Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz on “The Politics of Mercy”

Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz are professors in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In addition their individual publications, they have collaborated on two books: Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism (Fordham University Press, 2020), and The Politics of Mercy: Catholic Life in an Era of Inequality, Racism, and Violence (Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 2020). With its renewed vision of the traditional spiritual and corporeal works of mercy as “a Catholic politics composed of spirituality, local charitable action, and broader work for justice,” The Politics of Mercy is a vital resource for Catholics at this moment of their church’s history. We are pleased to share an excerpt from the book below on the subject of migration, as well as a brief interview with the authors about the origins and intentions of their work. Special thanks to Matthew and Peter for taking the time, and to Crossroad/Herder & Herder for reprint permissions—Ed.

Anyone who has read the Bible at all closely knows that it is a library of many texts with great variety. What unified the Christian Bible is a story, running from the beginning to the end of time, of God creating the world, choosing a group of people as God’s own (the people of Israel), journeying with that people, supporting them, directing them, correcting them, defining a way of life for them, and eventually blessing all nations through them. (Christians believe that this latter blessing comes in particular through Jesus Christ.) More simply put, the Bible narrates God’s accompaniment of people. The story of God’s accompaniment of Israel begins with God’s creation of human beings in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26–27); continues with God’s election of Abraham and Sarah as father and mother of God’s own people (Gen 12–17), eventually called Israel; God’s liberation of these people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus) and giving them a Law so that they may be God’s holy people (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); leading them into the land promised to Abraham (Joshua, Judges); residing among them during the monarchy that starts with Saul and passes through the dynasty of David and Solomon (1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings); admonishes them for not keeping the Law, eventually allowing God’s people to be dispersed and cast into exile (2 Kings, several prophetic books), and then gathering some of them back in the Promised Land (several prophetic books, Ezra, Nehemiah). The story of God’s accompaniment of God’s people changes, while remaining continuous with the story of Israel, in the New Testament, where through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection it becomes clear that God opens the covenant promised to Abraham even to non-Jews, or Gentiles. God promised Abraham that through his descendants, all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3, 18:18, 22:18). Peter and Paul preach that this promise has been fulfilled in Jesus (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8). The Bible’s final book, Revelation, envisions a “multitude . . . from every nation, race, people, and tongue” at the end of time, gathered in worship before Christ (Rev 7:9). Through this whole grand narrative, God accompanies people, serves as their companion—meaning that God shares life with them (“com-” means “with,” “pan” means “bread”; a companion is the one with whom one breaks bread, which in numerous world cultures is the source of life). The biblical witness depicts God as companion and recommends practices of companionship to all who believe in this God.

[Pope] Francis’s writings and preaching can help us to understand something important about God’s accompaniment of people throughout the Bible and in our world today. God accompanies people in mercy. During the 2016 visit to Ciudad Juárez, Francis gave a homily on the book of Jonah. Francis explains how the book tells of a city in peril. God commands the prophet Jonah to travel to Nineveh to warn its people of their coming destruction (Jon 3:4). “Go,” God says, “and help them to understand that by the way they treat each other, ordering and organizing themselves, they are only creating death and destruction, suffering and oppression. Make them see this is no way to live, neither for the king nor his subjects, nor for farm fields nor for the cattle. Go and tell them that they have become used to this degrading way of life and have lost their sensitivity to pain.” Francis continues: “God sent [Jonah] to testify to what was happening, he sent him to wake up a people intoxicated with themselves.” Francis notes that this is how God’s mercy operates. Since God’s mercy always coordinates with God’s justice, often the first way that God shows mercy is by rejecting wickedness—and telling the wicked so. But God’s mercy also consists of appealing to people’s goodness, the goodness with which God created them. God’s mercy operates within people, from their inherent, God-given goodness, to invite them “to see the damage being done at every level.” Then God’s mercy “pierces evil in order to transform it.” This is how God’s accompaniment works. It is not neutral co-traveling. It is the consistent and constant operation of mercy that condemns insensitivity to others’ pain and works to undo structures that oppress. Francis has in mind as he preaches the crisis of solidarity surrounding migration making itself felt at the U.S.-Mexican border, where countless people suffer, while the United States, like a latter-day Nineveh, has become used to a degrading way of life. God’s mercy demands conversion.

The theme of conversion brings us to emphasize something distinctive about God’s accompaniment of Israel: God demands that God’s people accompany in a special way the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, or the most vulnerable people among them. The last of these is particularly notable for this chapter. It will suffice to return to Deuteronomy, a decisive biblical book for Judaism and Christianity, where God lays the ground for God’s accompaniment of God’s people, including those actions for which God will bless them, and those for which they will be cursed (Dt 11:26). God “loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing”; the Law continues, “So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:18–19). This obedience will receive blessing. But “cursed be anyone who deprives the resident alien . . . of justice” (Dt 27:19). Such injustice is not tolerated. Conversion must mean, concretely, a turn toward loving the resident alien, the stranger, the migrant.

Theologian and priest Peter Phan has ventured, with the biblical theology of accompaniment in mind, to reexamine the history of the church in terms of migration, so as to make Christians recognize how God has accompanied our church throughout its varied and often tumultuous history, and to encourage the people of the church to commit themselves to accompanying today’s migrants with mercy. Phan even contends that “Migration is a permanent feature of the church, and not just a historical phenomenon.” In saying this he translates into newer terms a slightly older insight about the church from the twentieth century: that the church’s condition on earth is a pilgrimage. The pilgrim church, as the Second Vatican Councils’ Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, calls it (LG, 7), travels through this world waiting for its fulfillment at the end of time in heaven. Phan points out that this insight needs to be filled out. The church’s travel through time has not just been toward heaven. Instead, it has carried the church, God’s people, all over the globe.

Phan discusses eight migrations that have marked church history. We shall not provide the detail he does, but it is worth listing these:

  • The Jewish-Christian diaspora in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
  • The Christian exodus from Palestine into Syria, Greece, the western Mediterranean, North Africa (especially Egypt), and Asia (especially India) in the second century.
  • The transfer of the church’s geographical center to Constantinople in the fourth century, which decisively shaped the Byzantine and Orthodox churches for centuries to come, involving widespread migrations both forced and voluntary.
  • The movement of Germanic Christian tribes throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.
  • The so-called Age of Discovery (1492 forward), when Latin American churches were developed, and the face of the Asian churches changed with European missions and conquests.
  • The period of modernization (1650–1918), with the colonization of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the forced migrations of the slave trade, and other economic ventures, all of which implicated the church in a variety of ways.
  • After World War II (1945 forward), decolonization and a variety of other social factors brought refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants around the world; in many cases, these people were Christians; in others, Christians were affected by receiving migrants into their communities.
  • In the opening decades of the twenty-first century, wars in the Middle East ravaged ancient Christian churches, and economic globalization displaced people by the millions; the Catholic Church is now truly “catholic,” universal, and global.

The point of Phan’s historical narrative is that the church has always been on the move, from its earliest days to its latest—and God has remained with the church throughout its migratory history. His focus on the church’s migration underscores a positive reason why Catholics should be hospitable to migrants: our church, which is the universal church, has always led a migrant condition. This should lead Catholics to sympathize with migrants of all sorts, whether “inside” the church or “outside.” We all share a pilgrim condition, and we all can hope that God will accompany us throughout our travails; in this, we must faithfully imitate our God.

It is critical that the church’s remembrance is not only of its own positive history of migration, but also the participation of its members in political projects of exclusion. Specifically, this means that Catholics are called to remember their countries’ own histories and the debts and obligations that flow from past wrongs into the present. Catholic memory involves a dual structure: remembering past faults and retrieving elements from the Catholic tradition to take responsibility for those faults and to build a more inclusive and just future.

Three Questions with Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz 

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to write this book?

We have known each other for 15 years. We first met as doctoral students at the University of Notre Dame, and we now teach together in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. We both grew up Catholic and have long been involved in the life of the church. Our work as teachers and theologians arises out of all the positive experiences we have had with Catholic worship, community, and education over the years. But our experience has also been of a US Catholic Church in crisis. We both began graduate school in theology amid the revelations in the early 2000s about the sex abuse crisis. As committed Catholics, we were shaken by these revelations, and we had to work through this problem existentially—especially as young people committed to handing on the Catholic faith and thinking with the church.

Fast-forward to many years later, as professors, we came to Holy Cross (Matt first, then Peter two years later) to teach theology, and we encountered a twofold predicament. First, just like many new professors in their first teaching job, we found that the ideas that were vibrant to us in doctoral seminars were not as appealing to 18-to-22-year-olds. We learned quickly that students need to be convinced to engage with academic ideas, especially religious ones. Second, where we grappled with the sex abuse crisis explicitly during our graduate studies, we found that in teaching undergraduates who were small children when we were graduate students, they had always lived in a culture marked implicitly yet powerfully by effects of the crisis. Concretely, this meant that many of them had extreme suspicion toward the institutional structure of the church and Catholicism in general.

The Politics of Mercy originated from our experiments in teaching under these conditions. We decided to team-teach a course on Catholic social teaching (CST) in an attempt to give students a different angle for approaching Catholicism. Many scholars of Catholic social teaching call it the church’s “best kept secret,” and an exciting one at that. We wanted to let students in on it and we were delighted that our hypothesis that CST could give students a new, more positive angle to view Catholicism was successful.

The book is dedicated to your students at Holy Cross. How do you see the hopes and interests of younger Catholics as differing from those of previous generations, and how does this book address those hopes and interests?

Faculty at the College of the Holy Cross are scholars, members of professional communities, but foremost we are teachers. The two of us perceive a need to engage students in ways relevant to their lives so that they can enter into the richness of the Catholic tradition. While The Politics of Mercy is directed primarily at college students, we also see as our audience members of parishes, our fellow Catholics in the pews. We delight in the prospect of helping them develop a renewed sense of what our faith makes possible today.

We try to make a case to a new generation of Catholics whose faith is not sustained by the robust Catholic subculture of prior decades to stay with the church, so that they may build its future. We have already said that our students were born into a trying situation. Subcultures, including Catholic ones, have long been dissolving in the US and Europe. The Catholic subculture’s dissolution has been amplified by the sex abuse crisis, which continues to erode the institutional authority of the Catholic Church. The 2007–2008 financial crisis had long-term ramifications, including widespread distrust of economic institutions. Political events, from the sometimes cynical exploitation of the 9/11 tragedy, the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the polarizing 2016 election, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, which threw into sharp relief decades of structural racism, to the overwhelming yet oddly ignorable and ignored threat of climate change, have all cast any allegiance to political institutions into full-blown suspicion. We sympathize with our students not investing much confidence in institutions, since institutions have been breaking down for their entire lives. We want to give them some sense of what loyalty to institutions could look like, if institutions were reconfigured so that they would address rather than contribute to our world’s vexing ills.

Even with their suspicion of institutions, our students exhibit hopes and desires for a better shared life. We do our best in the classroom and in this book to affirm these hopes and desires, and to cultivate them with what we see as the best that Catholicism has to offer.

In the introduction, you write that “Catholic life in an era of inequality, racism, and violence should reimagine the traditional works of mercy as a politics that entails spiritual practices, direct action and charitable work, and long-term structural transformation or justice.” Can you speak a bit about this “reimagining,” and why our traditional framings of the works of mercy (i.e., a “charity alone” approach as advocated by some religious groups) might not be adequate to meet the challenges of this era?       

In The Politics of Mercy we argue that living as authentic Catholics in the 21st century necessitates grappling with the crises of inequality, racism, and violence. Furthermore, we must see these crises as interconnected. Pope Francis says repeatedly in Laudato Si’ (2015), “everything is connected.” He made this claim while confronting the environmental crisis. He carefully linked this crisis to others, such as poverty, migration, and resource conflict. His point is that if we want environmental justice, we need simultaneously to uplift the poor, to seek justice for migrants and refugees, and to work for peace and reconciliation in the world.

The excerpt presented here is a small portion of a greater whole. Each of the five chapters of The Politics of Mercy follows the same pattern: (1) an introduction describing or telling a story about a particular crisis (inequality, mass incarceration, migration, war, and environmental degradation); (2) a scholarly assessment of that crisis; (3) resources from Catholic social thought, the Bible, and other church sources that could formulate responses to the crisis; (4) a proposal for a politics of mercy consisting of spiritual practice, embodied charitable encounter, and a framework for transformation of policies and social structures; and (5) a presentation of real Catholic communities that are living out the politics of mercy. This selection is from #3 in chapter 2, “Migration.”

The last part of each chapter may be the most important, at least in response to your question. Recently we were contacted by a colleague of ours who was giving a webinar to Catholic prison ministers. He shared a chapter of The Politics of Mercy (chapter 3 on mass incarceration) as background reading. He wanted to share a concrete vision of hope for grassroots activists and ministers of the church who embody mercy on the ground—in this case, that we could have a world with fewer prisons, where we choose not to solve problems by throwing people in prisons, but by supporting one another. We try to present visions like this throughout each chapter, but especially at the end, when we discuss the work of the Catholic Worker Movement, Jesuit Refugee Service, Homeboy Industries, Catholic Relief Services, and Bethlehem Farm.

We try to follow Francis’s call in Laudato Si’ to see everything as connected, and as a consequence to reimagine the works of mercy so that, in discovering connections between the world’s problems, these traditional works can be implemented to remedy problems locally and globally.

To return to our students, we know from our teaching that students wisely ask the same question that you do: how do we think about the difference—is there a difference?—between “charity alone” (individual and local efforts to live Christian life), and efforts at “justice” (which supersede the individual)? We, and ultimately our students, conclude that both charity and justice are necessary and must be valued; there should be no “alone.” People should compost at their homes; they should advocate for domestic environmental policy changes and global climate agreements. People should work at homeless shelters; they should be scandalized that more than 10 percent of Americans, in the wealthiest country in the world (so it’s worse elsewhere!), live at or below the poverty line, and they should demand policies and structures to reduce this.

A Catholic politics of mercy demands multifaceted conversion: spiritually we must turn away from sin and renew our practices of prayer and devotion; interpersonally we must recognize our failures to love our neighbor, and recommit to doing better; socially, politically, and economically, we must work to transform the world into a place where it is easier to do and to be good. In this way, we try to move beyond the impasse between “conservative” and “liberal” Catholics. We envision an integration of those of us who go to Eucharistic adoration, and those who go to Black Lives Matter protests. Let’s have both.

The Politics of Mercy is available directly from the Crossroad Publishing Company or wherever books are sold.

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1 reply
  1. Eugene Ciarlo W-1
    Eugene Ciarlo W-1 says:

    The scope of this article on “The Politics of Mercy” is broad, encompassing much more than simply Catholic social teaching. Migration, people on the move, is a good starting point and Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si'” actually corrals the multiplicity of topics into which the book seems to stretch, touch and attempt to deal with. Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of Francis, “Everything is connected.” My chagrin is that so many people have given up on their Catholic heritage that they are no longer interested in discovering the incredible depth and far-reaching implications of Catholic social teaching or better yet, the lifestyle, work, words and deeds of the Man responsible for it all, Jesus. I give credit to people like Fritz and Eggemeier who have the zeal and enthusiasm to keep plugging away as messengers of the Message, in spite of the signs of the times which tend to shrug off the treasures of Judeo-Christianity.


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