When I was first investigating the Catholic Church, one of the things that I found most attractive was the concept of Purgatory, and penance in general.
Which, on the face of it, is weird. I’ve heard of plenty of people who were raised Catholic, and who fear Purgatory nearly as much as they fear Hell. And it’s logical, isn’t it, not to look forward to experiencing consequences of your misbehaviour?
Let’s consider the alternative, however: in the evangelical Protestantism in which I was raised, there was no concept of Purgatory or penance. Forgiveness and atonement were considered to be given absolutely without qualification (doing anything yourself to atone for or make up for your sins would have been considered “works salvation,” which was absolutely rejected). No matter what you did, Jesus’s death and resurrection covered it 100%, and you were responsible for none of it. All you had to do was repent and believe, and you would be ushered into everlasting glory at the moment of your death. You could torture and murder and cheat and lie and manipulate and perform all manner of evil, and you were never expected to deal with any of the consequences.
What I found, however, was that this eventually seemed… insulting. Almost disrespectful, in a way. If nothing you do matters, then what does that say about you as a person? Are you a human being, with free will, who has the power to make decisions and act on them and create consequences, or are you just an animal, or an infant, who can never be held responsible for anything? If nothing you do earns any consequences, then what’s the point? You’re just a twig floating down a river, getting swept around, and not accountable for anything. I felt LESS respected, being told that all I had to do to escape consequences was to ask for it, that I was incapable of doing anything concrete to mitigate my wrong actions, that I couldn’t do anything that deserved severe consequences.
This is what goes through my head every time Pope Francis talks about the death penalty (or even life sentences) being unjust. To me, holding people to account is the most respectful, affirming thing you can do to a rational, adult human being. To say to someone, “You have committed a great evil which has had enormous consequences upon your victims, upon society, and upon yourself, and therefore you shall endure these consequences, to avenge your victims, to protect society, and to punish yourself,” is to fully respect a person’s free will and ability to make free actions. To say to someone, “You have committed great evil, but we are not going to hold you accountable for that,” is to reduce them to an animal or a child, who is not capable of making responsible decisions.
Mercy is a great thing. But it only exists in the context of justice. Mercy is what seasons, what tempers justice. By itself, it is nothing. Mercy is only visible against the backdrop of evil, and the ensuing justice. Justice is to get what one earns by doing evil. Mercy affects justice, but it cannot replace it. For it to have any meaning at all, we must first clearly see the justice, and the evil that earned it. You can’t get mercy if what you did wasn’t bad enough to require justice.
And that’s what I mainly fear from the recent emphasis on “mercy.” Of course, there are the continued victimization, the hardened consciences, and the scandal; all of these are negative consequences of ignoring good justice. But I can’t tell you how encouraging and hopeful it was for me to learn that my actions had consequences, and that it was just and right that I make atonement for them. I understand that in the eternal sense, I can never sufficiently atone for my sins to reconcile me to God. That is why Jesus’s death was required. But His death doesn’t make me helpless or senseless. God created us with reason and free will, and He is just. He knows that justice benefits the sinners, the victims, and society. It lifts us up, above the rest of creation, and is part of what makes us like God: rational thought, and free will. We have the ability to make free choices, and we have the opportunity to use the consequences for those actions for our good. We can choose to let them refine us, to come face-to-face with our own fallenness, to learn the depths of depravity to which we are susceptible. If we don’t realize how far we can fall, then how can we appreciate the mercy of God? If nothing is worth justice, then mercy is likewise worthless.
Cheap mercy, cheap grace — is that all that Jesus earned on the cross? Did He endure the Passion for a bunch of insignificant actions? If we do not earn justice, then was His work worthless?
Never, I say. He endured what He did because the human heart contains depths of unfathomable evil. Human beings commit actions of unspeakable depravity, and THAT is why He suffered. THAT is why He endured what He did, to go to the depths of that darkness. We are not helpless, we make choices. And those choices have consequences. To claim otherwise is to degrade not only human nature, but the sacrifice of Christ Himself.