Those who work in the world of finance and investments are very familiar with this disclaimer that appears on countless documents and presentations: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” Investment professionals have an ethical obligation to ensure that their clients know there is no such thing as a “sure bet” and that chasing after returns quite often leads to financial ruin. No one can predict the future with certainty, and anyone who says otherwise is selling a lie.
Our challenge is that we must still make decisions today not knowing what will happen tomorrow–let alone in five, ten, or thirty years. We must repeatedly make decisions based on imperfect information. Our ability to take risks and our responses to uncertainty can define a person in many different ways. This is true in finance, but it also applies to the spiritual life, where we make moral judgments and take courses of action fully aware that we may fail to achieve our desired outcome. Still, in both finance and the spiritual life, there are guiding principles that help us make prudent and well-informed decisions. In finance, we call this risk management. In Christianity, we call this mercy.
As we face the coronavirus pandemic, the entire global community is being profoundly affected by choices made with imperfect information. In the United States, there may be early signs that social distancing policies–which have resulted in a record-breaking spike in unemployment claims–have been effective in helping to stave off the worst-possible outcomes, in terms of total deaths. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago when public health experts, government leaders, and our bishops were debating the path forward, when bishops and priests were weighing questions about the seriousness of the threat. Should we enforce stay-at-home orders? Do we cancel public Masses?
At the time it was not hard to predict how the decision to effectively shut down society would negatively impact the economy, let alone people’s emotional, physical and spiritual health. It was also foreseeable that the virus would likely spread with devastating consequences in the absence of such precautions. In the end, the Church, governments, and businesses around the world enacted policies that prioritized slowing the spread of the virus over other considerations.
Whether these decisions will result in the best of all possible outcomes is not a relevant question. Sometime in the future, we might discover that the virus was far less contagious or deadly than we originally thought. Or maybe the discovery of an effective treatment would have rendered the disease benign. These alternate realities would have made the decision to shut everything down seem overcautious in retrospect. Conversely, there are a host of contingencies that would have made even the slightest delays in shutting everything down seem like missed opportunities to save thousands–or even millions–of lives. Cataloging counterfactuals is, in simple terms, a waste of time.
The only way to assess the quality of a decision made with imperfect information is to understand the principles at play, the information available at the time, what information was taken into account, and how that information was weighed. Just as a finance professional does when managing risk in his investment portfolio, during this pandemic, officials were tasked with two sometimes competing goals: to minimize the likelihood of an unacceptable outcome and to maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome. These goals are “sometimes competing” because many of the decisions made to protect the health of as many people as possible (i.e., minimize the unacceptable) also impacted the economy and people’s mental and emotional well-being (i.e., did not maximize the positive).
While we will not be able to evaluate the outcomes of these decisions for a long time, we can evaluate the values and ethics behind these decisions. What value did officials place on the lives of the elderly and the poor? Did officials treat the threat with an appropriate level of seriousness? Did officials try to mitigate any of the negative effects of their decisions? These are the questions that most interest me.
A good decision made with imperfect information could have a bad outcome (or vice versa). A bad outcome doesn’t necessarily make a good decision bad, and a good outcome certainly doesn’t make a bad decision good. To believe otherwise is to embrace consequentialism–the notion that the ends justify the means. This is a violation of one of the most basic moral principles of Christianity.
As Christians, our guiding principle is mercy. “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life,” Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus, as he opened up the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Two Christians can legitimately hold different opinions on a course of action–to the extent they weigh information differently or accept different information as valid–but there cannot be any compromise on the principle of mercy itself. This principle should help guide discussions when disagreeing with other Catholics about the actions of the bishops or Pope Francis, or about what they have taught. It is important to ask, “Is this a debate over what information to value and how to value it? Or is it an argument over the nature of mercy? Do we all even accept the principle of mercy?”
Too many Christians fail to embrace the fact that all of us make decisions without perfect information. Too many seem to think they know everything there is to know. They seek to compel others to act better and to control outcomes. It’s as if their greatest desire is to make everyone else think in the same way that they themselves think. Even in the pursuit of a good outcome, such Christians violate the principle of mercy and reduce the faith to nothing but a system of rules and prohibitions. They sap the Gospel of its “freshness” and “fragrance,” as Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium 39.
In contrast, Pope Francis teaches us the principle that “time is greater than space,” by which he embraces the reality of uncertainty and decision-making with imperfect information. When we “initiate processes,” as Francis says, we begin chains of events, well beyond our control, that are shaped by the actions of other people also acting in love and mercy. Our attempts to control only hold back the fruits of the Spirit, but when we let go of control, the result is an extension–an exponential expansion one might say–of one good act multiplied into a thousand into a million. We will simply never know the impact of all of our actions, but we know we are called to act in charity. As Francis wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate, “The Father’s plan is Christ, and ourselves in him. In the end, it is Christ who loves in us, for ‘holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full’” (Gaudete et Exsultate 21).
According to the principle of mercy, Christians should minimize the probability of an unacceptable outcome and maximize the chance for a positive outcome in their words and actions. While it’s certainly far from a theological argument, I believe this helps explain principles such as the “law of gradualism” or the pastoral guidance given by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia. In short, losing a soul to despair, frustration, or fatalism is an unacceptable outcome, but helping another grow and live out God’s call to holiness is a very positive outcome. Mercy is the razor that helps us achieve both–and at the same time! God’s limitless mercy is the way forward from both our lowest valleys and highest mountains. We may not always know how things will turn out, but when we act with mercy, we can be confident that we are doing the will of the Father through the work of the Spirit.