The Thin Line Between Mercy and Heresy – Part III




SHE fed and clothed the poor with love; she nurtured minds and hearts with the Word. Catherine Doherty, foundress of the Madonna House apostolate, was a woman who took on the “smell of the sheep” without taking on the “stench of sin.” She constantly walked the thin line between mercy and heresy by embracing the greatest of sinners while calling them to holiness. She used to say,

Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts… the Lord shall be with you. —from The Little Mandate

This is one of those “words” from the Lord that is able to penetrate “between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” [1]cf. Heb 4:12 Catherine uncovers the very root of the problem with both so-called “conservatives” and “liberals” in the Church: it is our fear to enter men’s hearts as Christ did.



In fact, one of the reasons we so quickly resort to the labels “conservative” or “liberal” etc. is that it is a convenient way to ignore the truth that the other may be speaking by putting the other in the soundproof box of a category.

Jesus said,

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

The “liberal” is generally perceived as one who stresses “the way” of Christ, which is charity, to the exclusion of truth. The “conservative” is thought to generally emphasize “the truth”, or doctrine, to the exclusion of charity. The problem is that both are at equal risk of self-deception. Why? Because the thin red line between mercy and heresy is the narrow road of both truth and love that leads to life. And if we exclude or distort one or the other, we risk becoming ourselves the stumbling block that prevents others from coming to the Father.

And so, for the purposes of this meditation, I will use these labels, speaking in generalities, in hopes of unmasking our fears, which inevitably create stumbling blocks—on both “sides.”

…one who fears is not yet perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)



The greatest wound in the human heart is, in fact, the self-afflicted wound of fear. Fear is really the opposite of trust, and it was lack of trust in God’s word that brought about the fall of Adam and Eve. This fear, then, only compounded:

When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Gen 3:8)

Cain murdered Abel out of fear that God loved him more… and for millennia afterward, fear in all its outward forms of suspicion, judgment, inferiority complexes, etc. began to drive peoples apart as the blood of Abel flowed into every nation.

Even though, through Baptism, God removes the stain of original sin, our fallen human nature still carries the wound of mistrust, not only of God, but our neighbour. This is why Jesus said we must become like little children to enter “paradise” again [2]cf. Matt 18:3; why Paul teaches that by grace you have been saved through faith.[3]cf. Eph 2:8


Nonetheless, conservatives and liberals continue to carry the Garden of Eden’s lack of trust, and all its side effects, into our day. For the conservative would say that what evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden was that they broke God’s commandment. The liberal would say that man broke God’s heart. The solution, says the conservative, is to keep the law. The liberal says it is to love again. The conservative says mankind must remain covered in the leaves of shame. The liberal says that shame serves no purpose (and never mind that the conservative blames the woman while the liberal blames the man.)

In truth, both are right. But if they exclude the truth of the other, then both are wrong.



Why do we end up stressing one aspect of the Gospel over the other? Fear. We must “go without fears into the depths of mens hearts” and meet both the spiritual and emotional/physical needs of man. Here, St. James strikes the proper balance.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

The Christian vision is one of both “justice and peace.” But the liberal downplays sin, thus creating a false peace; the conservative over-emphasizes justice, thus robbing peace. Contrary to what they think, both are lacking in mercy. For authentic mercy does not ignore sin, but does everything possible to pardon it. Both sides fear the power of mercy.

Thus, fear is driving a wedge between the “charity” and “truth” that is Christ. We have to stop judging one another and realize that we are all suffering in one way or another from fear. The liberal must stop condemning the conservative saying they do not care about people but only doctrinal purity. The conservative must stop condemning the liberal saying that they do not care for the person’s soul, only the superficial. We could all learn from Pope Francis’ example in the “art of listening” to the other. 

But here is the underlying issue for both: neither of them really, fully believes in the power and promises of Jesus Christ. They do not trust the word of God.

Liberal fears

The liberal is afraid to believe that truth can be known with certainty. That “truth endures; fixed to stand firm like the earth.” [4]Psalm 119:90 He does not fully trust that the Holy Spirit will actually, as Christ promised, guide the successors of the Apostles “to all truth” [5]John 16:13 and that to “know” this truth, as Christ promised, will “set you free.” [6]8:32 But even more than that, the liberal does not fully believe or comprehend that if Jesus is “the truth” as He said, that there is then power in the truth. That when we present the Truth in love, it is like a seed that God himself plants in another’s heart. Thus, because of these doubts in the power of truth, the liberal often reduces evangelization down to primarily taking care of psychological and physical needs to the exclusion of the soul’s authentic needs. However, St. Paul reminds us:

The kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)

Thus, the liberal is often afraid to enter into the depths of men’s hearts with Christ, the light of truth, in order to illuminate the path to spiritual freedom that is the source of man’s happiness.

[It is] the temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei ” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]. —POPE FRANCIS, Synod closing remarks, Catholic News Agency, October 18th, 2014

Conservative fears

On the other hand, the conservative is afraid to believe that charity is a Gospel unto itself and that “love covers a multitude of sins.” [7]1 Peter 4:8 The conservative often believes that it is not love but doctrine that we must cover other’s nakedness with if they are to have any chance of getting into Heaven. The conservative often does not trust Christ’s promise that He is in “the least of the brethren”, [8]cf. Matt 25:45 whether they are Catholic or not, and that love can not only the_good_samaritan_Fotorpour coals upon an enemy’s head, but open their hearts to the truth. The conservative does not fully believe or comprehend that if Jesus is “the way” as He said, then there is a supernatural power in love. That when we present Love in truth, it is like a seed that God himself plants in another’s heart. Because he doubts the power of love, the conservative often reduces evangelization down to only convincing others of the truth, and even hiding behind truth, to the exclusion of the emotional and even physical needs of the other.

However, St. Paul replies:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. (1 Cor 4:20)

Thus, the conservative is often afraid to enter into the depths of men’s hearts with Christ, the warmth of love, in order to smooth the path to spiritual freedom that is the source of man’s happiness.

Paul is a pontifex, a builder of bridges. He doesn’t want to become a builder of walls. He doesn’t say: “Idolaters, go to hell!” This is the attitude of Paul… Build a bridge to their heart, in order then to take another step and announce Jesus Christ. —POPE FRANCIS, Homily, May 8th, 2013; Catholic News Service



I have fielded hundreds of letters since the Synod in Rome concluded, and with a few rare exceptions, many of these underlying fears are there between every line. Yes, even the fears that the Pope is going to “change doctrine” or “change pastoral practices that will undermine doctrine” are only sub-fears of these root fears.

CATERS_CLIFF_EDGE_WALK_ILLUSION_WATER_AMERICA_OUTDOOR_CONTEST_WINNERS_01-1024x769_FotorBecause what the Holy Father is doing is boldly leading the Church along the thin red line between mercy and heresy—and it is disappointing both sides (just as many were disappointed by Christ for not laying down the law enough as a triumphant king, or for laying it down all too clearly, thereby infuriating the Pharisees.) To the liberals (who are actually reading Pope Francis’ words and not the headlines), they are disappointed because, while he is giving an example of poverty and humility, he has signaled that he is not changing doctrine.To the conservatives (who are reading the headlines and not his words), they are disappointed because Francis is not laying down the law as they would like.

In what may someday be recorded as among the most prophetic speeches of our times from a pope, I believe that Jesus was directly addressing the liberals and conservatives in the universal Church at the close of the Synod (read The Five Corrections). Why? Because the world is entering an hour in which, if we are afraid to walk in faith in the power of Christ’s truth and love—if we hide the “talent” of Sacred Tradition in the ground, if we growl like the elder brother at the prodigal sons, if we neglect our neighbour unlike the Good Samaritan, if we lock ourselves in the law like the Pharisees, if we cry “Lord, Lord” but do not do His will, if we turn a blind eye to the poor—then many, many souls will be lost. And we will have to give an accounting—liberals and conservatives alike.

Thus, to the conservatives who are afraid of the power of Love, who is God, Jesus says:

I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:2-5)

Pope Francis put it this way: that “conservatives” must repent of…

…hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals. —POPE FRANCIS, Synod closing remarks, Catholic News Agency, October 18th, 2014

To the liberals who are afraid of the power of Truth, who is God, Jesus says:

I know your works, your love, faith, service, and endurance, and that your last works are greater than the first. Yet I hold this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants to play the harlot and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her harlotry. (Rev 2:19-21)

Pope Francis put it this way: that “liberals” must repent of…

…a destructive tendency to goodness, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” —Catholic News Agency, October 18th, 2014



So, brothers and sisters—both “liberals” and “conservatives”—let us not be discouraged by these gentle rebukes.

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. (Heb 12:5)

Rather, let us hear again the appeal to trust:

Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ”! —SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Homily, Saint Peter’s Square, October 22, 1978, No. 5

Don’t be afraid to go into the hearts of men with the power of Christ’s word, the warmth of Christ’s love, the healing of Christ’s mercy. Because, as Catherine Doherty added, “the Lord shall be with you.”

Don’t be afraid to listen to one another rather than label one another. “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,” said St. Paul. In this way, we can begin to be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” [9]cf. Phil 2:2-3 And what is that one thing? That there is only one way to the Father, and that is through the way and the truth, that leads to life.

Both. That is the thin red line we can and must walk in order to be a true light of the world that will lead people out of the darkness into the freedom and love of the Father’s arms.



Read Part I and Part II



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1 cf. Heb 4:12
2 cf. Matt 18:3
3 cf. Eph 2:8
4 Psalm 119:90
5 John 16:13
6 8:32
7 1 Peter 4:8
8 cf. Matt 25:45
9 cf. Phil 2:2-3
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