The merciful mean between merciless extremes

In this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, it’s important to distinguish the real mercy of God that we’re supposed to receive and emulate from its various counterfeits. 

This is something Pope Francis has routinely been trying to do. 

Speaking of priests in a September 2013 interview — but with words that can be applied to the way any of us treats others — Pope Francis described how being merciful involves holding to the virtuous mean between the two extremes of inflexible legal exactitude that misses the spirit for the letter and permissive indulgence that misses the letter and the spirit. 

The confessor, he said, “is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax,” and he stressed, “Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the Commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that.” Both imitate in different ways, he implied, the cowardly hard-heartedness of the hand-washing Pontius Pilate. 

In contrast, “In pastoral ministry,” he said, “we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.” The rigorist, he suggested, doesn’t really want to accompany people and the laxist doesn’t really want to heal. The rigorist, while perhaps desiring the person’s conversion, doesn’t want to travel with the person on the occasionally arduous exodus from moral slavery. The laxist, on the other hand, while perhaps desiring the other’s happiness, doesn’t really want to help the other person truly get better, just feel better. 

It’s important to see why both are failures in mercy so that we can avoid this merciless Scylla and Charybdis. 

Let’s begin with the absence of mercy in rigid legalism. For Pope Francis, the icon of the rigorist is the hard-hearted scribes and Pharisees who took offense that Jesus drew near to sinners, ate with them, defended them and even befriended them. The Pharisees were literally “the separated ones” who tried to distance themselves as far as possible from sin out of love for God. In doing so, however, they were distancing themselves from sinners and forgetting that they, too, were numbered among them. 

In his book-length interview “The Name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis said that rigorist ministers often can see only sins to be eliminated or even “cases” to be dealt with, whereas the Divine Physician wants us, like Him, to focus not just on sinful symptoms but to heal sick and beloved patients. One of the things that the enormous response to Pope Francis’ July 2013 question “Who am I to judge?” revealed is that many, including those in great need of God’s mercy, often think that Catholics first judge them rather than love them; that the better the Catholic, the more one sees another’s scarlet letter rather than a sinner with a face who similarly needs Christ and His mercy. 

The greatest antidote to rigorism, Pope Francis says, is to recognize that we, too, have “greatly sinned” by our own “most grievous fault,” as we pray at Mass, so that we will measure out to others the mercy that we ourselves desperately need and have received. When asked by interviewer Andrea Tornielli whether he was a strict or indulgent confessor in Argentina, Pope Francis replied, “When I heard Confessions, I always thought about myself, about my own sins, and about my need for mercy, and so I tried to forgive a great deal.” 

The other merciless extreme is a negligence that doesn’t rescue sinners from the “broad road that leads to perdition” (Mt 7:13) but speeds their journey. Some can treat mercy as if it were a non-judgmental indulgence giving sinners a green light to continue sinning, as something that effectively enables rather than eliminates the very behavior that mercy, after repentance, is meant to absolve. Such false mercy, Francis said in a homily, allows people who need help to become “corrupt” and “solidified in sin such that they don’t feel the need for God.” It’s the moral equivalent of lighting the cigarette of someone with emphysema, something that’s perhaps “nice” but lethally uncharitable. Real mercy, on the other hand, treats sin as the Spiritual cancer it is so that the person in need might realize his or her condition, come to the Divine Oncologist, and receive from Him the remedies that will save his or her life. 

The true minister of mercy, Pope Francis said, whether the priest in the confessional or the Christian in daily life, doesn’t “wash his hands” of the person in need, but is willing to accompany the person along the journey back to the Father’s merciful embrace. 

In his September 2013 interview, Pope Francis, speaking of all those who act in the Church’s name, said, “The Church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor.” They must show that “God is greater than sin,” that Divine mercy is greater than human misery, and that God’s compassionate love endures forever (Ps 136). 

Like the two main terms in Hebrew for mercy, the masculine hesed, which focuses on God’s fidelity to Who He is and to the covenant of mercy He made with us (Ps 118:1), and the feminine rahamim, which says that God’s mercy for us is greater than a mother’s love for her breast-feeding infants (Is 49:15), Pope Francis is calling us to imitate the authentically fatherly and motherly characteristics of God’s mercy. 

In February, Pope Francis said that those who are “merciful like the Father” (Lk 6:36) need to welcome people with a “fatherly heart,” a heart like that depicted by Jesus in the parable of the Prodigal Son, a heart that doesn’t make a son grovel but celebrates when he returns home because the father is true to his paternal identity and love (Lk 15:11-32). 

Last month Pope Francis expressed his hope that confessors would imitate Mary’s merciful care of her children, treasuring each one, giving each person their full attention, recognizing their needs, correcting with the gentle and firm tenderness of a mother, and patiently loving children in need onto the path of healing. 

This interplay between hesed and rahamim, between paternal and maternal merciful love, is the way to avoid the stubborn, rule-dominated legalism to which dads can often succumb and the soft, enabling indulgence to which moms are occasionally prone. 

That’s the path to genuine mercy for all of us in this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at

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