Mercy, taught Saint John Paul II, isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card that enables us to consign Christian morality to the realm of “the ideal” or the too-hard-except-for-Super-Catholics.
Mercy—it’s a word that’s dominated Catholic discourse over the past three years, primarily because Pope Francis rarely makes a public comment without invoking it. Of course, it’s hardly a new idea for Christians. Francis’s immediate two predecessors, Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, wrote at length on this theme. The latter even penned an entire encyclical on the topic. In Dives in Misericordia (1980), the saint who died on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday stressed that divine mercy is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and fully revealed in the life of Christ, most notably in the Cross.
Historically-aware readers of Dives in Misericordia will soon recognize, however, that one reason why John Paul penned this text was to remind everyone that the pursuit of justice can easily degenerate into efforts to realize ideological programs. “It is obvious,” John Paul wrote, “that in the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights” (DM 12). These words clearly reflected the pope’s knowledge of Communism and Communists: people who enslaved and murdered millions in the name of their socialist, materialist, and atheist notions of what justice entailed.
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