Remember, Pope John Paul wrote this in 1980, and more than a third of a century ago the head of the Catholic Church was pointing out the modern skepticism over mercy. Then, human progress was part of the blame. While not discounting that, I think other factors contribute to a certain mercilessness. I think of the climate within the Church today. We are not governed by technology and the ability to dominate and abuse a planet and its people. Yet we still show harshness to others, even our close sisters and brothers. With that in mind, let’s read carefully today:
The present-day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of “mercy” seem to cause uneasiness in (humankind), who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it.(Cf. Gn. 1:28)
The ancients were at the mercy (so to speak) of the forces of nature. Only the patriarch Joseph (also in Genesis) had a plan to address climate change. What did that experience teach him? Mercy to his brothers who sold him into slavery.
The Second Vatican Council was quite aware of the precipice on which we stand:
This dominion over the earth, sometimes understood in a one – sided and superficial way, seems to have no room for mercy. However, in this regard we can profitably refer to the picture of “(the human) situation in the world today” as described at the beginning of the Constitution Gaudium et spes. Here we read the following sentences: “In the light of the foregoing factors there appears the dichotomy of a world that is at once powerful and weak, capable of doing what is noble and what is base, disposed to freedom and slavery, progress and decline, (community) and hatred. (Humankind) is growing conscious that the forces (we have) unleashed are in (our) own hands and that it is up to (us)to control them or be enslaved by them.”(Gaudium et Spes 9)
No different today, eh? Perhaps the situation for many of us is not yet dire. In the 60’s we had China and Biafra, and in John Paul’s early years, Cambodia and Uganda. Even today, there is still hope. How will that lead us to mercy?
The situation of the world today not only displays transformations that give grounds for hope in a better future for (humankind) on earth, but also reveals a multitude of threats, far surpassing those known up till now. Without ceasing to point out these threats on various occasions (as in addresses at UNO, to UNESCO, to FAO and elsewhere), the Church must at the same time examine them in the light of the truth received from God.
The single biggest threat, of course, is climate change and the potential to plunge Asia and the Third World into catastrophe unseen since the Black Death. Or at least the agricultural bumblings of 20th century Soviets and Chinese.
Where is mercy to be found in the full-speed-ahead drive forward of technology and certainly economics? Stay tuned tomorrow.
Dives in Misericordia, the second encyclical of Pope John Paul II, is available online here, and is copyright © 1980 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana