Winter 2014

“In the Beginning Was the Word”: Mercy as a “Reality Illuminated by Reason”

David L. Schindler

"The separation of ideas and reality . . . leads to a dialectic of 'idealism' and relativism."

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium [EG], Pope Francis insists that we need to anchor our approach to the Church’s missionary task in the Incarnate Word as the principle of reality (“il criterio di realtà”: 233). This principle can be a guide for “the development of life in society and the building of a people,” and its “application can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world” (EG, 221). It is a path that involves in particular the inclusion of the poorest and weakest among us (inter alia: EG, 17). Citing John Paul II, Francis states that preaching the Gospel “is the first task of the Church”; and “that missionary outreach is [thus] paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (15).

Furthermore, recalling the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, 6), the pope says that this outreach demands “ecclesial conversion”: “every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase in fidelity to her own calling. . . . Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way . . . to that continual reformation of which she always has need . . .” (EG, 26). “The integrity of the Gospel . . . must not be deformed”; and each truth must be “related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message” (39). It is “important to draw out the pastoral consequences of the Council’s teaching” in this light (38). “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’” he says, which is “capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s . . . ways of doing things . . . can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (27).2

The key to the harmonious totality of the Christian message, according to Francis, can be found in the view of St. Thomas that “mercy is the greatest of the virtues. . . .” “[A]s such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree” (EG, 37). Francis states, citing both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that “for the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor ‘his first mercy’” (198). This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind . . . which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5) (EG, 198). This option for the poor—“as Benedict XVI has taught—is implicit in our Christian faith, in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty” (EG, 198).3

Stressing the principle of the priority of reality over ideas (“La realtà è più importante dell’idea”: “realities are more important than ideas”),4 Francis states: ideas that are “disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but not of calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason” (232: “Ciò che coninvolge è la realtà illuminata dal ragionamento”). This priority of realities, or rejection of ideas disconnected from realities, the pope says, “has to do with incarnation of the Word and its being put into practice. . . . The principle of reality, of a Word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization” (233).5 Francis concludes: “The good news is the joy of the Father who desires that none of his little ones be lost. . . . The Gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom” (237).

We wish in what follows to reflect on the missionary task of the Church in the light of Francis’s insistence that this task consists above all in the communication of mercy to “the little ones” of the Gospel, focusing in particular on the emphasis Francis rightly places on linking ideas with reality, and ultimately on putting into practice the Word become incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Ideas,” he says, must be “at the service of communication, understanding and praxis” (232: “L’idea—le elaborazioni concettuali—è in funzione del cogliere, comprendere e dirigere la realtà”). Otherwise, they will be incapable of calling us to action. Indeed, they will involve us in such things as “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom” (231).6 “Idealism” and “[f]ormal nominalism,” Francis stresses, “must give way to harmonious objectivity” (232).7 The principle upon which Francis insists here is of fundamental significance. Our purpose is to indicate what lies at the origin of the disconnection between ideas and reality, and what it takes to affirm instead a “reality illuminated by reason.” Our proposal will involve showing the sense in which ideas are words (of God), words that are indeed summed up in the Incarnate Word, and the sense in which the Incarnate Word becomes sacrament in and as the Church.

The burden of our argument is that the separation of ideas and reality—the abstraction of ideas from reality, which implies simultaneously the abstraction of reality from ideas—leads to a dialectic of “idealism” and relativism. This separation, in other words, presupposes and brings about at the same time an unattainable and so far objectivist notion of truth, on the one hand, and a relativist and so far subjectivist notion of the human subject, on the other. The crucial point, as we shall see, is that this objectivist truth and this subjectivistically conceived human person both—from their different directions—eliminate the possibility of and call for mercy: objectivist truth because of the remoteness and harshness of its demands on the subject (transcendence lacking immanent form); the subjectivistically conceived person because of the softness that is without objectively given demands on the subject (immanence lacking transcendent form).

We hope to show, in a word, that resolution of the problem of the disconnection between ideas and reality, in the face of the question of mercy, requires the inner reference of ideas and reality to each other. It is the original mutual relatedness of truth and human subjectivity that alone secures the abiding integrity of each, and thereby anchors the demand for mercy.

The term mercy means God’s forgiveness of his creatures’ offenses (from the Old French, merci—reward, kindness, grace, pity). More generally it means a disposition to forgive or show compassion (from the early thirteenth century). Francis stresses the priority of reality over ideas, tying this priority to the incarnation of the Word as the principle of reality, “a Word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew.” My argument begins from this premise. Its intention is to show the link between ideas and the Word incarnated in Jesus Christ and sacramentalized in the Church. And to show thereby the ontological-theological source that warrants, or constitutes the authority for, mercy as a “reality illuminated by reason”: as a reality, that is, which expresses (objective) truth in and indeed as a comprehensive openness to the depths of human subjectivity.





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*A shorter version of this paper was delivered at the conference “Lumen gentium: The Church as Sacrament of Trinitarian Communion” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 14–15 November 2014.

2. In the words he cites from John Paul II: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion” (Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania [Vatican City, 22 November 2001], 19 [EG, 27, fn. 25]).

3. “So the Son of God entered the world by means of a true incarnation that he might make men sharers in the divine nature; though rich, he was made poor for our sake, that by his poverty we might become rich. . . . The Fathers of the Church constantly proclaim that what was not assumed by Christ was not healed (sanatum). Now Christ took a complete human nature (integram humanum naturam) just as it was found in us poor and unfortunate ones but one that was without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15)” (Ad Gentes divinitus, 3).

4. Cf. EG, 231–33, at 233. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that the four permanent principles of the Church’s social doctrine are the dignity of the human person; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity (161). Francis says that the four principles he wishes to offer as a guide derive from the four “pillars” affirmed here. Francis’s four principles are these: “Time is greater than space” (=“initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (222–25, at 223); “Unity prevails over conflict” (226–30); “Realities are more important than ideas” (231–33); “The whole is greater than the part” (234–37). We focus in this article on the third of Francis’s principles.

5.“Word” (“Parola”) is capitalized in the Italian text but not in the English translation.

6. “I purismi angelicati, i totalitarismi del relativo, i nominalismi dichiarazionisti, i progetti più formali che reali, i fondamentalismi antistorici, gli eticismi senza bontà, gli intellettualismi senza saggezza” (231).

7. “Bisogna passare dal nominalismo formale all’oggetività armoniosa” (232).