We are in the midst of the Jubilee of Mercy year. It has one very odd feature however. There are many people in the Church who think a key feature of this is not being “judgmental”. A good example of this can be seen on Sr. Theresa Altheia Noble’s blog at this site. As she puts it:
“Mercy begins with the person, where he or she is, and leads that person back to God. Mercy puts the other person’s spiritual well-being first and creates space for the gradual nature of conversion. Mercy respects that slamming the Ten Commandments or the Catechism in someone’s face is often going to be useless if the other person does not first accept God’s love, or the basic fact of his existence.”
I am not sure I understand on what all these high minded phrases really mean in practice. What they seem to suggest is that we not be too heavy handed telling people what they are doing is “sinful”.
On some level this is bizarre. In reality, back when the Church demonstrated coherent thinking sin was something harmful. It is harmful not in the sense that God will punish it, but rather because it turns us into the kind of thing who will find the presence of God loathsome and therefore will only be fit for separation from God, that is hell… when we die. Aquinas begins his section of the Summa on sin, discussing happiness. For Aquinas sins were not breaking arbitrary rules and laws of God, but were rather behaviors that led humans away from their ultimate end or purpose and therefore led not to happiness but to misery. Understood in this way admonishing the sinner was in fact an act of mercy, and was indeed one of the spiritual works of mercy. In fact according to the old Baltimore catechism there was at times a moral duty to admonish the sinner if the sin was mortal, we had some influence or authority over the sinner and if the correction would likely do more good than harm.
It is analogous to plenty of things we take for granted when we discuss physical health. Exercise to a health person is enjoyable, but if you engage in unhealthy habits, and overeat, smoke etc you will become obese, develop lung problems and find that even small amounts of exercise are no longer pleasant but very unpleasant indeed and cause shortness of breath and potentially chest pain, joint pain etc. A good parent will not allow a teenager to do these unhealthy things because they do not want their teenage child to get obese or develop an addiction to nicotine with all the negative health consequences that brings. We would view a parent who allowed a kid to smoke and binge eats as a parent who did not really care. They would be a bad parent.
In like manner, sin is harmful, it tends to dull the conscience and become addictive in some sense. It leads one away from God, and can be eternally catastrophic. A person mired in mortal sin will find the presence of God not blissful but rather torture, in short they will push themselves away from God and end up in hell. In contrast unhealthy habits no matter how bad have limited temporal consequences. The worst that can happen is they shorten your life, but as we all know, we all will die regardless.
Now it is true enough that it is possible to correct the sinner in unhelpful, inappropriate ways, but is the real problem today that sin is overly recognized? Excessively criticized? In fact I would be hard pressed to think of what precise behavior (other than producing an excess carbon footprint,) is rejected as sinful. We live in a society in which Planned Parenthood mutilated unborn children, sells their parts, and collects tax payer dollars for their troubles. I could go on but I think this pretty much says all that needs to be said. We are suffering more from consciences that are so anesthetized that they have no interest in mercy, as they are pretty certain they don’t need it.
What is even more peculiar is that in the 1950s when the Church was, oh so very judgmental by today’s standards, it was growing. Today when it is forever being “pastoral” it is imploding. This should come as no surprise. The whole concept of Christianity is that we are sinners, and we are headed to hell unless we receive the grace of Christ. We respond to this freely offered gift, and accept it by repentance, and participation in the life of the Church, including reception of the Sacraments. So we need the Church and the mercy of God to avoid hell. Obviously if there is no recognition of personal sin there is simply no need for the Church or God’s mercy. If there is no personal sin, it is very fair to ask “So Jesus loves me, So what?” In our sinless world what is the “so what”? We say that Christ “saved us”, but from what?
All of this Jubilee of Mercy business makes no sense in the absence of a felt sense of personal sin. There may be places and times where the sense of sin is excessive and psychologically unhealthy. Our time and place is not one of them. It is for this reason that Jubilee or not… nobody is paying attention.
May St Maria Faustina Kowalska, who brought us the Feast of Divine Mercy, pray for us, that we truly understand for what we need mercy and that somewhere there are people still left who will truly have mercy on us, by correcting us when we sin.