Pope Francis has announced a jubilee Year of Mercy, starting December 8. He is hardly the first pope to stress the importance of mercy. John Paul II spoke about it often and eloquently. But Francis has a special passion for the virtue, likely rooted in his experience of the poor and his affection for the thought of Romano Guardini.
In his masterpiece The Lord, Guardini has a revealing chapter on “Justice and That Which Surpasses It.” It’s worth reading as a clue to the Holy Father’s thought. To quote Guardini at length:
Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life.
Guardini shrewdly notes that “too often [an appeal to] ‘justice’ is used as a mask for quite different things”—envy of the person who generously grants mercy, or resentment that the penitent sinner is escaping his just punishment.
Most of us know the story, in John’s Gospel, of Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery. For St. Augustine, the woman embodies the entire human race. She has sinned grievously. She has betrayed her God, her family, and the community to which she belongs. Brought before the religious authorities, she faces the severity of Mosaic law, which allows for stoning. The men who stand in judgment of her, all of them sincerely committed to the law, seek to rid the community of sin by ridding it first of the sinner. Their interest is punishment, not penance.