Father Marcel Guarnizo
QUESTION: There has been a lot of talk about mercy before and during the synod, what is your view on mercy as the justification for these new pastoral approaches?
FATHER GUARNIZO: It seems to me at the heart of the matter lies yet another problem that has been afflicting the opinions of more than one bishop at the synod. This problem is the lack of and great need in the age of postmodernity for proper operational definitions of terms. There seems to be in our day and age a great deal of confusion about the meanings of all sorts of things, family, unions, gender, homosexual tendencies, doctrine vs. discipline, dogma vs. pastoral practice, and much more.
Mercy as a virtue is most necessary in the Church, but it unfortunately does not escape the deconstruction of postmodern thinking in our times. Mercy denotes, as St.Thomas Aquinas teaches, “…a kind of sorrow” (Summa Theologica II-IIae, Q.30, a.1-a.4)–sorrow for the plight of another. The origin of this sorrow is originated necessarily from the recognition of a privation of a good in the person for which one feels “… a kind of sorrow.” This privation of a good could be physical, moral, spiritual, or for any other reason.
Therefore, to properly understand mercy as a virtue one must first recognize the inadequacy, defect, lack of a perfection or goodness in the person one feels sorrow for. This implies, of course, recognition of the privation of good in all the cases being addressed at the synod–divorced and remarried (without a previous annulment), those cohabitating outside of marriage, homosexual “unions,” and the rest. Mercy is impossible even as a feeling without the recognition of the objective deficiency present, for it is in the recognition of the deficiency that mercy as a feeling originates.
But more is needed to actually attain mercy as a virtue. A feeling is not a virtue. We all have feelings, many beyond rational control. But a feeling of sorrow for someone’s plight is far from constituting the virtue of mercy. Thomas distinguishes between “a feeling of sorrow,” which is not more than a movement of the sensitive appetite, a passion and mercy which is the virtue. The feeling by itself does not constitute the virtue of mercy. For mercy to exist as a virtue, (which I take is what really is of value), mercy must be “…a movement of the intellective appetite…” This movement, for mercy to be an actual virtue, must be ruled, “…in accordance with reason and in accordance with this movement regulated by reason, the movement of the lower appetite (the feeling of sorrow), may be regulated.”
The “feeling of sorrow,” is not mercy. It must be regulated to be a virtue by adherence through right reason to the good and to that which is true. It seems to me much of what we have today is feeling sorry that someone cannot receive communion. But to assert that this feeling is a manifestation of the virtue of mercy is just simply a bad theoretical error.
Furthermore, to determine the defect in a relationship for which one “feels sorry,” requires a judgment. Therefore to oppose a judgment of the mind to mercy is to be speaking of emotive mercy (irrational feeling), vs. the virtue of mercy which requires reason and judgment. Much of what today is being called mercy is nothing more than a feeling by which no serious judgments, let alone pastoral practice or doctrinal determinations, can be made.
Finally as Thomas teaches, quoting St. Augustine, the virtue of mercy exists as, “… this movement of the mind (i.e. not feeling) obeys reason, when mercy is vouchsafed in such a way that justice is safeguarded, whether we give to the needy or forgive the repentant.” (De Civ. Dei ix. 5).
Pseudo mercy or emotive mercy – just feeling sorry for someone – is what sustains flawed arguments in cases such as euthanasia, “mercy killing.” Indeed one may have “a feeling of sorrow,” for the plight of an older person who is suffering. But this is not a virtue it is just a sentiment. To propose putting them to death to alleviate their suffering is a departure from reason and does not secure the obligations of justice to the sick and disabled. This is not the virtue of mercy. Equally to destroy the unborn, for reasons of mercy” – they have Down syndrome, they will suffer, they are not wanted– is irrational and unjust.
I think much of the debate has been between those who think mercy is an irrational feeling, emotive mercy against those who are upholding the real virtue of mercy, which requires, reason, a judgment of the mind, the recognition of the lack of good in a situation and the absolute need for securing through right thinking the ends of justice, truth, and goodness.