The Face of God is Mercy


In the Museo del Duomo in Milan, a towering statue depicts St. Ambrose with a scourge over his shoulder. The image of a bishop holding a whip admittedly shocks modern observers. Hagiographers agree the scourge symbolizes the penance Ambrose imposed on the emperor, Theodosius, in 390 A.D. following the massacre at Thessalonica, for which the emperor was partly responsible. As punishment, Ambrose refused to receive the emperor’s offering for Holy Mass—an excommunication in fact, if not in law. As harsh as it was, the penalty envisaged the emperor’s conversion. It worked. Theodosius fulfilled his penance publicly before his subjects and Ambrose reconciled him to the Church.
Ambrose offered the homily at the emperor’s funeral, expressing his sincere friendship with Theodosius and praising his humility. Ambrose preached: “He, an emperor, was not ashamed to do the public penance which lesser individuals shrink from, and to the end of his life he never ceased to grieve for his error.” These words prove that the penalties Ambrose inflicted stemmed from charity. In the Church, one can both correct a person and simultaneously love him or her. In fact, charity sometimes demands correction and even penalties.Church penalties serve both as expiation for crime and medicine for the criminal. For the quietist, cloaked in pastoral sensitivity, Ambrose’s punitive acts lack empathy. For the “cancel culture” puritan, masked in moral superiority, Ambrose’s forgiveness borders on betrayal. Authentic Christianity eschews both quietism and puritanism, ancient and new. Followers of Christ love their brothers and sisters so ardently, they do not stand idle as they teeter toward spiritual destruction. Ambrose’s penal administration, symbolized by the whip in his hand, also instructs those tasked with ecclesial governance. The lesson is clear: charity produces mercy. Justice without mercy is cruelty; but mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.
The global media reported this week that the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, not unlike Emperor Theodosius, incurred the automatic penalty of excommunication due to the crime of schism. Justice demanded this kind of punishment. The Archbishop broke communion with the Roman Pontiff, even publicly denouncing his legitimacy as Vicar of Christ. Yet contrary to the vitriol spewed by some online trolls, the declaration of excommunication was just that—a declaration. Automatic excommunications occur without the intervention of external authority. The very transgression of certain divine or ecclesiastical laws automatically induce consequent penalties regardless of the knowledge of those responsible for their execution. Leaving aside the legalese, we can surmise that even a distant imprimatur from Pope Francis on the declaration came from love; from the very charity that bishops like Ambrose expressed in admonitions to public sinners in the fourth century. Excommunication serves as a medicine to bring back a beleaguered brother or sister in the faith. When that person returns, the Church rejoices as heartily as the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps we can pray that one day a pope or bishop will speak movingly about this brother of Christ, following his conversion, from the same motivations which prompted Ambrose’s homily at the emperor’s funeral. For as Pope Francis so often says, the face of God is mercy.