Moral Relativism and the Year of Mercy

By Margaret Killackey
January 12, 2017

With 2016 closed, we may find ourselves decrying this year for the remarkable amount of tragedy, and even savagery, it contained.  It seems ironic that the majority of 2016 overlapped with the Jubilee Year in the Catholic Church, which was dedicated to mercy.  Ironic—or perhaps fitting, for our wounded world needs a renewal in mercy.


“Mercy will always be greater than any sin,” Pope Francis wrote in his Bull of Indiction at the opening of the Jubilee, “and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive.”  “Mercy” encompasses a wide range of acts and dispositions with respect to the relationship between God and man, and between man and man.  St. Thomas Aquinas defines mercy as “being affected with sorrow at misery of another as though it were his own.”  It seeks “the removal of any kind of defect” in the other.  Aquinas’s definition qualifies mercy as both a disposition (being affected), and an action (the removal).

The defects to which mercy attends are either physical or spiritual.  Poverty or illness are examples of a physical defect.  We can have mercy on a person enduring this kind of misery, and take measure to alleviate their suffering.  Sin is an example of a spiritual defect.  We can be moved by someone’s misery in the state of sin, and seek to remedy this defect through forgiveness.  God forgives man when He is wronged; man imitates this Divine action when he forgives his fellow men.


Moral relativism is an attack on one of mercy’s most glorious acts, the act of forgiveness.  Forgiveness can only function under an objective moral code, which clearly sees evil, but acts to remedy that evil.  Moral relativism simply ignores evil, and by doing so, obliterates the possibility of forgiveness.

Numerous different philosophies prepared its coming in various ways.  The philosopher William of Ockham, for example, rejected substantial form, and this rejection ultimately leads to a rejections of nature as well.  Friedrich Nietzsche cast aside philosophy in pursuit of Truth in favor of the “will to power,” another dangerous move which attacks objective morality.  Later, the many and varied proponents of the sexual revolution would systematically eliminated sexual moral norms from society.

However we got here, it is the case that people of Faith and principles—we’ll call them “moral objectivists” in this essay—have now found themselves labeled as “haters” and “bigots.”  The most notable instances of this is when moral objectivists argue that abortion and homosexual relations are disordered and wrong.

The struggle, it seems, is that moral relativists claim that one cannot love a person if they do not also love all of that person’s actions.  Moral objectivists, on the other hand, say that they can indeed love a person, even if they hate his actions. Fr. John Dominic Corbett beautifully describes the tie between love and mercy, writing, “Mercy is the form that love takes when it encounters misery.”  If, however, casting moral normative judgements is called “hate speech,” then moral objectivists lose their platform from which to recognize wrongdoings.  Consequently, they also lose their platform to forgive.

This is tragic.

A culture which denies the possibility of moral transgression, is a culture which also denies its people one of the foundations of deep human relationships.  We have proof of this through common experience.  How often do find that our friendships deepen to a new level of intimacy when we have quarreled and then forgiven the other?  How often do we witness a new fervor of love between spouse when they have humbled themselves enough to give and receive forgiveness to each other?


This is because forgiveness is a profound affirmation of the good in the other. We do not forgive for the sake of fame, power, glory, money, or pleasure—we forgive because we love another person, and because we recognize that their good is more valuable than our anger or wounded feelings.  Whether we forgive a friend or a stranger, whether forgiveness comes easily or is an arduous act of the will, forgiveness is centered on love of another person.  This act of love benefits the forgiver, too.  As Portia from The Merchant of Venice expresses it, mercy “is twice blessed / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

It is not by making moral judgements that we hate or judge a person; rather, we show hate and bad judgement when we divorce those moments of moral judgements from mercy.  In the words of Pope Francis, “[Justice and mercy] are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.”

We have heard enough cries admonishing us not to “judge” or to “be a hater.”  While we must certainly not condemn people, or judge hastily, we must reclaim acts of judging objective moral good and evil not as an act of hatred, but as acts which are bound up with love and mercy.  Blurring lines of moral normative principles does not cultivate human relationships.  Rather, we love our fellow man by recognizing objective morals norms, and desiring their good even when—or, especially when—that requires us to show them mercy through forgiveness.