Compassion is at the core of Catholic ethical thought, precisely because it was at the core of the ethical teachings of Jesus. Yet, in today’s world, compassion is often emphasized at the expense of such things as theological orthodoxy, regular Mass attendance, obedience to Church authority (at least, whenever it suits you), and actually taking the time to read and understand the fullness of Scripture (that is, apart from the small handful of nice sounding verses floating around on the internet).
I’ve known people who exemplify this attitude to an extreme. There are people I have met who, while identifying as Christian, refuse to explicitly say that non-Christian religions are false, since they see it as somehow uncharitable. To condemn another person’s beliefs or way of life is unloving. Yet, these same individuals have also known some pretty shady or messed up people in their lives, and have a difficult time coming to forgive them.
Part of me understands this: it is difficult to forgive those who hurt you. There is a whole psychological process involved in being able to come to terms with the harm these people have caused. At the same time, with the notion of “love” or “compassion” being on the lips of most people today, you’d think that forgiving others, even our enemies, would be not too far behind. Scripture is even clear that forgiveness and compassion go hand-in-hand. St. John writes, “And love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:10-11) St. Paul speaks very similarly: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Through sinning, we make ourselves enemies of God. God is the Sovereign Lord of all, and thus is not obliged to forgive us. God is omnipotent, and thus is not in need of us. God has nothing to gain from creating and redeeming us, and nothing to lose from our non-existence. In fact, God has every reason to NOT forgive us, for all good things come from God, and yet we repay Him with sin. This is the ULTIMATE manifestation of ingratitude, for it is an offense against an All-Good God Who does nothing but love us. By our sin and ingratitude, we have made ourselves enemies of the All-Good God. God has NO reason to forgive us, and every reason to not to forgive us. Yet, God chose to forgive us anyway. What is more, we are only worthy of the things of God insofar as we remain pure of sin. When we are in a state of sin, we are worthy of God’s wrath, not His gifts. When God chooses to take us out of our sin, reconciling us to Himself and making us once more worthy of Him, at the time in which that happens, we are still in our sin. It is not until the moment God chooses to forgive us of our sins that reconcile us to Himself that we become worthy of union with God and all that results from that.
The fact that God could have mercy upon us, even though, through our sin, we have estranged ourselves from God and made ourselves deserving of His wrath, should overwhelm us. No love can be so great, so profound, as that of God having mercy upon sinners. And ALL of us were in need of God’s mercy at some point. And this is the point that John is very explicit about: once we realize that God has loved us in such a way, it should overwhelm us to such an extent, fill us with such a sense of gratitude, that we are moved to love others in a similar way.
Thise can be seen in the words of Jesus Himself: in Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus reveals the Our Father. The second to last line is, famously, “…and forgive us of our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” (Matthew 6:12). After teaching His disciples this prayer, Jesus then comments on this verse: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others of their sins, your Father will not forgive you your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Being filled with God’s love moves us and strengthens us to love in a manner that imitates God’s love for us. If we fail to love others – say, by failing to forgive one another as God has forgiven us – we cannot be fully receptive to God’s love and forgiveness.
Jesus gets even more explicit. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus says that all people, even sinners, have the drive to love those who love them, to love those they get along with, and to hate their enemies. Yet, God loves all people. Perfect love, a love imitating the love God, thus involves transcending the desire to love our friends and hate our enemies, but to love ALL people, both enemies and friends, and it is only in THIS that we can be perfect as God is perfect.
To love or forgive your enemies doesn’t mean to approve of what they do, it doesn’t mean not holding them responsible for their sins, it doesn’t mean letting their negative influence enter into your life. In fact, if you love your enemies, you will hold them responsible for their sin, you will call out for their sinfulness, because only then is it possible that they may change, to grow closer to God and become a better person. And that’s what love us: the classical definition of love is to desire the good of the other. If you love your enemies, you desire that they change their ways, that they get right with God and stop acting like your enemies, because THAT’S what’s good for them.
Yet, when you push most people to speak about how they view love, or even examine how their views speak through their actions, it is this “I’m okay, you’re okay” sort of attitude. It is getting along with people, being friends with people, and of course living peaceably with others, being their friend, involves, to a big extent, being compatible with them, and thus, to some extent, not having a problem with their personality, with their views, with their way of life – or being so fond of that person that any personal differences don’t matter. And, of course, if this is love, then why would you love sinners? Why would you love those you don’t like, whose lifestyle or worldview may not only not be to your liking, but may also be intrinsically evil?
Yet, fondness and getting along with others is not love. This thus explains why so many people these days speak of compassion, but have a difficult time learning to forgive: they have an incomplete view of love. Love must be guided by the truth in order to fully express itself, but the view of compassion held by most people is an incomplete understanding of love, one rooted in denying the fullness of the truth.
This reminds me of a quote I once heard from the famous French theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange: “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are intolerant in principle because they do not believe, but they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.”
What this means is that faithful Catholics cannot accept, endorse, or even be open to every idea, because not every idea is the truth. We are committed to the truth, and one cannot claim to love the truth but also be open to falsehoods. But, because we are guided by the truth, we have a clear view of what constitutes true love. Adherence to the truth will, for the one open to God, lead to a growth in love. Yet, the enemies of the Church, the enemies of Christ, reject the Church as being close-minded. They have a single-minded devotion to be open-minded, to looking at things from multiple perspectives, to being nuances. Yet, this is just a means to an end; the purpose of these things is to actually figure out what the truth is. But, because they do not have a strong commitment to truth, they cannot properly know love.
When our love is not guided by the truth, it gives birth to false compassion. And false compassion cannot give birth to true mercy. False compassion leads one to be compassionate until or unless one is wronged, at which point one will hold a grudge, since false compassion could lead one to believe that love and compassion is ordered towards ones friends alone, rather than to friend and enemy alike. False compassion leads one to believe that mercy means excusing one’s behavior. To point out false beliefs or sinful behavior is not uncharitable or unmerciful, but is could be considered an expression of mercy par excellence. False compassion may lead one to desire to help others, to show mercy on the others, but not actually move beyond their comfort zone to do so.
Compassion, when not guided by the truth, is false compassion, and false compassion cannot lead to true mercy.