Jesus Gutierrez, 42, wheels himself over to the trunk in his musty motel room – the trunk that contains the surviving treasures of his torn apart life. Before opening the trunk, he has to remove the beer and whiskey bottles that have created a living monument to one of his diseases. Without legs, and with only one arm in full use, Jesus must be careful not to drop the bottles on the tile floor of the motel room lest they shatter, with no one around to help him pick up the pieces.
After ten minutes of carefully removing the bottles, placing each in a black trash bag attached to his wheelchair, Jesus finally opens the trunk. On top, there is the family album, complete with pictures of his parents in the early years of their marriage, when they were still in Mexico, before they immigrated without papers to the United States. Then there is the picture of Jesus taken at his birthday party when he was three. In the photograph, the child’s face is beaming with joy. There is a Mickey Mouse cake in front of him, a blue, green and silver birthday hat on his head, and his mother and father kissing both of his cheeks. A year after that photograph was taken, his mother and father would take Jesus, along with his younger brother, to California in the hope that America would provide greater opportunities for themselves and their children.
It is 2032, about twenty years after Congress enacted landmark immigration legislation known as the Dream Act: a law that codified what it meant for undocumented youngsters to be considered a “productive citizen.” For all the youngsters who were not college bound, “productive citizen” meant serving in the nation’s wars.
For many people, the first time they are ever asked to commoditize their acts of mercy is when they fill out their college applications. The application form will read something like, “Please list and describe your charitable activities.” For younger people, now many attending high schools that require public service “credits,” the process of commoditizing mercy has an added layer. To be clear, there is no exchange of cash involved in these requirements, at least none that I’m aware. Nevertheless, the attempts by secular authorities to inculcate the values of commoditized mercy – namely, perform works of mercy toward others and you will receive tangible goods in return – starts at an early age.
Secular authorities, perhaps desperate to instill empathy in young people whom they fear are vulnerable to nihilism, seem oblivious to the spiritual danger of commoditized mercy. After all, a teenager volunteering for lunch duty at a nursing home would expose him/her to the vulnerability and dependence of others, creating just the kind of emotional kinetic energy that will result in a more empathic young adult, right? What’s so bad about that?
Nothing, except for the fact that the entire design is an extremely desperate – not to mention bureaucratic – response to treat the symptom, not the underlying disease: namely, a merciless society, which of course is so precisely because it is so chock full of merciless individuals.
We live in a time when so many quarters of Catholic religious life are increasingly centered on commoditized mercy: the expectation that by performing works of mercy, Catholic religious ought to be compensated with tangible goods, namely with greater ecclesiastical power, status, and influence than other lay people (non-clergy Catholic religious are indeed lay people.) Given this reality, it would seem Catholic bishops have, even if inadvertently, fallen into a similar trap as their secular counterparts, specifically fueling a culture of commoditized mercy, perhaps for fear that without it, Catholic culture might crumble.