Mercy is Not License

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Niccolò Possino, circa 1653

Yesterday, Pope Francis closed the year of Mercy, and he did so with a reminder that we must always be merciful to our fellow man.  You know what? HE IS RIGHT.

However, I think the problem we have in the West isn't really a mercy problem. Rather, I think the problem we have in the West is a problem with license.

It seems to me that in the West we have confused the meanings of the word "mercy" and "license." It seems too many people think they mean the exact same thing. So to help with this confusion, allow me to break these words down.

Mercy is a word that is dependent on another word -- sin. In order to have mercy, you must first have sin. In other words, you have to know that you've done something wrong. What is sin? To simplify, sin is when people don't do what God wants. That's it. What God wants is defined by both nature and revelation. That's it. When we do what God wants, according to nature and revelation, that is called righteousness or holiness. When we don't do what God wants, according to nature and revelation, that is called sin. Being a sinner does not necessarily mean you're a "bad" person. In fact, most sinners are wonderful people, and great to be around. We should think of sin more like destructive habits.

Case in point. I know a lot of smokers, and I would have to say that most smokers are wonderful people. Yet, few would argue that smoking is dangerous to your health. It damages your lungs, your heart, and other vital organs as well. It can both shorten your life, and significantly reduce your quality of life. If you smoke, it doesn't mean you're a bad person. What it does mean, however, is you're engaging in a habit that is destructive to yourself, and those who live with you. This is scientifically and medically indisputable now.

So if we compared sin to smoking, we could safely say that most sinners (like smokers) are good people. They just have a destructive habit that is slowly killing them, and harming those around them. In a worst case scenario, the smoker might end up with some kind of horrible disease, like lung cancer or COPD. Sin is just like that. It's a destructive habit, that goes against nature and divine revelation, in such a way that it is slowly destructive to the soul and to the spiritual welfare of those around us. In a worst case scenario, sin may lead our souls to hell. It's not necessarily because we are bad people, it's just that we've continued in a bad habit (without repenting) for so long that we end up putting our souls in a very bad place.

So this is where mercy comes in. Mercy is in a word "forgiveness." Regardless of what sin might do to our bodies, minds, and relationships, God is willing to forgive us of the sin, and dispense of the ultimate penalty of hell.

It's sort of like this. Getting back to the analogy of smoking. Let's say you're a chain smoker, and you've managed to smoke so much, and so obnoxiously, that nobody wants to be with you anymore. You literally smell like a chimney. You're wife has left you, because she and your kids were sick all the time, because of your smoking which you refused to quit. You're friends don't talk to you much anymore. You're no longer invited to parties and get-togethers with your peers. Even your dog would rather sleep outdoors, because the smell really is that bad. One night, you fall asleep in bed with a cigarette in your hand. Your bed catches fire, but miraculously you manage to get out of the house before the whole thing burns down, with nothing but some minor burns and a nasty case of smoke inhalation. At this point, you finally realise that maybe you have a problem.

So you go to your doctor for help. You're doc is a nice and understanding fellow. He runs some tests, and delivers the bad news. He tells you that you have the early stages of lung cancer. However, he can treat it! It hasn't metastasised yet, so with some surgery and chemotherapy, you have a 90% chance of full remission and recovery. All you have to do is quit smoking and submit to the proscribed treatment plan. If you don't, you'll die a horrible death. If you do, however, you'll likely live.

There is more. If you quit smoking for good, your insurance settlement for the house is enough to build a whole new house, one that isn't contaminated with cigarette smoke. Once you have a smokeless life, and a smokeless home, your wife and children might actually come back. Your friends might want to be with you more often. Even your dog might want to come back into the house. Yes, you'll carry the scar of the surgery, and the memory of the pain, but you'll get a new lease on life and a second chance.  THAT'S MERCY.

This whole deal with sin and hell works pretty much the same way. Sin is when we go against God's plan for us. Like the smoker who wouldn't quit, the progress of our spiritual decline is slow. Gradually we start losing the things that mean the most to us. Eventually we set our spirit on a path of total destruction -- hell. But God is like the doctor. He has a treatment plan. It requires a little sacrifice from us. We have to stop the sin that is destroying us, but if we do, we have hope of not only avoiding hell, but also rebuilding our lives in some way that is good. THAT'S MERCY.

Now let's contrast this with license.

License is when you tell somebody it's "okay" to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences. It's sort of like that doctor coming into the room, and telling the smoker: "Well, you've got the early stages of lung cancer, but I know you don't want to quit. So you might as well just light up and smoke all you want now, while you still can. Have fun!"  THAT'S LICENSE.

License is when you tell people its "okay" to sin, meaning to go against God's plan for us. Do whatever you want! If it feels good, do it! How could something that feels right be wrong? Let your conscience be your guide! These are the mantras of license. It's a total disregard for the consequences of actions. It's a refusal to acknowledge that something is wrong in the first place. It's a complete denial of the existence of sin. THAT'S LICENSE.

In the Western world, we often confuse Mercy with License. When our priests and bishops say "mercy," the people think "license." This is not only going on in society at large, but within the Catholic Church too! Everyone who knows the statistics knows what I'm saying here is true. Most Catholics no longer believe that homosexual activity is sin. Most Catholics no longer believe that premarital sex is all that bad anymore. Most Catholics believe artificial contraception is just fine. Most Catholics believe dressing provocatively is okay, and watching sexual movies is okay too. The list goes on and on. In fact, most Catholics believe sin is just limited to being mean to other people. If you're unkind to somebody, that's sin. But if you sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend, that's okay. Even adultery is okay; so long as you divorce your first spouse and marry your adulterous lover. That is the state of the Catholic Church today, and as hard as it is to say it, because the truth hurts, our Catholic clergy (for the most part) have done an absolutely HORRIBLE job teaching people that these kinds of behaviours are wrong and sinful.

So this whole "Year of Mercy" has been wasted on many, because many people (including many Catholics) saw no need for mercy in their lives, namely because they didn't see any sin in their lives in the first place. Worse yet, some Catholics misinterpreted mercy for license, and saw the Church's "Year of Mercy" as a "Year of License" wherein the Church would simply "allow" people to do whatever they like. Of course that's not what the "Year of Mercy" was supposed to be about, but in a society that doesn't appear to understand the difference between mercy and license, this is what we got.

I once saw a bumper sticker with a very clever message. It simply said this. "Jesus died to forgive your sins, not condone them." It was a short message, to the point, that drove home the difference between forgiveness (mercy) and condoning (license). The pope issued an apostolic exhortation today that encouraged us to continue in a spirit of mercy for the rest of our lives. I agree. He is right. But to understand what he means, we need to understand the definition of mercy. Mercy is not license. Mercy means we have to give something up. We have to let go of our sins, admit they are wrong, and ask for forgiveness. If we're not doing that, we're not receiving mercy. Rather, we're just giving ourselves over to license.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Pair O' Dimes said…
Thank you very much for explaining the difference between mercy and license! Too many people fail to distinguish between the two: they think that "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is an oxymoron.

It seems to me that a big part of it is that the left and the "right" have torn the Gospel asunder, each taking part of it and declaring the other half as "evil".

The left cares about people, but defines this as caring about their "rights"--defining these as having to do with the people's wills, as if the people were themselves gods. So if a same-sex couple will to "marry" each other, they have the "right" to do so (and since the unborn aren't conscious yet, they don't "will" to live and so don't have the right to live).

On the other hand, the "right" cares about morality, but seems to have depersonalized this--being quick to look at the rightness or wrongness of people's behavior but not always being so quick to sympathize or empathize, preferring to hold "sinners" at arm's length. They mock them, they condemn them, they treat them like a different species. (They also tolerate abortion in cases of rape and incest, which dehumanizes the unborn just as much as if they wanted no restrictions on abortion, so their desire for restrictions is clearly not rooted in moral truth.)

Because of this, notwithstanding the fact that the Democratic Party doesn't hold the same position as the Church on any non-negotiable moral issues, and the Republican Party does hold the same position as the Church on all of them, I suspect that if the Son of God had taken flesh today, the "right" would (mistakenly) accuse Him of being a liberal, a leftist. I see in the modern "right" a similar hypocrisy and focus on the external morality without love that Christ condemned in the scribes and Pharisees of His time.

I mean, if someone allowed prostitutes to hang out with him today, would it not be easy for both sides to imagine that he was condoning prostitution--and therefore for the left to applaud this and for the "right" to condemn that person for supposedly condoning such an evil?