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Katie van Schaijik

The incommensurability of justice and mercy

Sep. 17, 2009, at 1:32pm

The right relation between mercy and justice is something I’ve been mulling lately, because I’ve experienced personally the harm done by the confusion about it rampant in our society, including in the Church. I’ve witnessed many others experiencing it too, in large and small ways.
It came up again this morning, as I read an article at Catholic Light by canon lawyer Peter Vere critiquing a long-winded letter sent out by Fr. Alvero Corcuera, LC, to Legionary priests and Regnum Christi consecrated women. (An unofficial translation of the Spanish letter with some commentary can be found here.)
The letter drips with piety—piety of the vaguest and most generic kind. It is effusive in gratitude for the service and fidelity of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi members. It is boundless in its expression of ardor for Christ and anguish over the suffering his flock (that is, the Legion) is undergoing because of the “present difficulties”.

Believe me that I would give my life, or whatever it would take, so as to soften the cross of each one, and that I feel very unworthy of being able to offer you my whole life and renew to you my gratitude, support and brotherly closeness.

Peter Vere responds:

Nobody is asking Fr. Alvaro to give up his life. We’re simply asking him to apologize publicly to Maciel’s victims. It’s a debt of justice owed to those who were victimized at the hands of Maciel, then victimized again by having their reputations shredded when they came forward with the truth. Yet this is the one course of action Fr. Alvaro keeps avoiding. Why?

He avoids it because admitting the truth would (he must know at some level) discredit him, his way of life, and his cherished institution, which, I suppose he tells himself, is so important to the Church. He seems to hope that he can make up for the lapse in justice by “going the extra mile” in his expressions of Christian humility and piety.

It backfires. He aggravates the original wrong, by putting the moral onus on the victims and those standing in solidarity with them. “I’m sorry that even though I have given you so much and professed so ardently my Christian love and concern for you, you remain bitter and unforgiving.”

From Caritas in Veritate, paragraph 6 [my emphasis]:

First of all, justice. Ubi societas, ibi ius: every society draws up its own system of justice. Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity[1], and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it[2], an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us.

It’s not okay to take what doesn’t belong to us. Nor can we make up for it by offering ever so much of what does belong to us, while we refuse to return what doesn’t. Nor is that person fairly accused of being bitter or vindictive or unforgiving, because he asks to have it back and refuses to give up his claim to it.


Steve B • Sep 17, 2009 - 3:39 pm

Hi Katie,

I’m with you 100%.  Excellent quote from our Holy Father, btw.

You alluded to it in your initial post, but the key issue is something that you could very well have also highlighted in your quote from Pope Benedict in his latest encyclical:

“I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them.

By “first”, I think that the Holy Father is promoting the principal message of Christianity - i.e. dying to self, and being willing to make sacrifices for the good of others. 

Clearly, Fr. Corcuera hasn’t yet done that, since he is placing the future of the Legion before the justice due to its victims. 

I also think that he is exhibiting a lack of courage and his lack of faith in God’s Providence, by putting the “interests” of the Legion before the justice due to those who were victimized.

Certainly flies in the face of Personalism, eh?

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik • Sep 17, 2009 - 4:13 pm

Though I hate to take issue with so kind and complimentary a comment, either I misunderstand you, Steve, or I disagree with one part of what you say, namely this:

“By “first”, I think that the Holy Father is promoting the principal message of Christianity - i.e. dying to self, and being willing to make sacrifices for the good of others.”

I read him to be saying that charity in the sense of generous self-giving can’t even BEGIN unless and until we render what is due.  If an apology and/or restitution is OWED, no amount of “generosity” or personal sacrifice can make up for the lack of it—especially if we deny either implicitly or explicitly that it’s owed at all.

Suppose my neighbor steals my car.  I demand its return forthwith.  He denies that he stole it; claims the car is his.  But, recognizing my sad carlessness, he expresses his concern and his generous willingness to help out however he can.  He offers to give me a ride whenever I need it, no matter how inconvenient to himself.

I file a small claims suit against him.  He writes an article for a Catholic newspaper about the scandal of Christians taking each other to court and the problem of people harboring bitterness and being unable to “move on” from their set backs and disappointments in life.

I still don’t have my car.

Steve B • Sep 17, 2009 - 5:07 pm

Hi Katie,

I must not have clearly made my earlier comment - I certainly would not disagree with anything in either of your two posts on this topic.

However, in your “stolen car” example, the question I would ask is this:

How would his (we all know that only MEN would ever steal a car!) holding onto of YOUR car that was stolen possibly be an act of dying to self? 

I’m sure we’d agree that unjustly holding onto someone else’s property could never be deemed a selfless act.  Denying someone justice is NEVER a selfless act.

Thus, I believe you, I, & the Holy Father are all really on the same page - namely, that there can be no real charity w/o justice.

Sorry that I didn’t make that clear in my earlier post.

Take care, and God bless,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Katie van Schaijik • Sep 17, 2009 - 6:01 pm

In my analogy the act of [bogus] self-giving was in his offer to give me a ride anywhere whenever I need it, no matter how inconvenient for him. 

I think what the Pope meant to say in the quotation sited is that an act of charity is really nothing of the kind so long as the original injustice remains unrectified.

The example is perhaps too far-fetched to be helpful, but this sort of thing goes on all the time.  A sex-abuser may feel offended when he is turned in by his victim: “Look at everything I’ve done for you!”  (All the money and gifts I gave you, for instance.)

Or, put it in a political context.  A politician may imagine he compensates for stealing votes by doling out favors to his constituents.

I’m glad we agree.  I thought there must have been some misunderstanding.

Steve B • Sep 17, 2009 - 6:35 pm

Hi Katie,

Whew!  I’m glad too that we agree.

As I mentioned to you privately, I believe there is a serious imbalance between mercy & justice, both in the Catholic Church itself, and in our western culture.

This is a HUGE issue which is seriously harmful, both individually & collectively. 

The Church doesn’t help the situation either, when it far too often “gives a pass on Sin” to prominent, dissident, Catholics who repeatedly scandalize our faith on non-negotiable matters of justice (e.g. the sacredness of human life in all its stages)....

Until the Catholic Clergy “get tough on Sin”, and promote/preach with a MUCH more balanced emphasis upon mercy/justice, how can they honestly think that this situation will appreciably improve???

Take care, and God bless,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Scott Johnston • Oct 6, 2009 - 5:31 pm

This is a great point about mercy and justice. I agree very much with Steve and Katie’s united position on this, responding to our Holy Father.

If I were to summarize the Pope’s point, perhaps it would be that in order for any action or expression of charity to be authentic, justice must first be satisfied. (And this could be via a request, an offer and an acceptance of forgiveness.) If there is an injustice between two parties that has not been resolved, an attempt by the offending party to be charitable to the one offended, without any attempt to rectify the injustice having also been made, ultimately makes the attempt at charity ring hollow as an inauthentic act.

This brings up thoughts about the contrast between interior feelings and a certain objective, ontological reality that attains to the status of human relationships. One who has committed or participated in a serious injustice against another might feel internally like he has all kinds of good will and sweetness and light, etc., toward the one to whom injustice was done. But these feelings do not change at all the remaining ontological reality which is that the relationship is marked by injustice. The good feelings whether genuine or manufactured, do nothing to resolve the injustice. And until the injustice is resolved, those sentiments cannot transform the more fundamental ontological reality of the character of an interpersonal relationship in such a way that real charity can flow from offender to offended. It is blocked by an existing grave injustice.

This is similar to sin in our souls. If we are in a state of grave sin, we may still feel all sorts of warm feelings for God (and these may be authentic), even do wonderful things for others—yet it does not alter the ontological state which our soul is in. Until we go to confession and receive absolution, grave sin remains in our soul and a separation between our soul and God still exists. Absolution and penance restores this separation. Sentiments and good deeds, do not.

And I would like to suggest that my comment below under Katie’s post “Who will we stand with?” is also relevant to this thread.

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