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Justice, Mercy and the Reality of Offending God

Recently, I was e-mailed a question that I hear frequently when discussing the Holy Father and his various comments on subjects of interest to pro-life Catholics:

Dear Judie,

Pope Benedict XVI very directly pointed out that the problem of the Church is within—mainly pointing to the sexual abuse scandals and saying that there must be forgiveness but also justice.

My questions are as follows:

1) What does the pope mean by forgiveness with justice? I consider the lack of admonishing anti-life Catholic public figures, especially politicians, as a lack of justice AND just as terrible a crime as pedophilia (but maybe I am wrong here)?

2) Does this change our attitude towards those who have performed or given into the temptation of murdering their children and then repented?

I am just trying to find the correct responses and attitude.

The quote to which this gentleman refers came from an interview the Holy Father gave during his visit to Lisbon, Portugal. The New York Times reported that the pope said the following regarding the sexual abuse scandals: “The problem, he said, was ‘the sin inside the church’ … ‘Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice.’”

According to CathNews Asia, however, which did not take the Holy Father out of context, he said,

The greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from sin inside the church…. The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice.

In responding to the gentleman’s question, therefore, we have to put the Holy Father’s comments in the context of what it means to justly address someone who has, for whatever reason, sinned in a grave manner.  Perhaps the individual has even denied that he has committed a sin against God or otherwise pretended that it did not occur. For the purposes of comparing the insult and sacrilege that is committed against Christ by the person who publicly supports aborting the preborn while pretending that there is no problem with his continuing to receive communion, we can honestly say that the Holy Father’s statement applies to that offender in the same way it applies to the sexual abuser. In both cases, the person responsible for the offensive act is a violator of God’s law, Catholic teaching and morality.

Regardless, justice comes about by honestly exposing the gravity of the sin committed and making sure that the perpetrator understands that he cannot go on in the same fashion, but must instead seek the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of those he has offended by his sinful actions. In other words, one cannot even comprehend the need to be forgiven for a serious injustice if he or she is not called to account for the action in the first place. 

I am convinced that is what the Holy Father means and what should be applied in any case where a grave sin has been committed, whether it is by a priest, a pederast or a pro-abortion Catholic who refuses to admit or perhaps is not even aware that what he has done is sinful.

Father Paul Scalia wrote on the subject of “Justice and Mercy” in his commentary dated March 27, 2004. He too reflected on the need to have a balance between justice and mercy:

Justice, as the judgment of what we deserve for sin, calls us to repentance and therefore prepares us for mercy. By extending justice to a person, we in a sense show mercy because we enable that person to realize his wrongdoing and repent. Parents punish children, for example, not because they hate them, but to correct their faults—which is merciful. Justice is not opposed to mercy at all. Justice prepares us for mercy.

Nor does mercy deny justice. Certainly false mercy overlooks or trivializes sin, making light of what in justice we deserve. True mercy, however, looks directly at sin, acknowledges its horror, understands fully the just punishment deserved—and then remits that punishment. Mercy presumes what justice demands, but then generously absolves us of it.

Justice and mercy work beautifully together, and make no sense apart. Justice leads up to mercy, and mercy picks up where justice ends. Justice that does not allow for mercy is cold and inhuman. Mercy that does not presume justice is irresponsible and sentimental. St. Thomas Aquinas says it simply: “Justice without mercy is cruelty.” But at the same time: “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.”

We experience justice and mercy most especially in Confession. When we confess our sins, we condemn ourselves in justice. The priest, then, does not trivialize our sins or offer us false mercy. He acknowledges the demands of justice. He confirms the gravity of our sins and our guilt. At the same time, however, he extends mercy. With the words of absolution he remits the punishment for our sins. We no longer incur eternal damnation.

By His death on the Cross our Lord reveals perfectly the demands of both divine justice and divine mercy. In justice, we deserve that death; but in mercy He embraces it for us. Thus He unites both justice and mercy in His perfect sacrifice of love.

In other words, as the Holy Father expressed it, and as we understand it, the person who has erred through sin is in need of correction, for only then can he understand the need to repent and be forgiven by God. And whether that sinful act is public or private, the ordained priest who chooses to ignore it is quite literally causing harm to the sinful individual in a way that is not only cruel, but unjust. Choosing not to point out that the individual’s soul is in danger is in itself a sin.

Finally, as the questioner addressed the application of these principles to the parent who either considered aborting his or her child or in fact did, the same conditions apply. It is only through the realization that what we have done is a grave offense against God that we can begin the process of realizing why we must admit to our error, seek forgiveness and thus be embraced fully by the loving Christ who, as Father Scalia so brilliantly points out, welcomes us back and enfolds us in His loving embrace.

Thus, there can be no mercy, no forgiveness and no peace of mind without justice.