In Christian thought, justice is one of the cardinal (or “hinge”) virtues. Mercy — also a virtue — is a fruit of the great theological virtue, charity. Together, mercy and justice should guide a mature Christian’s actions, choices and words.
Each virtue without the other is incomplete. Mercy without justice is little more than a warm feeling. It can ripen into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a disregard for truth in the name of compassion. Likewise, justice without mercy becomes a disguised form of revenge. Anger at society’s sins very easily feeds a habit of moral preening, with a selective blind spot for the sins we’d rather not discuss.
So when St. Paul urges us to “speak the truth with love,” he means the whole truth preached honestly, without editing, and ruled by charity. Pope Francis does this with extraordinary joy and simplicity, endearing him to people around the world.
Last week Georgetown University hosted a panel discussion on one of Francis’ main themes — poverty — featuring Arthur Brooks, Robert Putnam and President Obama. It was a useful event with valuable information. In the process though, the president displayed his curious leadership style by suggesting that Christians have spent too much time and energy on issues like abortion, at the expense of other issues that “capture the essence of who we are” as believers, like poverty.
As Ross Douthat and others quickly observed, “it would be too kind to call [the president’s] comments wrong; they were ridiculous.” Maybe so; maybe not. In the panel’s actual transcript, the president’s tone is affable and measured. But there’s some remarkable irony here, nonetheless.
Consider: The current administration threatens and interferes with scores of Church-affiliated social ministries serving the poor across the country because they won’t bend to its peculiar orthodoxies on abortion, contraception and sex. Then the same White House suggests that the Church spends too little time focusing on the poor and too much on abortion and sex.
In reality, prolife work in most dioceses, including Philadelphia, gets a fraction of the time and substantial funding devoted to social services and education. And it’s always been so. And it always will be so — unless government makes it impossible for Catholic social services to remain faithfully “Catholic.”
Church teaching on social justice is not a separate category, distinct from the rest of Catholic moral teaching. Catholic convictions about sexual integrity, the nature of the family, protection for immigrants and shelter for the homeless come from exactly the same roots; from exactly the same Christian understanding of who the human person is as a child of God. Feeding the hungry and helping the poor are vitally important obligations for the Christian. But they give no one a license to disregard or downplay the destruction of unborn human life that happens on a mass scale every day in this country.
As America’s bishops wrote more than 15 years ago and many times since, the right to life is the foundation on which all other Catholic social action rests. If no “right to life” for the unborn child exists, all other rights are merely fiction.
Exactly 20 years ago this spring, John Paul II issued his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“the Gospel of Life”). It’s worth re-reading. It stands in a long line of powerful social encyclicals that includes Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris. In some ways, it speaks with unique relevance to the key struggles American Catholics face right now. Nor is its message less urgent in the life of the global Church.
Pope Francis has reiterated the dignity of the unborn child, the nature of human sexuality and the importance of the family in many of his own public statements — though his views on these matters get less attention, because they don’t quite fit with the common narrative of who this Pope is and what he might do.
Where does that leave us as the Easter season closes and we welcome the great celebration of Pentecost?
We need to make the virtues of mercy and justice come alive in our personal lives. And we need to embed them, by our witness, in the public policies and structures of our nation. Saving unborn children only to have them grow up in culture of poverty and homelessness is not a result Christians can accept.
But there can be no “social justice,” no “common good” based on compassion and human dignity, in a nation that allows the daily, routine killing of its own weakest members — the developing lives of unborn children.
This coming Sunday is the “birthday of the Church” — the day the Holy Spirit filled the followers of Jesus Christ with the presence of God and the courage to preach his Gospel. It’s a good time to ask God for that same presence and courage in our own lives … and the ability to speak the whole truth about justice and human dignity, with love.