[Editor’s Note: Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University. A Jesuit priest of the Northeast Province, he served as professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Boston College, and at Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, where he also served as Dean. He writes and lectures frequently on such topics as the ethics of globalization, peacemaking, environmental concern, the role of conscience in religious participation in public life and developing a spirituality of justice. His most recent book analyzes the social teachings of Pope Francis. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: Pope Francis has obviously made mercy a theme of his pontificate. Your new book is titled Mercy in Action. What work is “in action” here?

Massaro: With this title phrase, I am referring to the familiar insight that Catholic social teaching supports constructive social change. Both explicitly in its documents and implicitly in its wider reception over the past dozen decades or so, it is a tradition of reflection that moves the faithful to action.

However valuable it is to describe and appreciate notional moral obligations such as the promotion of solidarity and the pursuit of the common good, the tradition of social theory and moral reflection within the Catholic community would be incomplete (and ultimately anemic) unless it issued forth in concrete efforts to advance the cause of social justice—the “action” stage of the famous “see-judge-act” schema. Catholic social teaching not only orients the social mission of the Church itself, but plays a great role in inspiring lay efforts to improve society through active pursuit of justice in the full range of social involvements—in business and industry, politics and education, the arts and sciences, etc.

Even before Saint John XXIII enshrined this helpful triad into the canon of Catholic social teaching (see his 1961 encyclical Mater and Magistra, no. 236), Catholic service organizations had invoked the see-judge-act schema to organize their activities, and it remains a helpful model today. Of course, nobody wants to be accused of falling into the mistake of “paralysis by analysis,” and Pope Francis seems particularly averse to getting stuck in the reflection stage of the reflection-action paradigm of social action. Recall his axiom (one of a set of four principles mentioned in Evangelii Gaudium, at no. 231) that “concrete realities have priority over abstract ideas”).

So the chapters of Mercy in Action deliberately give pride of place to describing Pope Francis’s observable displays of solidarity in demonstrating his concrete commitment to lifting up such groups of the suffering as refugees, unemployed workers, people displaced by climate change and those trafficked by unscrupulous parties. While his pontificate has indeed contributed substantially to the tradition of reflection on social justice, its major contribution lies in the concrete expression of social concern for the marginalized and excluded of our world.

One question comes to mind given that your book is so concerned with justice. Normally, mercy is thought to be in some tension with justice. How do you work with the tension?

Absolutely, that tension will never be fully resolved this side of the tomb. The virtue of justice involves the notion of dessert—treating people with equal fairness and rendering to them the measure of benefits (hence the term distributive justice) or punishments (as through the criminal justice system) they deserve according to some objective and fairly applied criterion.

Mercy, by contrast, is less a rational determination of minimal standards of what we might owe to people at any particular moment, and more about loving response to particular and concrete needs, with ample room for subjective perceptions, the operation of emotions and differential response according to circumstances. Recall that in the Romance languages, the word for mercy is derived from the Latin misericordia, conjuring up the image of “one’s heart going out” to those suffering and in need.

Mercy is a Christian virtue of the “warmer” variety, one that goes beyond the minimum response mandated by justice, which can sometimes be cold and impersonal in nature. To cite a favorite parable of Pope Francis, the wayfarer known as the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is motivated by the emotion of compassion to take pity on the wounded stranger, not by virtue of some calculation of what the victim deserves from him, much less by any legal obligation. He might not be logistically able to extend such assistance to every unfortunate victim, but something moved his heart to reach out to this stranger in this instance.

What Francis accomplishes in highlighting the role of mercy in the moral life (recall the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy he called) is to inspire the faithful to practice mercy, regardless of how they might sort out the categories and apply them in a life of faithful action. In short, mercy exceeds the strict demands of justice.

Following the scholarly work of Cardinal Walter Kasper on the topic, Francis identifies mercy with the ways of God, indeed with the very name and face of God. If that does not inspire the faithful to practice works of mercy beyond any calculus of justice, I don’t know what ever would.

Finally, note how thoroughly theocentric is this vision of social action conjured by Francis. Since God is at the very center, there is no danger of reducing church-based social concern to the level of a mere secular NGO here. Our attraction to practicing mercy is grounded in the desire we should properly feel (in whatever ways we can, as pale as that comparison is destined to be) to imitate the love of God which is extended to each of us every day of our lives.

Pope Francis has spoken on occasion of his overwhelming experience, at pivotal junctures in the course of his life, of divine mercy. We too are recipients of God’s abundant mercy, who in no way deserve to benefit from God’s redeeming grace, forgiveness of our sins and offer of salvation. It is unmerited. We are impelled to go out and do the same (to cite the final line of the Parable of the Good Samaritan). And we are more likely to recognize that insight if we see a pope undertaking the initiatives taken up by Francis year after year.

Another theme of Francis’s pontificate is care for creation, and your book has a chapter on Integral Ecology. How should mercy inform ecological concern?

Regardless of whether we prefer to speak of environmental justice or practicing mercy toward our common home and its endangered species, it has become increasingly easy to connect the dots that run from social concern and mercy, on one hand, to environmental concern and care for creation, on the other hand. The pursuit of social solidarity and common good (arising first on the local and national levels) that Catholics have long recognized as a duty toward fellow members of the human race has gradually come to be extended to all creation.

Paul VI established a legitimate widening of the circle of concern with his teaching that the common good must now be recognized as worldwide or universal in scope. Subsequent popes made this point in their own distinctive ways, and now Francis in Laudato Si’ and elsewhere has irrevocably placed into the core of Catholic social teaching the recognition of a universal solidarity that includes all currently living beings (even non-animate things like habitats, wetlands and aquifers) and indeed future ones. Failing to protect species’ diversity diminishes all of creation now and constitutes an offense against all living things of the future. I especially admire the treatment of intergenerational solidarity in Chapter 4 (nos. 159-62) of Laudato Si’. All our current actions must be judged in terms of their impact on those who will come after us on earth–our common home for which we must care much better than we have so far.

There was strong resistance in many circles to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but the resistance to Francis seems to have gone to another level — at least in the United States. Might his emphasis on mercy have something to do with the intensity of the resistance?

I have to admit that I deliberately avoid reading the mean-spirited diatribes that seem to have been directed against every pope in my lifetime. But even I could not help noticing the appearance of a book, quite early in his papacy, called Pope Francis Among the Wolves!

Perhaps some of the opposition to the agenda of Francis is that he is asking us to do things that make heavy demands upon us, and we naturally resist. He calls upon the wealthy to share their good fortune, and calls all of us to let go of any stance of superiority over those who are less fortunate or less accomplished in rectitude. When Jesus reached out to the poor and to public sinners and called his followers to do the same, he created quite a stumbling block for many. After all, it is hard to suspend judgment when we are accustomed to playing the role of judge (and I believe that Jesus also said something about the many pitfalls of judging to excess). The Church of course has a mandate to play many roles, and Francis’s celebrated quip “Who am I to judge?” should not be interpreted as a comprehensive recommendation for re-shaping all Church policies and activities. But it does serve to remind us of the place of mercy vis-a-vis the stance of judgment. The ultimate seat of judgment belongs to God alone.

Although it may not appear on the surface to involve mercy, my favorite challenging zinger of Pope Francis came in his September 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, when he admonished our national leaders for their complicity in decades of deadly arms sales. While it may be profitable and healthy for the American economy, our place at the center of the global arms bazaar surely deserves to be challenged. Ceasing excessive manufacture and sometimes indiscriminate sale of guns, ammunition and weapons systems would be an act of mercy—on a systematic level with huge benefits. It would certainly improve the life chances of the poor of the world, who suffer disproportionately when the weapons we make and sell fall into the wrong hands.

I am proud of Pope Francis for daring to speak up on that occasion for peace. Sadly, his plea for this particular face of mercy has yet to be heeded.

I share your love of Francis but must admit being a bit disappointed in recent weeks and months with regard to his handling of the sex abuse crisis. Might one downside of his impulse to begin with mercy have played out in how he’s handled some aspects of this crisis?

He has certainly made mistakes on the sex abuse crisis, some of which he has explicitly acknowledged. It may well be that his desire to be merciful to the accused clergymen has deepened the scandal, and potentially done further harm to victims of abuse. This appears to be the case regarding Bishop Barros in Chile, to whom he initially (in January 2018) extended the benefit of the doubt before reversing himself after further evidence came to light.

The outcomes should of course always be determined by thorough investigations of the facts in each case, not suppositions or prejudices on either side. I expect Francis to be more consistent in principled handling of abuse cases going forward, and I am especially eager to see what progress will come from the upcoming (Feb. 21-24 2019) summit of leaders of bishops’ conferences throughout the world as they develop new procedures.