On April 11, 2015, Pope Francis issued Misericordiae vultus, the formal “bull” instituting the current Year of Mercy. Misericordiae vultus, reproduced as an appendix, makes up the final third of this slim book. The rest is an extended interview with the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. As Tornielli says in a preface, the interview was his idea—he hoped to get a personal angle on the theme of mercy for Francis, “to analyze what those words mean to him, as a man and a priest, away from the tensions of church debates, to “reveal the heart of Francis and his vision.”
As a result of the interview format, what is to be found here is not as balanced or multidimensional as most of what has emerged in Francis’s name. Nevertheless, there is a good deal that is familiar. The Francis recorded here has the fresh, direct, and immediate quality we meet elsewhere. He has some of the same verbal ticks (“God never tires of...let us never tire...”), and a proclivity for a language that is earthy, bodily, tactile: if we prefer to remain locked up in our own sin rather than to seek God’s mercy, we “behave like a dog…licking our wounds, and they stay open and never heal,” while Jesus, by contrast, “forgives by caressing the wounds of our sin”; the corrupt person may not realize the state he is in, “much as the person with bad breath does not know they have it.” There is an emphasis on tenderness; a focus on the outcast and marginalized; a revisiting of his favored image of the church as field hospital. If one were in any doubt about who actually did most of the drafting of Pope Francis’s other documents, this volume would put that doubt to rest. It contains, too, a touch of the same asperity we meet elsewhere: Francis is full of sympathy for the sinner, who falls again and again and can turn again and again to God’s mercy, but not so much for the one who is “corrupt,” who elevates sin into a system, ceases to understand it as sin, sees no need to seek mercy, and is “closed off and contented in the complacency of his self-sufficiency.”
There is quite a lot that touches on confession in particular. We learn of Pope Francis’s own early experience as a penitent, of confessors he has known who have been particularly important to him, of the significance for his priestly life of hearing confessions. We are given a general account of the importance of going to confession, of why it is necessary: true, “I can talk to the Lord and ask him for forgiveness, implore him. And the Lord will forgive me immediately” but confession to a priest is “a way to be real and authentic: we face the facts by looking at another person and not in the mirror.” There are instructions about how a priest should dispose himself in the confessional: he “needs to think of his own sins, to listen with tenderness, to pray to the Lord for a heart as merciful as his.... He needs to try to resemble God in all his mercy.” One might quibble that this set of instructions seems contradictory—to be thinking about one’s own sins seems to point in one direction, and to be trying to resemble God in quite a different one—but no doubt the best confessors are indeed the ones who can do both these things at once. All in all, the portrait Francis paints of the confessional is a moving one: a humble priest, listening intently and tenderly, offering advice “delicately” and finding a way to communicate to the penitent the loving, merciful embrace of God. How often the experience of the confessional lives up to this portrait is, of course, another question.
The confession-centered quality of the book—by my count ten out of eleven chapters touch in some way on the confessional—may be something of an accident, the product of the questions Tornielli asked and the particular angle on the topic of mercy he chose. In the more balanced Misericordiae vultus only two out of the twenty-five paragraphs concern the sacrament. This is fortunate, I think. If the Year of Mercy turned out to be nothing but a call for a return to the practice of confession—as an incautious reader of this book could easily suppose—it might seem a touch unpleasant: a triumphalist church, convinced it has all the answers, calling her “children” to return to her as penitents.
IS THERE in any case—even if it is not all about calling us back to confession—something unsettling in the current emphasis on mercy? Francis quotes John Paul II’s comment that “The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man.” Is he right? Cardinal Walter Kasper, in a 2013 book on mercy that influenced Francis, similarly suggests that “words like ‘mercy’ and ‘pity’ have largely gone out of fashion”; they seem “sentimental”; they “have been used up and appear old and dusty.” In the passage from John Paul II quoted in Francis’s bull, a diagnosis is in fact offered of our unease with mercy: there is a sort of Promethean quality to modern humanity—scientific and technological progress mean we are used to control, to dominion over nature, and don’t want to acknowledge dependence on God’s mercy.
I think the popes are right that we are uncomfortable with too much emphasis on mercy, but not quite right in their identification of the source of discomfort. We pray at every Mass “Lord have mercy,” and I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who objects to doing so. It is not God’s mercy that causes disquiet, in my view, but the proposal that mercy become the fundamental pattern for how we relate to other people: mercy at the center of the divine-human relationship we are at ease with; mercy as the core of human-human relationships not so much so.
Part of the problem is that we can associate mercy with an imbalance of power—it’s a word that can call to mind images of a king graciously deciding not to chop off the head of his prisoner. Perhaps this is just the “dustiness,” the dated feel of the word—“compassion,” after all, doesn’t tend to put us off in quite the same way. (Peter Steinfels made a similar point in his contribution to the Commonweal symposium on Amoris laetitia.) Perhaps we could learn to use “mercy” differently—to think of what merciful colleagues, or a merciful bureaucracy, or a merciful attitude on the part of young adults toward their parents might look like. We might think of mercy not as an act of condescension, but as treating others, in their moments of weakness or fault or vulnerability, as we ourselves would like to be treated.
There is also the worry that a focus on mercy might imply a failure to think about justice. Does the “Year of Mercy” encourage us to respond to the needs of others in a way that ultimately leaves them where they are, without addressing structural problems that brought about their distress? It’s one of the shortcomings of The Name of God is Mercy that, read on its own, it might lead one to this view, though a wider look at Pope Francis’s writings quickly dispels this impression: in Evangelii gaudium, for instance, Francis speaks about things such as the danger of unfettered markets and the structural causes of inequality, and in fact goes out of his way to reject the possibility that “our response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need.”
That the emphasis on mercy cannot mean the abandonment of the search for justice is something on which Kasper, too, insists: “Mercy,” he writes, “becomes pseudomercy...when it does not exceed, but rather undercuts the demand for justice.” Perhaps the most persuasive voice suggesting that a pursuit of justice can take place within, and not in opposition to, a commitment to mercy, is that of the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino. More than twenty years ago he wrote powerfully of the “principal of mercy” as that which lay at the heart of the life of Jesus and which lies, or ought to lie, at the center of the church’s identity. When the church truly lives by the principle of mercy, and does not espouse mercy as mere sentiment—when reacting to eradicate the suffering of others is at the very core of its identity, and is lived out fully—then the church will be led not only to tend the wounds of victims, but to “denounce robbers who victimize, to lay bare the lie that conceals oppression, and to encourage victims to win their freedom from culprits.” Then the church, Sobrino writes, will be “decentered” by mercy, its focus shifted away from itself, and then indeed it will find itself “threatened, assaulted, and persecuted” by the forces of “anti-mercy.”
So mercy can be a richer and more challenging concept than we tend to suppose. But even so, there are limits to the usefulness of its invocation. If I come across someone who is harmed, someone who has tripped and fallen and gashed her head, let’s say, I can respond with mercy—I can help her get up, speak to them kindly, and tend the wound. But if I have caused the harm—I was the one who left the oil on the sidewalk that brought about the fall—while I may still need to help her get up and tend the wound, mercy is not quite the category for thinking about my obligations. Invoking mercy in this context would be an evasion of responsibility. Similarly, if something in church teaching is out of whack, if there is something that is not quite right, then a call to be merciful in its application strikes a false note. Suppose as a matter of fact, for example, it is not true that homosexual unions are (in the language of the synod of bishops, recently quoted by Francis) “not even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”; in this case no redoubling of a merciful pastoral style toward gay people will undo the injustice the church does to them.