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Facets of Love
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Kant: Purpose
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Love & Illusion
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Mature Christian
Mercy Defiled
Rescuing Reason


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Mercy Defiled

By P. Engelbert Recktenwald

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of the treasure which we have in earthen vessels. By this treasure, he means the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6), which is the loving fellowship with the Lord through faith, in which salvation consists. The earthen vessel is our body, which is exposed to constant dangers. But we can also apply the expression to our heart. The quality “earthen” refers to its fragility. Our heart is exposed to temptations. Our treasure is never entirely out of danger. “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12. We have not got the divine treasure in our secure possession once and for all. On the contrary, there exists the terrible possibility that we may lose it. For this reason Paul admonishes: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). This is merely a particularly drastic expression of that vigilance to which the Lord himself calls us many times over in the Gospels. Our salvation depends on this vigilance. Let us remember, for instance, the parable of the servants, whom the master wishes to find watching and waiting, with their lamps burning, when he arrives home from the marriage feast. But the servant whom he does not find watching and waiting, but rather in drunken revelry and feasting, he will – horribile dictu – “punish…and put him with the unfaithful” (Lk 12:46). And from St. Peter we have the well-known saying: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).

Now there is a manner of speaking of God’s unconditional love which renders all of these admonitions superfluous. In a certain sense this love is indeed unconditional: Thanks to His will for salvation, God pursues even the most wicked sinner with His grace and offers him forgiveness. But the forgiveness itself is not unconditional, but rather it is tied to the condition of contrition and repentance, which for Catholics must be manifested in reception of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. God’s love does not involve an unconditional assurance of salvation. It is wrong to act as though God’s love allows us to do whatever we please without ever having to fear falling “further than into God’s hand”, to quote a popular poem by the Protestant pastor Arno Pötzsch. Yes, we can fall further, for Christ warns us: “…rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28).

St. Paul names the criteria which exclude one from salvation: “…those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” And what are “such things”? The works of the flesh: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). The Good News, which was brought to the Galatians consisted in the fact that God converted them, forgave them and bestowed upon them life in the Spirit. Now St. Paul warns them of relapsing into sin: “Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). God’s love does not mean that we have salvation in the bag once and for all and are immune to any relapse.

It is against this backdrop which Divine mercy must be understood. Mercy is forgiving love. God always forgives, as soon as the sinner repents and is prepared to return to God. St. John Vianney expressed his conviction that no one is in hell because of his sins, but rather because of his refusal to repent of them. Repentance opens the way for God’s mercy. This is infinite and limitless. This means: There is no sin which brings it to its limit. “I feel that even had I on my conscience every crime one could commit”, says St. Therese of Lisieux, “I should lose nothing of my confidence: my heart broken with sorrow, I would throw myself into the arms of my Savior.” For she knows that “all that multitude of sins would disappear in an instant, even as a drop of water cast into a flaming furnace.” Justice does not place a limit on mercy either. “Confession is the sacrament in which God appears to forget his justice in order to show only His mercy”, says St. John Vianney. It is not God’s justice, but our lack of contrition which prevents mercy from doing its work. God does not need to seek a balance between His justice and His mercy, which would consist in His forgiving some sins and punishing others. On the contrary, He has a boundless desire only to forgive, and He does precisely this as the sinner repents of his sins and entrusts himself to God’s mercy. The repentant sinner cannot therefore exaggerate his trust, because one cannot exaggerate the mercy of God. God cannot disappoint this trust. The repentant sinner can therefore be certain that God will receive him like the merciful father in the parable of the prodigal son.

But this does not hold true for the sinner who does not return to the father, but remains with the swine. If he still hopes for forgiveness, then this is not a sign of trust, but of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness is not exaggerated trust. Genuine trust cannot be exaggerated. It is by trust that God’s mercy is glorified, by presumptuousness it is defiled. For the presumptuous person makes of it a license to continue in sin. His assurance of salvation based on God’s allegedly unconditional love is a deceptive one. Rather, here the words of St. Paul apply: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8).

So, God’s love is omnipotent and infinite, but not unconditional. It can handle every iniquity regardless of how great it is. But no iniquity, regardless of how slight it may be, will be forgiven without contrition. This lies in the nature of the matter. For God is love, and so union with God can only take place in love. Contrition is the return of the will from sin to love.

Casual talk of God’s unconditional love leads not to vigilance, but rather it leads astray, into lukewarmness. Where there is no more danger, vigilance becomes redundant. Trust then gives way to carelessness, which is ignorant of the necessity of receiving anew, time and again, God’s forgiveness and His strengthening grace for daily conversion. This is reflected in the neglect of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In 2015, a Germany-wide study among 8600 Catholic spiritual directors yielded the shocking result that 54% of priests and 91% of lay pastors only go to Confession once a year at the most. “The Sacrament of Penance appears to be losing its significance”, so it was reported on the internet platform of the Catholic Church in Germany. That is similar to saying: God’s mercy appears to be losing its significance. In reality one must say: The significance of the Sacrament of Penance is becoming less and less appreciated. This is fatal, not for the Sacrament, but for the people. It is surprising that these catastrophic findings have not evoked any perceptible reaction from the German Episcopal Conference.

The significance of Confession for salvation does not decrease, for every generation remains dependent upon God’s mercy, even the post-conciliar generation of Catholics who consider themselves to be mature. There are certainly various reasons for the decline in the practice of Confession: lack of faith, negative experiences, neglected catechesis, but also this sense of “salvation optimism”, which, thanks to the talk of God’s unconditional love, is ignorant of the possibility of mortal sin, which robs us of the supernatural life of grace and cuts us off from salvation.

There is a difference between seeking refuge in God’s mercy and turning one’s back on it. The presumptuous do the latter. They make it into an alibi for the carelessness akin to that of those foolish virgins in the parable, who do not bring any oil for their lamps, miss the arrival of the Lord and then must hear the words: “I do not know you” (Mt 25:12).

But for all those who are afflicted with their sin and guilt and long for forgiveness, deliverance and reconciliation, the truth of God’s infinite mercy is an inestimable comfort and the infallible guarantee of the confidence which resounds in the Rule of St. Benedict: “Never despair of God’s mercy!” Every one who seeks refuge in Divine mercy can be confident that all will be well.

This article appeared in German in Die Tagespost in December 2016.

Zum deutschen Original

Engelbert Recktenwald: Facets of Love


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