The Quality of Mercy

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 ( domain)

(On this feast of the Holy Innocents, here is a reflection on true, and false, mercy by contributor Stephen Roney. We will have more on this topic, an a propos one for our age, for mercy is only mercy when founded on truth – but always guided by prudence and good will as to when, where and how to speak and ‘admonish the sinner’. Otherwise, silence, or, even words themselves, can produce much bitter bad fruit. Yes, speak the truth boldly – we need much more of such, from the housetops, from our bishops and priests, from all of us – sed omnia in caritate!).

The Catholic Church attracts a lot of hostility for condemning abortion; not to mention this, that, or the other peccadillo. This is supposedly “hypocrisy.” Didn’t Jesus say “Judge not, lest ye be judged”? Didn’t he say “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”?

He did; this is an illustration of Shakespeare’s principle that Satan himself can quote scripture to his advantage. This is “proof-texting,” pulling quotes out of context to distort their meaning. Perhaps the perfect example is the fact that the Bible says in so many words that there is no God. “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1.

Of course, the full verse reads “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”

Context matters.

Even without context, we can see that this strict “judge not” interpretation of Jesus’s words is impossible. If it is wrong to judge anyone, then it is wrong to judge the Catholic Church for judging you. You are ipso facto a hypocrite.

Let’s look at the immediate context of these verses, so often quoted by atheists and evildoers against Christians.

In the NIV: Matthew 7:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

It ends with the obligation to, in fact, judge. And the analogy, of removing a speck from your brother’s eye, shows judgement as an act of kindness. The issue is that you must be able to “see clearly,” to judge clearly.

The caution is against hypocrisy, meaning judging another by a different standard than yourself, applying different rules to them.

Now let’s look at the woman taken in adultery, and casting stones:

John 8:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

It ends with Jesus judging her, referring to her life of sin. He is simply refusing to enforce the legal punishment, which I think we can agree to be extreme.

Our attention is drawn to another detail, because it is so odd: asked a question, he looks down at the ground, and appears to be writing something. He is deliberately looking away. Then he looks up, and all the men are gone, but the woman is still standing there.

Although she faced death, she did not take the opportunity to slip away.

It shows that the woman admits her fault and accepts punishment, even one we might consider extreme. She is prepared to sacrifice her life if that is what is just.

This is what is essential to forgiveness; it is the same in the sacrament of confession. It is what keeps us out of hell. In order not to be punished for one’s sin, one must fully admit it, and be fully prepared to accept justice. Only then can one receive mercy.

Rather than hypocrisy, pointing out that another is doing or has done wrong, to you, to themselves, or to a third party, is both a virtue and an obligation.

See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1829:

The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction…

For “charity” one can also read “love.” Pointing out the faults of others is an act of love. If we do not do it, we do not love them. We want them to go to hell, and we are prepared to frog-march them there for our own benefit.

Consider the case of an alcoholic. That is a vice we all can understand. Who is it who loves the alcoholic, the one who warns him he is drinking too much, or the one who smiles, slaps him on the back, joins him in a toast, pours him another drink?

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the following definition for “fraternal correction”:

Fraternal correction is here taken to mean the admonishing of one’s neighbor by a private individual with the purpose of reforming him or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence.

It goes on to say:

That there is … an obligation to administer fraternal correction there can be no doubt. This is a conclusion not only deducible from the natural law binding us to love and to assist one another, but also explicitly contained in positive precept such as the inculcation of Christ: ‘If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother’ (Matthew 18:15).

Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfilment under pain, even of mortal sin.

It can be so, if someone is sinning, not to tell him so. It is, on the other hand, generally a virtue to tell him.