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JAITIES F.

KEENAH
Is there something about Catholic

morality that distinguishes it from the morality of other religious be. lievers? This is a vexing question. Ifs not a question about superiority.It's simply a question about distinctiveness or uniqueness. If s a question about identity, about what identifies us as Catholic in our moral lives.
The question is vexing because it is difficult to find any one thing

foundations of morality throughout the Western world, still,I must say unequivocally: We Catholics have defined ourselves distinctively in our moral lives. That distinctiveness is found in the virtue of mercy. While Protestants recognize the exbaordinary importance of mercy as the basic stance of our God toward us, still we Catholics have taken that insight further in terms of a long legacy of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Those works have distin' guished us, for if one dimension of the Christian tradition differentiates Protestants

fines "neighbor love" as the practice of mercy. Recall whyleeus tells this parable. He has just given the love commandment, and inresponse/ one of the Scribes asks him,'aVho is my neighbor?" jesus tells the parable. A dose reading of it gives a very surprising answer to the question. Aren't we" thinking at the beginning of the story that the answer to the quesbe the

tion, "who is my neighbor?" will tmnlyngwounded along the road. But ifs not. The answer is the Samaritan. The neighbor is the one who shoars mercy.
Given the sto4/s surprising ending, many of us forget that it is not primarily a moral parable. Many great preachers and theologians see in it the first story of our re. demption, told by Christ. For instance, Venerable Bede wrote that the wounded man who lies outside the gates is Adam, wounded by rto, lying outside the gates of Eden. The priest and the Levite,
representing the tradition and the law. are unable to do anything for Adam. Along comes the Samaritan (Christ) who tends to Adam's wounds, takes him to the inn (the church), gives a down paymmt (his life) for Adam's healing or salvation, and promises to rehrrn for him (to pay in full the cost of re

that belongs to Catholics as Catholics. For instance, we Catholics appreciate the natural law, but, in Romans 1, Saint Paul writes that the natural.law is written in everyone's heart; by that law, people can tell right from wrong. Many Catholics believe (rightly) that what is right for Catholics is right for everyone and whatever is wrong for Catholics is equally wrong for everyone. Others toot our moralify in the Scriptures. Here we think, naturalIy, of the Ten Commandments, which are shared withlews, Protestants, and the Orthodox.

from Catholics, it

is precisely, "works."

Thafs not terribly distinctive. Moreover, the commandments are pretty comprehensive. From them we receive moral guidance regarding the sovereignty of God and God's name; worship; honoring parents; cherishing life, our bodies, and the truth; respecting neighbors, their families, and their property. The commandments cover most moral topics.
Deppite the fact that the natural

As I have written in this column on the virfues and the commandments/ two extraordina"ily important influences on Catholic morality, now I want to,begin addressing the influence of the works of merry both on our tradition and on our contemporary lives. I do this because the tradi tion of the works of merry is powerfully rich, yet considerably lost to the modern mind. U we want to know more about what God asks of us today then, assuredly it is the practice of mercy.

demption). Understood in this way, the parable is less a story about how we should treat others than it is the story of what Christ has done for us. We are called to follow the actions of the Good Samaritan, not because the parable is attractive but because it is a retelling of the entire gospel In it, we are called to go and do likewise. Nor is the parable simply one among rnany that lesus told. Rather, it senres as the foundational explanation of Jesus' commandment to love. Mercy: the condition for salvation . To be saved, we mugt exercise mercy. My second point is that the
Scriptures definitively emphasize

Mercy in Catholic kadition


To malce ny casefor tlu distinctiaeness of mucy,l want to cooer faur topics. In nry ne# column I will giae abrief histariulwetzimt of the badition of the works of mucy and in subsequent columns I will discuss mch of the worlcs belout.

law provides all humanbeings access to the same moral standards and that the Ten Commandments of:fer those of us in the |udeoChristian tradition a fundamental morality that has affected the

Metcy the story of our salvation o Like Jesus, we must become


the mercy of God. The Good
Samaritan parable definitively deFall2C00. CHURo{ .41

mercy as the cofidition for salvation. This is made clear in the Last

|udgment (inMaithew 25), where


those saved are saved simPlY

if

must be saved. How? One of three persorls will enter i:rto our lives to keep us all from failing inio the abyss of heil, itseX pure chaos.

variety of ways, financially secure


Christians welcomed the newlY arrivecl immigrants. l

they performed what we later called tne corparal works of mercy- feeding the hungrY, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, ete.
The parabie of Matthew 25 is striking in that everyone is surPrised bY the judgrnent. The sheep never realized that in feeding the hungr1r, they rvere feeding the king. Nor did the goats realize thai bY r,ct visiting the sick, they were not visiting the Lord. But for the GosPel writets, our recognition of the importance of rnercy is inconsequential. That is also the "moral" erf the

Merey; Ctrristianity's se!f-

definitian
Early Christianity defined itself in terms of merc,v" In his wonderful work ?ae Rise of Christianifg,Rodney Stark argus that "Christianity was an urban movement, and the New Testament was set down bY urbanites." But those urban areas were cireadf-*l. Stark describes th"e conditions as "sociaL chacs and chronic urban misery," pa.rtlY because of sheer popuiation density' At the end of the first century, Articch's population was 150,000 within the city walls-l17 Persons per acre. New York City todaY has a density of 37 persons Per acre overall; Manhattan, with its highrise apartments, registers 100 persons pel acre.

story of the rich man who never sees poor Lazarus at his gate. We wili be iudged by whether we are

6D (DMMAh}DD MCKCY ' Moteover, ChristianitY was new. INhile ethicai demands were im' posed by the gods of the Pagan religicns, these demands were substantively ritualistic, not neighbor-directed. And, while Pagan Rornans knew generositY, it did not stem frorn any divine command. Thus a nurse who cared for a victim of an epidemic knew that her liJe might be lcst. If she were a pagan, there was no exPectation of divine reward for her generositY; if she rvere a Christian, this life was but a prelude to the next, where the generous were united with God. Although the Romans Practiced generosity, they did not Promote mercy or pity. Since merry implied "unearned help or relief," it was considered contradictory to justice. Roman philoscphers oPposed mercy. According to Stark, "Pity was a defect of character unwo*hy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not Yet grown up. It was an imPuisive response based on ignorance"' He
concludes: fhis was the moral climate

mercifirl

{see

Luke 5).

Mercy: How God enters our


chaos to rescue us

. We show mercy by entering the chaos of others. Our entire theological tradition is expressed in terms of mercy, which i define as the willingness to enter into the chaos of others. Indeeel, ilke the
Good Samaritan stoPPing for

Contrary io early assumPtions, Greco-Roman cities were not settied places, the inhabitants descended from ptevious generations. Given high infant mortality and short life expectanry, these cities required "a constant
and substantial strearn of newcomers" simply to maintain pcpuiation ievels. As a result, the cities were made up of strangers. TheY were well treated by Christians, trvho, again contrary to assumPtions, were anythingbut poor. Through a

wounded Adam, attending to someone in need is no simPle affair. It means entering into the entire "problem" 0r "chaos" of that person's particuiar situation. Understood in such terms, the creation is an act of merry that brings order into the chaos af ihe universe. The Incarnation is Cod's entry into the chaos of human existence. And tkre redernPtion is bringing us out of the chaos of our s1avery to sin. Every action cf God is aimed at rescuing us.
One of my favorite understandings of God's rescue of us comes from the meditation on the Trinify in the Spiitunl Exercises of Saint lgnatius. The three persons of the blessed Trinity are considering the chaos of the world wherein most PeoPle are going to hell. TheY decide ihat we

in which ChristianitY taught that merry is one of the Primary virtues-that a merciful God requires humans to be mercifrrl. Moreover, the tionary stuff. lndeed, it was the crrltural basis for the re-

ry that because God loves humanitY, Christians may not piease God uniess
they loae one aflotLter was en-

vitaiization of a Roman world groaning under a host


of miseries.

tirely new. PerhaPs even more revolutionary was the principle that Cfuistian love lnd charity must extend be' yond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to "a11 those who in
every place call on the name of orrr Lord ]esus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:2)... This was revolu-

in our own day, mercy makes no


less a claim.

Reverend James F. Keenan, s.J., ls


cssaciate professar of maral theology

at'Neston Jesuit School of Theology'


Cambridge, Masso.chusetts.