“God has imprisoned all human beings in their own disobedience only to show mercy to them all.”
— Rm 11:32 (NJB)
When Pope Francis ended his Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, he issued an apostolic letter entitled Misericordia et Misera, dedicated to the theme of mercy. In this letter, His Holiness extended permission to any priest to validly grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance with people who had procured an abortion (before this allowance, only bishops and priests specifically given such a mandate by the bishops could do this, given the sin’s gravity.)
However, this was not the only allowance granted by Misericordia et Misera. Francis also indefinitely extended the faculties he granted to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) to validly celebrate the Sacrament of Penance beyond the Jubilee Year. This society, I remind you, is not in a regular situation with the Holy See, since it was created out of rebellion against the Second Vatican Council. Priests of the society are considered suspended, and had not been able to validly absolve sins until Francis gave them permission.
I was struck by these two allowances and by how closely they were tied together. They are the only two allowances granted in Misericordia et Misera, and they appear one right after the other. The Pope even enclosed both in the same section! And that section deals with nothing more than those two allowances!
I don’t know for certain that he did this on purpose, but I sincerely think the Pope is giving a very subtle catechesis here. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have been more widely noticed: the Pope appears to be suggesting that the SSPX benefits from the same mercy given to the sinners of procured abortion.
The SSPX and like-minded Catholics tend to judge post-abortive women very harshly, and they don’t take kindly to the concept of mercy as practiced by the post-conciliar Church. Therefore, the Pope’s connection of the two situations is very meaningful.
Additionally, Pope Francis gave SSPX priests the faculty to be vehicles of God’s mercy. It’s as if he was telling them: you need to be merciful. Or rather: you need to (re)learn the value of mercy if you are to shepherd a flock in communion with the Catholic Church.
I get chills when I think about how God’s mercy seems inexhaustible except in two situations: 1) being unrepentant and (most importantly for this article) 2) not showing mercy to others.
It’s all over the Bible. There’s the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, pardoned of his debt by his lord until he refused to show mercy to his own debtor. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, where the forgiveness we ask God for our sins is conditional on the forgiveness we ourselves are willing to extend to those who have offended us. There’s the forgiveness that Jesus Himself granted the adulteress, since her executioners were sinful too (“he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone“). And there’s that ominous warning (emphasis from now on is always mine):
“Judge not, that you may not be judged, For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again“
— Mt 7:1-2
I recoil in horror whenever I see papal critics disparaging mercy as a kind of stumbling block, treating it as the fruit of a Kumbaya spirituality from the modernist “Church of Nice.” It’s like a person refusing a lifeboat and mocking the existence of lifeboats while their ship is sinking. They gnaw at the rope of mercy, so that those they deem sinners may not grab it, without realizing that the rope of mercy was cast to them as well.
The problem is, they do not see themselves as in need of mercy. Or rather, they do. They confess themselves to be sinners all the time, and seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and understand the value of mercy as a Christian virtue. But they see themselves in need of mercy on their own terms. They acknowledge their sins, but only according to their worldview. They remain unrepentant of sins that they consider virtuous according to the aforementioned worldview. And unrepentant hearts are incapable of receiving mercy, for they do not see themselves as in need of mercy at all.
They talk about Hell all the time, they see Hell as a central dogma in their religion, they demand that clergy talk about Hell more, they almost seem to lavish at the idea of Hell. But they always talk about Hell in relation to others. They do not see their path as conducive to Hell. They think that if someday, by some twist of fate, they end up in Hell, it would’ve been in spite of that path, not because of it.
The problem is that their path is sinful as well. And it is sinful according to the same qualitative measure as the sins they obsessively decry. In fact, their sin, while qualitatively equivalent to the other sinners, is quantitatively graver: as well-informed Catholics, they should know better.
But they continue on their merry way, scoffing at the idea of metanoia. They waste their days immersed in social media, chastising others for their sinful ways–sometimes in the most uncharitable manner. Yet God forbid anyone (even the Pope!) dare to chastise them: that means the Pope is alienating faithful Catholics! They think the “Church of Nice” should stop watering down doctrine to other sinners, but God forbid that the Pope would use strong wording against them!
They waste their days lecturing others, trying to devise clever arguments to convince others to change their minds. But what do they do when someone tells them they should change their minds themselves and accept the doctrines from which they dissent? When that happens, they invoke the principle of “prudential judgment.” Or they can regurgitate the arguments of their favorite pundit, explaining away with a lot of verbiage why what the Church teaches is not actually what the Church teaches (so confusing!). Or they simply apply their personal non-authoritative interpretation of Tradition to condemn as heretic that same Church they tell modernists to follow. They already have everything figured out! Orthodoxy is, by definition, whatever they and their faction already believe it to be: it’s only others that need to become orthodox.
Many waste their days attending conferences with speakers that tell them what their itchy ears want to hear, that the Pope is wrong and they are right. They then go back into the world demanding that bishops and Catholic institutions ban speakers they think are liberal sinners bent on destroying Church teaching, or to fire liberal teachers, or to excommunicate sinners. But God forbid that the bishops or the Pope do anything to prevent their favorite public figures from hijacking the throne of Peter and setting themselves as the true interpreters of Tradition! Then the Pope is cracking down on faithful Catholics, trying to silence them, the Dictator Pope!
They waste their days in churches that exist in an irregular situation with the Catholic Church, while insistently telling others that they should come to full communion with the Church. But God forbid anyone tells them that they themselves need to come to full communion with the Church! Then all kinds of lawyerly excuses are invoked to tell people that they are not schismatics, they are technically within the boundaries of the Church. But they are technically within the boundaries of the Church, not because they are right, but because of the Church’s benevolence towards them: the same benevolence they criticize all day and night!
Throughout my articles, I have tried to show the parallels between these papal critics and Protestants. Or the parallels between these papal critics and Modernists. Or the parallels between these papal critics and the divorced and remarried in an irregular situation with the Church. I tried to do so to wake them up! For they waste their days complaining about the Protestantization of the Church, or about how Modernism infiltrated the Church, or about how the Church should not grant communion to the divorced and remarried!
I say this very strongly, but not out of fury, or with condemnation in my voice, but with an undying frustration. It pains me deeply to know they are doing this, the evil they are self-inflicting upon themselves! Oh, how I wish they would listen and turn away from this path! How should they be trembling for condemning others for the sins they themselves commit! For denying mercy to others who make the same mistakes as they do! For judging others with a measure that can and will be used against them on that Final Day!
Why do I employ such fearful language, such as “trembling” and “Judgment Day”? Aren’t we living in Francis’ Church of Mercy? Isn’t this a quasi-universalist Church, where everyone is believed to be saved?
This is a misconception from people swayed by propaganda, blinded by opinion-makers, paradoxically “taking the red pill” to lull themselves into an illusionary bubble with no contact with reality. But these people should know better! As (alleged) well-informed Catholics, they should read Church documents on their own, and not just commentaries on them by pundits bent on shredding these documents apart! As apologists who defended Benedict XVI against the character assassination cabal mounted against him by the secular media, they should know better than to fall on the same tactics being now employed against Pope Francis by dissenting media! As Catholics, they should know better and should actually know what their pontiff teaches.
Then they would know that Pope Francis actually is very serious about the concept of Hell! And they would know that Francis has stated that God’s mercy is not infinite, and when mercy ends, then justice inevitably comes.
“God’s mercy is not infinite (…) Don’t say: “God’s compassion is great, he’ll forgive me for the many sins”, and so I continue doing what I want. Don’t say that. And one more advice from this father, this “grandfather”: “Do not wait to convert yourself to the Lord”, to change your life, to perfect your life, to remove all those bad weeds, we all have them, get them out… ” Don’t wait to convert yourself to the Lord, don’t postpone it from day to day because the anger of the Lord will suddenly burst forth”
Those who demand a Church more focused on justice, by trying to downplay the weight of mercy, should do well to re-examine their behavior. It will backfire on them. And when they are overwhelmed by the weight of that same justice they demanded, how will they plead the only thing that may save them: mercy?
Please consider: one of the things they dissent on is Amoris Laetitia‘s allowance of access to communion to some divorced and remarried people. They vigorously assert that Pope Francis is disrespecting the Eucharist, by allowing people in mortal sin to partake in communion. And yet, Pope Francis is perfectly aware of the dangers of desecrating the Eucharist. For Amoris Laetitia also says, in paragraph 186:
“The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members. This is what it means to “discern” the body of the Lord, to acknowledge it with faith and charity both in the sacramental signs and in the community; those who fail to do so eat and drink judgment against themselves“
“Judgment“… here’s that word again. To whom does it apply? To those who wound the unity of the Body of Christ (the Church) by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members. Is this not what many papal critics do all the time in social media? Create scandal? Create division? Create distinctions that the Vicar of Christ has tried to tear down?
And yet, I’m pretty sure that many of them, after behaving this way so boldly and publicly, just go to Mass and line up to receive the Eucharist. They have confessed all the sins they agree are sins, so what’s the problem? They don’t think they are sinning by being dissenters, they actually think they are saving the Church! They partake of the Eucharist after unrepentantly sinning by denying other people the Eucharist.
One may reply: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.” Yes, they have been catechized in this warped version of Catholicism, they were taught to believe the words of these pundits and sites and networks as authoritative, they were raised in a cultural context where political polarization lends itself to these kinds of views. They didn’t come up with these excuses and cop-outs so they could reject the fullness of doctrine, they received them from false prophets who once upon a time were almost indistinguishable from true defenders of the Faith.
But the problem with saying “they know not what they are doing” is that they do not extend that indulgence to others. When apologists point out the orthodox doctrine of mitigating circumstances, they just reply that “ignorance” can be vanquished by simply telling people they are wrong. It’s simply a matter of officially notifying the sinners that they are committing a sin, and afterwards the sinners are on their own. The sinners have been informed, now the choice is theirs. However, when apologists tell papal critics that they are wrong in their dissent against Amoris Laetitia, do they turn away from their misguided views? No! They turn their backs, dig in their heels, and scorn and mock! They themselves prove the wrongness of their own approach!
Jesus Himself tells us that all sins can be forgiven, except “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mk 3:28-29). What does this mean? According to the Catechism, “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit” (#1864).
In other words, mercy can only be limited by a heart that deliberately refuses to accept mercy. For this very reason, I urge those who have strayed onto the path of error and dissent and division: Embrace God’s mercy! Accept your sinfulness, even (or especially) in your actions that you have not regarded as sinful, even as the Church tells you otherwise.
Remove the beam from your eye first, before trying to take the splinter from the eyes of others! If the Pope tells you that you are being rigid, or judgmental, or uncharitable, or wrong, do not reject it in a kneejerk reaction. Do not try to defend yourself. Do not spin the words of the Pope to deconstruct them into meaninglessness or use them to attack His Holiness. Rather, accept his correction as a blessing. Acknowledge that you need to change, first and foremost.
Only then will you understand how much mercy has been granted to you! And only when you have experienced this mercy will you be able to correct others, for you’ll do it out of love and not out of a hollow phariseeism. As Pope Francis explains in Mericordia et Misera, #16:
“We have learned that God bends down to us (cf. Hos 11:4) so that we may imitate him in bending down to our brothers and sisters (…) Once mercy has been truly experienced, it is impossible to turn back. It grows constantly and it changes our lives. It is an authentic new creation: it brings about a new heart, capable of loving to the full (…) Mercy renews and redeems because it is the meeting of two hearts: the heart of God who comes to meet the human heart. The latter is warmed and healed by the former. Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh (cf. Ezek 36:26) capable of love despite our sinfulness. I come to realize that I am truly a “new creation” (Gal 6:15): I am loved, therefore I exist; I am forgiven, therefore I am reborn; I have been shown mercy, therefore I have become a vessel of mercy.”
Jesus validates this, for He also tells us: those who have been forgiven more, love more; and those who have been forgiven less, love less (Lk 7:47). Do not presume, therefore, that you have been forgiven less. This Easter, let us look at the Crucified before we look at others. And let us look at the Crucified only after we have looked at ourselves. Let us experience the mercy, and embrace it. And, by doing so, turn from the path of sin right back to the path of salvation, which is the path of love and mercy.
[Image: “The Virgin of Mercy“, Enguerrand Quarton, ca. 1452]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.