Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about "cheap grace," the grace we bestow on ourselves, grace without the cross and without Jesus Christ. I think we might also talk about "cheap mercy."
In the wee hours at adoration this morning I was reading the first essay in Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family. (You know, the book hijacked by Fr. Lombardi and co.) Cardinal Carlo Caffarra addressed Mercy and Conversion. The cardinal began by saying, "These reflections focus on the act in which God's mercy shines forth in its preeminent form: the forgiveness of a sinner."
God is eager to forgive the sinner, but what is required before God's mercy can be received? Repentance and conversion. Mercy, says the cardinal, was part of God's creative plan. He knew man would sin and appear more in the image of Adam than in the image God and so "the act of mercy that forgives is the summit of creation."
The cardinal goes on to discuss sin and how it imprisons man. The freedom God gives to man is lost in the act of sinning. Rather than becoming more himself, man become less when he chooses a finite "freedom" in lieu of divine freedom. That may sound esoteric but think of one specific sin, let's say pornography that is so prevalent today. Consider a husband who becomes addicted to pornography. Does he become more free as he exercises his choice to view perverted images? No, he actually changes his brain chemistry making himself more and more a slave to the "pleasure" he gets from the images of virtual perverted sex. And, as many wives attest, the addicted husband becomes less and less free to enjoy the REAL relationship which no longer gives the same high as the imaginary. So he lives in a virtual world, with virtual sex partners, basically a slave to his imaginary stable of fillies.
Certainly that is an example of a man who needs the mercy of God. But is it available to Him? Can he be forgiven? Absolutely! But forgiveness requires something from him first. He must cooperate with the Divine Grace being offered that urges him to change course. As the cardinal says, "If forgiveness does not change the direction of his freedom, and he does not convert, we cannot truly say that a man has been forgiven."
Is God the culprit here, denying his mercy to the unrepentant sinner? NO! God is respecting the free will of man to reject Him and the mercy and forgiveness He offers. Cardinal Caffarra puts it eloquently:
The Love that forgives has appeared and it has stopped at the door of every human heart, waiting for someone to say to him: "Yes, come in." On this invitation depends the highest revelation of the Mystery of God: the forgiveness of the sinner.
What human acts bring into being the person's coooperation? Two, fundamentally. Recognition of one's own condition of moral mistery, one's own sin: "What I did is not right." This is the repentance that is expressed in confession. The consequence of this -- the second act -- is the decision not to do in the future what we acknowledge to be wrong: the resolution.Repentance, confession, resolution! Where have we heard that before?
But modern man doesn't want to repent or confess or resolve to change. He wants cheap mercy, one that makes no demands and many shepherds are more than willing to offer it. They do not act like the Great Physician. Rather they show "the mistaken pity of an incompetent and/or weak physician who contents himself with bandaging wounds without treating them."
Cardinal Caffarra calls mercy without conversion a "mistaken pity" and conversion without mercy a "Pelagian poison....Even pagan wisdom...realized the necessity of conversion to the good." He goes on to lament the "spirit of the age" in the West that has "trivialized and empties of its proper meaning the drama of the Mercy -- misery, forgiveness -- conversion encounter. It has turned the drama into a farce." When mercy is corrupted into meaning approval of whatever I choose to do, when the "proclamation of Mercy means: 'Accept me as I am and as I act, without speaking to me about conversion, since I have no need of it.' ...we have arrived at the complete distortion of the Church's proclamation."
Our world doesn't need a false mercy that encourages sinners to continue in slavery to sin. Sinners (all of us, in fact) need the Divine Freedom found in the confessional where true repentance and a resolution to change cut off the shackles of the enemy and restore the soul to union with our merciful God.
I'll end as Cardinal Caffarra began, "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7) Get the book, that one essay is worth the price.