“Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss,” says the psalmist. But mercy might involve remission of punishment. Doesn’t that violate justice, which means giving each person what is due to him, honor for good, penalty for evil?
No, justice and mercy can be reconciled. We can see how this is so by reflecting on the reasons why justice requires punishment in the first place. Thomas Aquinas lists them as follows:
It follows that with although deserved punishment may not be lessened indiscriminately, it may be lessened, with no relaxation of justice, just to the degree that it does not impair these purposes. One must never punish the wrongdoer more than he deserves – not even to correct him, to correct others, or to relieve the person whom he has injured. But if the three conditions have been satisfied, then one may punish him less.
On the part of the human judge, then, the three conditions for mercy would seem to be as follows:
Since mercy concerns not only the wrongdoer, but also the person whom he has injured as well as the community whose moral order he has disturbed, all three conditions must be satisfied. The outcome may be to remit deserved punishment, remit part but not all of it, or decline to remit any of it -- depending.
When these three conditions are satisfied, then our justice and mercy can embrace. Otherwise, we have only divorced them.
I wasn’t planning to post today, but my eye was caught by the news headline, “There’s a New No. 1 In Presidential Rankings.” Based on a new Pew Research Center study, the article breathlessly reports that Mr. Obama is now more popular than any other recent president.
Pew is a careful polling organization, and no doubt this is an accurate report of what the survey respondents said. However, such a finding means almost nothing. Take a look at the following chart. Does anything arouse your suspicion?
Right. The popularity of recent presidents is largely a function of how recently they held office. The lesson: People have short political memories, and even shorter historical memories.
You will probably never see me do it in this blog again, but to find out just how strong the relationship is, I performed a few statistical tests. Based on the data in the table, the correlation between a president’s popularity and how recently he held office is about .69. This means that the amount of variation explained by the relationship about 47%. (If we run the statistics again without Mr. Trump, so that we are only considering presidents no longer in office, the amount of variation explained is even greater -- more than half.)
If you’re like me, perhaps you would rather have a picture. Here is a plot of the data. The horizontal axis is the order in which the president held office, and the vertical axis is his popularity according Pew. The line shows the relationship.
“Findings” such as which recent president people say they like most have no enduring value. Wait until the current occupant is out of office; the presidential popularity data will have changed again, just because people’s memories will have changed again.
Yes, yes, I know I posted a lot of talk and audio links yesterday, but I’ve got a new one.
This talk was given at the scholarly symposium on the 50th anniversary of Humanae vitae in April. You can also view videos of all the other talks. Thanks to the indomitable and resourceful Theresa Notare of the Natural Family Planning program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for overcoming technical difficulties in order to get these online!
Revised 21 July 2018
This is just to let all you video and podcast lovers out there that several new items have been added to my Listen to Talks page.
I had already added the video of “What Do We Really Know About Right and Wrong?”, given at a Veritas Forum this April at Texas A&M University, but now you can also listen to the audio-only version recorded by Ratio Christi.
While I was in College Station, Ratio Christi also did an interview with me titled “Sex, Politics, and Natural Law,” and that item has been added to the page too.
Finally, at the very bottom of the page, I’ve added the video of a very old talk, “Breaking Silence: Faith-Based Scholarship and Academic Freedom,” given at a Veritas Forum at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003. I haven’t reviewed this one since giving it. Hope I still agree with everything I said!
Am I responsible for the historical sins of white folk against black?
Certainly not because I shared in them; I didn't.
Certainly not because my ancestors did; they hadn't arrived in the country yet.
Nor because my skin is the same color; if you insist on talking about ethnicity, I am of Polish and Ukrainian extraction, not English.
Nor because of "white privilege"; my immigrant grandfather lost his job on the railroad just for taking a day off to get married, I was mocked in middle school for being a "pollack," and I worked and took on crushing debt to go to college.
What is left?
There are three senses in which I do share responsibility for the sins of others.
The first is that I share in a national community, a commonwealth. This was Abraham Lincoln's reasoning when he argued that the North shared in the guilt of the South for the sin of slavery.
The second is that I share in the community of human nature, in descent from our first father Adam. This was Martin Luther King's reasoning when he said we are woven together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
The third is that I am of one blood with all other men, equally descended from Adam. This was St. Paul’s reasoning when he spoke of Christ as the second Adam, and the source of our hope of forgiveness.
So I reject the views of those who say that I have no share in the guilt of others' sins – but I also reject the views of those who say that I share in them because of my color.
I am a citizen, a human being, a son of Adam, and a man for whom the Son of God died. So are those whose skin is darker than mine. We are all in this mess together.
For the same reasons, I reject the views of those of any tint or hue who preach anything but reconciliation, at least for those willing to be reconciled.
Let us all repent, and let us all have mercy. God knows we all need it.
I guess I am still be thinking about last week’s theme, the two kinds of discontent, because the curious saying in Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto, came back to me the other day: "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
These days, to question a saying like that is almost considered heresy. Ambition is praised as a virtue. It used to be condemned as a vice, and taken in the usual sense, it is. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so seek offices and stations above your ability and merit! A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so crave fortune beyond what you need! One might as well say that since a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, we should all take more cake than we can eat.
Yet if we take Browning’s saying to be about reaching for God, in hopes of being reached by Him, then it makes sense. He always exceeds our finite and natural grasp; now we see him darkly, as in a mirror. Then we will see Him face to face.
Was this actually what Browning was thinking? Something like that, maybe, since he was writing about a Renaissance painter’s attempt to represent something beyond representation.
Artistic aspiration reminds me of the old problem in ethics about the painter who is so keen to make things of unparalleled beauty that he neglects to take care of his family. One of my old teachers thought that in a case like that, it would just be tough for his family. After all, if he did take the time to care for them, the world would have lost all that beauty.
That view seemed wrong to me even then, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized what was wrong with it. The problem isn’t that such the painter is pursuing beauty too much, but that he is pursuing it in the wrong way. In itself, painting can be ordained to the uncreated Beauty in which all created beauty has its source. But neglecting one’s family in order to do it cannot be. Created goods should be pursued with temperance, not as though they were God.
For that matter, not even all ways of pursuing God really pursue God. The suicide bomber who screams Allahu akbar is pursuing not God, but a monster. The loveless legalist is not pursuing not God, but a dream of being perfect without grace. That, by the way, is how Thomas Aquinas thought Satan sinned: “Desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his appetite away from supernatural beatitude, which is attained by God's grace.”
Hold on. Granted that created goods should be pursued with temperance, must we be temperate about all of them? Even, say, knowledge? Aren’t we made to know truth?
We are certainly made to know truth, especially the truth about God. But God is not just another created good; to know Him face to face will be to know the uncreated Good. Only by reflecting that glory can created goods even exist.
So there is no such thing as to much wisdom, too much wonder, too much longing to know Him. Yet there are certainly limits to the desire for other kinds of knowledge. I mean, for example, the eagerness to learn the ways of power, the craving to be more in the know than other people are, and the empty curiosity that draws ours eyes to the covers of the supermarket tabloids. “I want to know” can be as sinful as “I want to take, to keep, to have.”
I’m pleased to say that the video of my talk “What Do We Really Know about Right and Wrong?” is now online.
This was delivered at a Veritas Forum at Texas A&M University.