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Sometimes Mercy Is Cruel

March 17, 2016 Frontpage 1 Comment


There is a tendency to see justice and mercy in opposition, as though the application of mercy involves a weakening of justice, and vice-versa. The assumption is then made that mercy should be followed rather than justice. But this attitude leads in practice to a lack of mercy.
Take the question of euthanasia. It is called mercy killing, with the assumption that it is merciful to put people to death in some cases of severe suffering. This may appear reasonable from a narrow perspective, but only if essential elements are overlooked. The most essential truth ignored is that no one has the moral right to take an innocent human life — not even the person whose life it is.
This means that if the person agrees to be put to death he is, objectively speaking, consenting to an extremely evil action, an action that could put him into Hell. It is not merciful to encourage a decision which could lead to that appalling result.
A further consequence when this so-called mercy killing is sanctioned by the law is that some elderly or sick people feel they owe it to their families not to make themselves a burden, and will reluctantly agree to suicide — or feel guilty for not doing so.
Another consequence is that relatives or governments will have people killed against their will. There will also be a general cheapening of the value of life, with the “merciful” solution to suffering promoting callousness instead of mercy.
Consider another example: the contention that if a marriage fails the couple should be allowed to remarry. Rather than keep rigidly to a harsh law, it is argued, compassion should be shown, particularly to the innocent party.
But this attitude ignores the social consequences of divorce with the right to remarry. It leads to couples taking their marriage vows lightly, knowing they can get a divorce and marry again if things don’t work out. It leads to couples not persevering when things get difficult. Marriage breakups result in unhappy children. So what looks like a compassionate stand turns out to be one that will bring immense misery.
Henry Hazlitt wrote a very perceptive bestseller called Economics in One Lesson, first published in 1946. The “one lesson” he drives home throughout the book is that we must look past the immediate consequences of proposed economic solutions and see their more remote consequences. In that way it often becomes clear that what looked like a good solution will in the long term lead to disaster.
The same applies in all moral questions. The whole issue has to be seen, not just the immediate consequences of acting in a particular way. But the temptation is to opt for what seems the compassionate or charitable solution, while overlooking the further ramifications.
Now if we go deeper, we see that moral laws are based in human nature and that their violation therefore leads to unhappiness. Compare them to physical laws: If I jump off a high building I will die, because I have disobeyed a physical law by doing something detrimental to my bodily nature.
Now, suppose a doctor finds I have cancer, but he is a very compassionate man and doesn’t want to upset me, so he tells me I’m healthy. Clearly his compassion is misplaced, because for the sake of a brief period of contentment he is condemning me to future suffering or death.
Of course no doctor would do that. But the equivalent happens all the time where the moral law is involved, as in the instances just cited. We are currently faced with this fallacy in the controversy about whether the Catholic Church should relax the law forbidding a married Catholic receiving Holy Communion if he or she is living in an adulterous relationship.
An example is given of a Catholic woman whose marriage has broken up through no fault of hers, and who now has children with a new partner. She may be willing to give up sexual relations with him but he tells her he will leave her if she does. That would result in a life of poverty for her and her children, with the added suffering for the children of being deprived of their father.
So it is now being claimed that the merciful solution is to allow the woman to receive Holy Communion while continuing in the adulterous relationship. She should first discuss her situation with a priest, should perhaps have a period of penance, then be admitted to Holy Communion.
If the Church were to allow this, some bishops and theologians are saying, she would be following the merciful Christ who welcomed sinners and opposed the legalistic Pharisees with their inhuman regulations. But we should argue, on the contrary, that the suggested solution is not merciful.
The first thing to note is that these relationships are intrinsically evil, because sexual relations are only morally lawful within a valid marriage, and marriage is for life. That is not a pharisaical ruling; it is the teaching of Christ. When the Pharisees asked Him about this He was adamant: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9). The disciples were so startled at His teaching that they suggested it would be better not to marry (Matt. 19:10).
It follows, therefore, that in the cases we are discussing these individuals (engaging in sexual relations outside a valid marriage) are doing something which is intrinsically immoral. Their behavior is mortally sinful, objectively speaking. So how could the Catholic Church allow them to receive Holy Communion?
The response given by those bishops and theologians who want the law changed is that many of these people are not in a state of mortal sin, either because of ignorance or because of psychological pressure that excuses them from sin, or at least from mortal sin. But regarding the possibility of ignorance, wouldn’t ignorance be removed by the process of discernment proposed by the revisionists?
As for pressure so great that it excuses them, so that they are not in a state of mortal sin: This can’t be assumed, for we have free will and God offers us His grace. By allowing Holy Communion on the assumption that such a person is not in a state of sin, not only would the Church be taking a grave risk that she is occasioning profanation of this most holy sacrament, but would also be reinforcing the delusion in these persons that they are doing nothing wrong by having sex outside of marriage.
Then there is the devastating effect this official change would have on those Catholics whose marriage has broken down and who are living in a sinful relationship, yet who refrain from going to Holy Communion because they know it would be sacrilegious to receive Communion. Witnessing others in their situation going to Communion with the sanction of the Church, they would be strongly tempted to do the same even though they know they are in a sinful state.
Again, what of other sinful relationships? To be consistent surely the Church should extend this “merciful solution” to some people in other sinful relationships, including some homosexuals.
Further, the proposed concession would send a wrong signal — a very powerful signal. It would be interpreted to mean that the Church no longer sees sexual relations outside of marriage as always gravely wrong, and no longer sees a consummated Christian marriage as absolutely indissoluble.
Whatever the intention of those who push for allowing Holy Communion for Catholics in an illicit relationship, the result would be cruelty disguised as mercy. Perhaps the cruelest aspect would be an increased danger of these people going to Hell, because the proposal of Walter Cardinal Kasper and those who support him is that the Catholics in question be instructed in the Church’s teaching about marriage before they decide whether they should receive the Eucharist.
But this presumably would remove the excuse of ignorance and place these people among those St. Paul speaks of: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
Most of us fall far short in our practice of mercy; but in our confused secular society it is easy to mistake a cruel solution for a merciful one.

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  • Margaret Moen

    John Young’s commentary on mercy is very helpful to those fighting against assisted suicide measures.

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