Mercy, Justice, and How To Tell The Difference

Mercy, Justice, and How To Tell The Difference April 27, 2016

(Sharat Ganapati / Flickr, CC 2.0)
(Sharat Ganapati / Flickr, CC 2.0)

I haven’t blogged at all about Pope Francis’s Apostolic exortation Amoris Laetitia, for the simple reason that I haven’t yet read it! So I’m not in a position to analyze it myself or to evaluate other people’s takes on it. But Eve Tushnet wrote a reflection for First Things which opens with a good analysis of plain ol’ human nature, no pre-reading required:

Philip Larkin lamented that whether or not anybody refills your drink at a party “seems to turn on where you are. Or who.” In our divided Catholic Church, pastoral care is a lot like Larkin’s cocktails. Catholics who sincerely desire to submit themselves to the Church they love come to their local parish seeking the wine of resurrection; and receive sometimes water, sometimes vinegar. If you’re in an especially culturally-contentious position, you may be favored with alternating doses of each. Laxity disguised as mercy creates a predictable reaction of stringency disguised as truth.

Read more at First Things…

Eve’s written previously about how uncomfortable and confused our relationship to mercy and justice can be, most notably in her “5 Things the Disease Model Gets Wrong About Addiction” for The American Conservative

If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy—it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving—you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.

And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love.


Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”

Read more at AmCon…

I tend to get muddled in this way, gearing myself up to forgive (or just to be pleasant to) someone I’m angry with by running through a mental checklist of things that may have constrained their choices/reasons why they could have been acting in good faith, in pursuit of a perceived good.

And that’s not a bad habit! I have access to more of my constraints and mitigating factors than I do about anyone else, so I should be leaving a healthy margin of error when I try to make sense of others’ actions.  But I want to be careful of reworking my view until I’ve erased the fault or infantilized my friend and preemptively taken forgiveness off the table, when it might well be appropriate.

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