for conversion, reform and reparation in order for God’s mercy to cleanse and sanctify our character, and not merely our juridical standing in His Presence. God can neither deceive not be deceived – even by a righteous “snow job”.
It is also awkward to have to point out that the premises of Misericordiae Vultus tend to overlook the organic nature redemption. As indicated above, our premises, perspectives, practices and language are all crippled by profane and perverting influence of Original Sin. The indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy reflects this basic fact. It embraces a false dichotomy between divine justice and divine mercy. Yet God’s relationship to us is not a balancing act. The perfect integrity of God requires that He be one. Likewise, His redemptive interaction with humanity is one – one Lord, one Faith, one Sacrifice, one Baptism, one God, Who is Father of all and in all. Thus, any attempt, well-meaning as it may be, to bifurcate His relationship with humanity will prove to be I intrinsically defective.
In contrast to the attempts to balance divine justice and divine mercy, it would seem prudent to examine anew the reality of God’s righteousness. For example, it is helpful to view Jesus and His ministry in terms of His mission as the Christ. This Christ-mission, into which all the baptized are incorporated, was to glorify the Father by bringing His image and likeness to perfection in all dimensions of our shared humanity through the gracious fidelity of the Holy Spirit. Such a unified appreciation of both the mystery and the ministries of redemption is much more in harmony with Divine Revelation. It would be good to exemplify this by reconsidering the whole mystery of redemption.
So often, people are told that Jesus had to die on the cross to appease the infinite wrath of His Father against sinners. But Scripture clearly states that God loved us before, not because, Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died not to appease the Father, but rather to please Him. In obedience to the Father’s will to respect human freedom, He had to confront the core reality of sin – the fact that humanity was unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to believe that God’s loving mercy was greater than the ever-metastasizing and perverting dynamic of sin in our hearts, our relationships and even our environment.
And so, to clearly and decisively affirm and confirm the awesome reality of divine love, mercy and gratitude, Jesus entered into all the agony inflicted upon Him in order to get Him to confirm with His own lips the curse of sin festering in our hearts. Yet, the more He suffered, the more profoundly He professed His love for us. And looking upon our humanity from His cross, He does not say, “Look at what your wretchedness and perversion have inflicted upon Me.” Rather, He confronts our crippling lack of faith by pleading with us, “Will you now finally accept and believe the fact that I love you and appreciate you in a way beyond comprehension?”, as He offers Himself as pure Eucharist (gratitude) to us and for us. Such love and gratitude, though, as indicated above, is not merely juridical.
To portray it as such would border on the blasphemous. The reverence and encouragement of His love and gratitude are such that, through the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Baptism, they actually make of us a new creation. Thus the Father is glorified by the faith of Jesus in the face of such horrible abuse and suffering opening the way for our sinful humanity to break away from the cynicism of sin and to image the Father in all dimensions of our lives and relationships.
Before concluding, it should be noted that an integral and unified appreciation of Divine Mercy requires a reexamination of what is often call God’s wrath. Tragically, many view this in terms of an abusive disciplinarian father, who viciously abuses his children for any misconduct. Such a father is viewed as an IED, ready to be triggered into a detonation by the smallest infraction. But the wrath of God is actually the absence of God. Since God is love and authentic love must be both freely offered and freely received, God will not impose Himself on anyone. Yet God is also perfect integrity.
Thus it is that, to enjoy integrity in our lives and relationships, we must at least open to living in communion with Him. If, tragically, a soul rejects such an intimate communion with God, it also rejects the integrity such a communion makes possible in its life, language and relationships. This means that the soul chooses to abide in and draw others into a debilitating lack of integrity, manifested in disease, disaster, deprecation, depression, despair, and even eternal damnation. God is all-merciful, but a soul that refuses to offer that mercy the hospitality of sincere repentance and reconciliation cannot enjoy the healing and peace offered through His mercy.
All the above indicates anew the wisdom of the Holy Spirit affirmed by St. Paul when he told us that we must acquire a whole new spiritual way of thinking, acting and communicating. Any attempt to put the sacred new wine of divine graciousness into the old wineskins of profane, secular or politically correct language is doomed to fail. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. His very being, therefore shows us that words and language are to be both sacred and sanctifying. Failure to reverence this truth will ultimately lead to the aborting of Divine Revelation by the embrace of secular relevance guided by the passing fads, fashions and fetishes of fallen humanity.
Spero columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.