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Book Review: "Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life" (Paulist Press; 2013)

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a participant in the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on Family Life, calls for a reprioritization of theological virtues in his book, "Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life" (Paulist Press; 2013).

Often represented as promoting a theology of mercy that negates the juridical components of Church teaching, opening its doors to those that do not live in accordance with the Church’s teachings, a careful reading of this work does not support such a parody. Kasper even warns in the introductory comments against an opposition between justice and mercy. He asserts that mercy deforms into ‘pseudo-mercy,’ which allows error to reign and sin to lose meaning, when isolated from justice.

However, he is not entirely successful in achieving the stated aim of establishing God’s mercy as the answer to that ages-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Still, one can be forgiven for incompletely answering a question that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with through the ages without coming up with a response that satisfies.* What Kasper does do successfully is build a convincing argument that ‘mercy’ is the very definition of God’s essence. He argues it is the heuristic key required to understand God’s very being and essential in understanding our proper relationship with him. Like every good academic, he begins any discussion with a return to the sources. Sacred Scripture, Patristic teachings, Council teachings and a wide variety of writings by various scholars and academics are used to construct his case. With this Kasper demonstrates how mercy is the lens through which we can comprehend God’s justice.

Kasper relies on the absolute sovereignty of God to act and/or judge as he pleases as a proof of his abundant desire to reconcile humanity with his divine being. He concludes that it is in the exercise of this divine mercy that God most completely expresses the essence of his nature. He mercifully lifts humanity to himself despite the damage we’ve done through sin. God's desire to seek out the lost and heal the broken-hearted is his very being expressed concretely and existentially in terms that we can comprehend. We need only reflect upon the Cross-to see the distance God is willing to go to reconcile mankind to himself. Kasper argues further that if the Church (and its members) wishes to reflect God’s divine essence to a broken world, it must first and foremost practice mercy in its relations with all the sinners and saints she encounters.

Finally, Cardinal Kasper also proposes that it is easier for a Christian society to safeguard the essential role that mercy plays within our modern culture than does a thoroughly secular society. In this, he falls back upon the traditional Catholic argument that a virtue desired by God carries greater gravitas than one that is rooted in the loose soil of secularism. When consensus or majority rule is allowed the power to establish the parameters of a virtue such as mercy, it rarely takes long before that virtue is twisted or deformed into a tool for social engineering. Cut loose from its traditional definition, secularism tends to eliminate the obligation of the individual to practice a virtue as the state/collective soon assumes to itself the responsibility and power to accomplish what individuals or private institutions formerly did. When such a deformation of mercy is effected by the state, it soon is robbed of its strength. We only need look to current trends in liberal Western democracies to see it redefined in such a way so as to justify state-sanctioned killing of its citizens (euthanasia).

‘Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life’ certainly merits a place on the reading list of any serious Catholic.

* (Read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People’ for the best answers to this question. ‘Mercy’ just didn’t do it for me.)

Copyrighted: Fr. Tim Moyle 2014


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