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The mercy of the Enlightenment

Pope Francis recently announced a ‘Year of Mercy.’ He called on all Catholics to once again realize that God is love and that this includes infinite mercy. Yet, the message of mercy, also with its practical consequences, has been constant on the agenda of the Catholic Church, even in the eighteenth century—a time which is allegedly known for its rigid, sectarian close-mindedness. Here are four ways that the Catholic Church has emphasized ‘mercy’ over time.

Embracing an inclusive position of mercy

One of the big questions for theologians of the eighteenth century was “Who can be saved?” and whether God’s grace and mercy extended to those not Catholic or not even baptized. Many embraced an inclusivist position of mercy, such as this Austrian Catholic: “A Christian has the… duty to think, believe and act as Christian—to live and die as a Christian since God has put him out of gratuitous grace in circumstances in which he can have a better knowledge of God and his nature, … in order to become worthy of a higher happiness… From this, however, it does not follow that non-Christians will be damned, only that it is also their duty to become Christians once they have gained a sufficiently convincing knowledge of Christianity.” Even the most famous theologian of the day, Nicholas Bergier (1718–1790), stated that God’s mercy was infinite and included all people of good will, and consequently the possibility of salvation for all, albeit always through the grace of Christ.

Image credit: Ludovicus Antonius Muratorius by Skara kommun. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Image credit: Ludovicus Antonius Muratorius by Skara kommun. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Emphasizing the centrality of Christ’s love

Emphasizing the centrality of Christ’s love was yet another tenet of the time’s theology. Similar to evangelical thinkers, the Italian Ludovico Muratori (1672–1750) reminded his fellow Catholics: “Jesus Christ is… the grand foundation of all hopes of Christians… whose own merits move the mercy of his divine father to grant us, truly penitent, the forgiveness of our sins.”

Helping the marginalized

The Church also proved to be more merciful towards the marginalized; it provided more help for people—such as women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, orphans, the sick, and especially the poor—than many self-righteous Enlighteners. They certainly wanted to end poverty, but by the most inhuman means; workhouses and prisons were designed to keep beggars from the street, as only productive people were considered ‘valuable’ citizens. In contrast, Bishop Jacques Bossuet spoke of the “eminent dignity of the poor.” Since the world had abandoned the poor, God would take up their defense, and because people scorn them, God would “raise up their dignity.” The poor were, for Bossuet, the most genuine citizens of the Church, because Christ addressed them the most directly. Because Christ emphasized the poor so frequently, Bossuet was convinced that only through them and the sacraments did heavenly grace flow on earth. Society was not called to just help them out of pity but to have “great sentiments of respect” for them as they are the “firstborn” of the church. The Church valued the poor in principle, gave alms and set up institutions for their betterment, but ultimately did not wholeheartedly commit to reform unjust social structures.

Baptizing deformed babies

A final example of the practice of mercy is that of baptism to deformed babies. In the 1770s and 1780s, there was a discussion about whether deformed, short-lived babies who did not look “fully human” should be baptized. Of course, one was not yet aware of the different stages of embryonic development, but as usual, reason won the argument, put forth by the Catholic layman and professor of medicine, Franz X. Mezler. He made clear that a human mother can only give birth to another human—regardless of the looks of that human. “The sacraments are there for humans, not humans for the sacrament—this is a principle of reason and of Christian charity. It would be loveless heartlessness to expose such a questionable creature [as the unhumanlike baby] to the danger of losing its eternal bliss and to kill its body and soul.”

If we take a close look at the ideas of Enlightenment Catholicism, we can see how many contemporary reforms are inspired by them. Pope Francis follows in more than one way in the footsteps of Catholic Enlightenment.

Featured image credit: church altar mass religion by Skitterphoto. Public domain via Pixabay.

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