Earlier this year, a Catholic priest published a book titled Mercy: What Every Catholic Should Know, focusing on doctrine and discipleship issues that ordinarily would not cause controversy.
But these are not ordinary times. Acting as a Catholic chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Father Daniel Moloney tried to apply his words about mercy and justice to the firestorm of protests and violence unleashed by the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
In the end, the priest resigned at the request of the Archdiocese of Boston, in response to MIT administration claims that Moloney, in a June 7 email, violated a campus policy prohibiting "actions or statements that diminish the value of individuals or groups of people."
Moloney wrote, in a meditation that defied simplistic soundbites: "George Floyd was killed by a police officer, and shouldn't have been. He had not lived a virtuous life. He was convicted of several crimes, including armed robbery. ... And he was high on drugs at the time of his arrest.
"But we do not kill such people. He committed sins, but we root for sinners to change their lives and convert to the Gospel. Catholics want all life protected from conception until natural death."
Criminals have human dignity and deserve justice and mercy, the priest said. This is why Catholics are "asked to work to abolish the death penalty in this country."
On the other side of this painful equation, wrote Moloney, police officers struggle with issues of sin, anger and prejudice. Their work "often hardens them" in ways that cause "a cost to their souls." Real dangers can fuel attitudes that are "unjust and sinful," including racism.
In a passage stressed by critics, the priest wrote that the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck until he died "acted wrongly. ... The charges filed against him allege dangerous negligence, but say nothing about his state of mind. ... But he showed disregard for his life, and we cannot accept that in our law enforcement officers. It is right that he has been arrested and will be prosecuted.
"In the wake of George Floyd's death, most people in the country have framed this as an act of racism. I don't think we know that."
An editor who has worked with Moloney stressed that the scholarly priest -- with degrees from Yale University, Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame -- is a precise writer.
Thus, it's important to note what he was "actually saying and, equally important, what he was not saying," noted Joseph Pearce in The Catholic World Report. "He wasn't saying, as some have alleged by misquoting him, that George Floyd's death was not an act of racism. He was simply saying that we don't know whether it was racist."
Citing Catholic teachings, the priest noted that "racism is a sin," and that "so is rash judgment." The email ended with these words: "Blessed are the peacemakers, our Lord tells us. May we all be counted among them."
In an online post the day before writing the fateful email, titled "Mercy in a time of national anger," Moloney said that it helps to remember that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement -- especially the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- struggled to obtain justice, but also sought to "cultivate mercy."
Right now, Americans are shouting at one another -- or worse -- about politics, class struggle and violence.
"Some people think that the right thing to do is to enact reforms of the police; others think that the right thing to do is to kill the police and bomb the precinct," wrote Moloney. "Some people think that nonviolent protests are an appropriate response; others think that injustice justifies robbing the local Target. Some people are satisfied when the bad cops are arrested, prosecuted and convicted; others want to overthrow the government. Some are just so upset that they don't know what to do.
"All agree that something deeply wrong happened to George Floyd, but our consensus stops there, at the level of justice. Mercy is the virtue that comes into play when things go wrong. Once we decide that something is unjust, we still have to decide what is the right thing to do."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.