Rorate Caeli

Cardinal Piacenza in Wigratzbad: Mercy, Primacy of Conscience and Primacy of Truth

From a teaching lecture given by Cardinal Piacenza, the Major Penitentiary, at a course on the Internal Forum in the Diocese of Ausburg for German speaking priests.

Iacopo Scaramuzzi
Vatican Insider (La Stampa)
January 15, 2015

“In Christianity, the placing of mercy and truth in opposition or at least contradistinction is always the result of a vision that is only partial”. This is what Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the Major Penitentiary of the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, says in a teaching lecture given at Wigratzbad, Diocese of Augsburg in Germany, on the occasion of a course on the Internal Forum for German speaking priests.

“At that place where Psalm 85 says (from which comes the title of my lecture): ‘Mercy and truth will meet each other’, we are dealing with a new reality, not made by human hands, something to be desired, something deeply awaited, but realized uniquely in accordance with the gift from God”, affirms the Cardinal, who is centering his reflections on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“It is necessary to acknowledge how the primacy of conscience, as so strongly recognized by Blessed John Henry Newman, and the way he understands this primacy corresponds in a mysterious way precisely to the primacy of truth as a constitutive element of man, which does not accept being legitimized arbitrarily under false pretenses, nor by an authority outside of himself, but requires that mercy be proclaimed by “another” outside of himself in that profound harmony with the truth of what he is and that which he hopes for”, affirms Piacenza. “Even in the tragic denial of objective truth that is a mark of our time, even in a time oblivious to whatever aid metaphysics can give, from that privileged observation post that is the confessional we are able to daily get a glimpse of the dramatic need for truth, present in the heart of every man, a need that cannot be suppressed or eliminated, because it has been put into the heart of every man when God said: “Let us make man in our own image and likeness….I have created him in the image of God.”

“Exactly because mercy and truth are not principally ideals to which one conforms, or Platonic ideas to be contemplated, but, by the mystery of the Incarnation, have become realties that are touchable, visible, able to be heard, in the personal encounter with Christ, the Logos made flesh”, the Cardinal goes on, “it is possible to affirm that what happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is, in a certain way, the supreme encounter with the mercy offered by God to man and with the truth of man and his relationship with God which he is called to acknowledge. In this sense there appear to be three characteristics of mercy and truth, that can be encountered in a living way, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: their coinherence, objectivity and inherent relationship.” As for their coinherence, “in Christianity the placing of truth and mercy in contrast with each other is always the result of a partial way of seeing things. It is hardly conceivable that there be such a strong emphasis on mercy that it is to the detriment of truth, or, its opposite, a strong emphasis on truth to the detriment of mercy. But this polarization does occur, for it is part of the continual tension that is rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation. It has a certain legitimacy as long as it remains within the limits of the “both-and” and does not fall destructively into the non-Catholic “either-or”, which is seen in the artificial opposition between doctrine and pastoral activity. Each instance in which pastoral activity is contraposed to doctrine, a pastoral activity that is full of mercy in opposition to doctrine fraught with a truth that is cold and unmerciful, we reveal ourselves as prisoners of a pre-Christian framework, in which truth and the radical newness of the Word made man are not yet sufficiently and adequately integrated. This is truly the real scandal of Christianity. And after two thousand years it appears still intact in all of its shattering force and truth claim, with respect to every philosophy or human spirituality. In Christianity, mercy and truth are coinherent, inseparable, so much so as to be not properly distinguishable. We might say, paraphrasing Chalcedon, that mercy and truth are united without confusion, and are distinct without separation.” In this sense, “a mercy without truth is not Christian, and at the same time truth without mercy is not Christian.”

With respect to objectivity, “the good confessor is always called to be aware that, in the coinherence of mercy and truth, he is called to that delicate and loving service to the person, that ought to lead him to an openness to recognizing an objective truth that comes from outside himself, because it is given and revealed as the condition for an authentic, objective experience of mercy”, affirms Piacenza.

With respect to the inherent relationship between mercy and truth, “Christian truth is never a scepter to be brandished against another person, but is a humble service to the truth of his being and a salutary summoning to that one authentic relationship, that is able to lead man to the fulfillment of himself: his relationship to God.”

[Original: Italian]