Some Catholics react to the preaching of God's great love with earnest warnings not to take mercy too far
H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” There’s a style of Catholicism that seems haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, might presume upon Grace.
Some Catholics have a problem with mercy. It comes out in the way they react to the preaching of God’s great love and kindness, and often in the way they react to Pope Francis when he stresses it. They don’t react with “This is amazing,” but with earnest warnings not to take mercy too far. Sometimes the cautionary word must be said, but it shouldn’t be a Catholic’s first response to the proclamation of mercy.
The other day on his Facebook page the indispensable Scott Eric Alt quoted the Catechism on the extenuating conditions for suicide (“grave psychological disturbances,” for example) and the possibility that the suicide can be saved. Seemed simple and nothing to argue with.
It was, for some people. The very first commenter warned that the conditions don’t always apply. Another person objected more strongly. “So many people want to fling the door wide open when the Church opens the door a crack to allow for hope. Doing this flinging open suddenly diminishes the severity of sin and would be a sin in itself.” A few others in what turned into a very long discussion jumped in with similar criticisms, even after Scott and others pointed out that no one was making the point the critics were criticizing.
At one point Scott responded: “When I speak about this subject, like similar ones (the fate of babies who die unbaptized), I always find I have to explain that the urge to compassion does not mean that anyone is ‘flinging the door wide open’ and claiming certainty about whether such and such a person is in Heaven.” But that is, in my experience as well as his, what a substantial number of engaged Catholics think and they leap to say so. All he’s offering, Scott explained,
is an urge for compassion — and compassion only — toward people who are suffering so badly they feel there is no escape but to kill themselves. This does not mean suicide becomes something other than grave matter, and it does not mean that any particular person is necessarily saved. It means we don’t know, we leave it to God, we trust in God’s mercy, and we have compassion for the human suffering in front of us.
I would say that there’s something weirdly wrong with the people who react like this, as if the Christian’s first responsibility is not to proclaim the good news of salvation but to make sure that no one presumes upon God’s offer. They sound like (not are, but sound like, let me stress) border guards who don’t care about their country’s virtues but hate the idea that anyone might sneak in.
Other people have noticed this. One of the other commenters wrote, “It’s always telling to me how quickly people point to ‘Oh don’t sound merciful, it will only encourage the sinner’ in such situations.” Another asked: “Why do people practically leap at the opportunity to imagine scenarios in which people will be damned? . . . Few things are a bigger turn-off to non-Christians than the apparent zeal to damn others in conversations about extreme suffering.”
I would say there’s something weirdly wrong with these people, but I have been that person. To a greater extent than I’d like to admit, I am still that person. I know the feeling, almost a compulsion if not a kind of panic, that the counter-case must be put, and put right away. No one can be allowed to open the door a millimeter wider than they have to, no one can be allowed to sneak across the border.
Why others react like this, I don’t know. Their inner-door-closer and inner-border guard rule their reactions, at least in the way they engage the faith in public. But why, who knows?
In my own case, I can make some shrewd psychological self-judgments, which I’m not going to share. But a great part of my previous border-guarding resulted from a life in which I didn’t really feel the need for mercy. I should have done, like every other fallen human being, but I didn’t really. My closest friends, some of them ministers, didn’t either.
I was a sinner, they were sinners, but (we thought) in the way a man going 70 in the 65 mph zone is speeding. We were in fact like the man going 70 in the 15 mph school zone, but I only began to see this more clearly after I got older and saw how small sins are really big sins, as St. Paul observed (I Timothy 1:15), and how so many sins seem permanent, as he also said (see Romans 7:15).
Becoming a Catholic and having to go to confession drove home the insight, as my confessions began to have a revealingly repetitive quality. Friends shared the same feelings. Seeing in the suffering of loved ones how much we all need Jesus made me feel the need more deeply.
Feeling the need for mercy myself, it strikes me now in a way it didn’t before that our first reaction to the suffering and sinful must be to point to the mercy God offers them, to speak as people who’ve experienced mercy and want everyone else to experience it too. It’s better for everyone. The borders will generally take care of themselves.