Are the Works of Mercy Ever Obligatory?

Two questions about “mercy” were recently asked of me. Since we are soon to embark on the “Year of Mercy” proclaimed by Pope Francis, and since there is much confusion about the subject in general, I thought it worthy of our attention to consider these questions in an Ad Rem.

  1. Are any of the spiritual or corporal works of mercy obligatory
  2. Is there any sense in which we could call them works of justice?

The answer to them both is Yes. Here, I will explain only the first question. At some future date, I hope to return to the second.

To reply more fully to the first question, we have to consider the nature of mercy as a virtue. Saint Thomas Aquinas cites Saint Augustine, who defines mercy as, “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can. For mercy takes its name “misericordia” from denoting a man’s compassionate heart [miserum cor] for another’s unhappiness.”

The Latin word miser gives us the English word “misery.” Mercy is the virtue whereby we are moved to relieve the misery of another, either his misery of body (“corporal”) or his misery of soul (“spiritual”). Traditionally, catechisms list the corporal works of mercy this way:

  1. To feed the hungry;
  2. To give drink to the thirsty;
  3. To clothe the naked;
  4. To shelter the homeless;
  5. To visit the sick;
  6. To ransom the captive;
  7. To bury the dead.

And the spiritual works of mercy are given thus:

  1. To instruct the ignorant;
  2. To counsel the doubtful;
  3. To admonish sinners;
  4. To bear wrongs patiently;
  5. To forgive offenses willingly;
  6. To comfort the afflicted;
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.

These two lists were known to Saint Thomas Aquinas, so they are at least as old as the thirteenth century. For the Angelic Doctor, they are collectively known as “Almsdeeds,” which may strike us as curious — until we come to discover that the Latin word for alms is eleēmosyna, which is derived from the Greek word, ἐλεημοσύνη, which comes from the Greek word for “mercy,” ἔλεος (elios). Our modern English word, alms — which is derived from these Greek and Latin words, by the way — has a much more restrictive meaning, while being nonetheless related.

We know from Holy Scripture that works of mercy can be absolutely obligatory, at least on certain occasions. How do we know? From the general judgment scene according to Saint Matthew (25:31-46). If we tally up the list of good deeds that the sheep did and the goats failed to do, we get six. With slight wording differences, and minus one “work,” this is identical to our list of seven corporal works of mercy. Not mentioned in the Gospel is “to bury the dead,” which comes to us from the book of Tobias (1:20 and 12:12).

We have elsewhere shown the obvious ramifications of the passage from Saint Matthew vis-a-vis the “Faith and Good Works” debate between Catholics and Protestants. We will not dwell on it here, but it should be noticed at least in passing that the just were rewarded for doing these works of mercy (“good works”), whereas the unrighteous were damned for omitting them. For the “goats” in the final judgment scene, these works of mercy were obviously necessary for salvation; because they omitted them, they were damned. Denying that conclusion would be rash in the face of the clear biblical evidence.

The above is not the only biblical testimony. Elsewhere, the Beloved Disciple asks, rhetorically: “He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall put up his bowels from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). Note that if we have not the charity of God abiding in us, we have sinned mortally and have lost the theological virtue of charity along with sanctifying grace.

The list of spiritual works of mercy does not have one clear Biblical passage that presents (almost) all of them, as does the catalogue of corporal works. That they are to be found in Holy Writ is, however, undeniable. The web site of the Archdiocese of Detroit helpfully lists several biblical references for each of the fourteen works of mercy.

For all these works, their necessity arises from circumstances. Those damned in Matthew 25 were damned because they refused the works of mercy when they had occasion to perform them. In other words, a clear moral obligation presented itself and they failed to meet it. To cite another example, the priest and the levite who passed by the man who fell among robbers in the Parable of the Good Samaritan each committed a sin of omission, while the Samaritan himself performed a good deed and was therefore “neighbor” to him that fell among the robbers. Literally, in English, a neighbor is one who is nigh, that is, “near.” In this parable, the occasion is presented, the good deed is refused, a sin is committed. Alternatively, a good deed is done — and for the right motive — and a meritorious good work is successfully completed, leading to a reward on judgment day.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out:

The doing of works of mercy is not merely a matter of exalted counsel; there is as well a strict precept imposed both by the natural and the positive Divine law enjoining their performance. That the natural law enjoins works of mercy is based upon the principle that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us.

Saint Thomas affirms the obligatory character of the works of mercy in his reply to the question, “Is the giving of alms a matter of precept?