Are the Works of Mercy a Matter of Justice?

Continuing the general subject of the last Ad Rem, I would like to reply to this second question about Mercy. We are, after all, in the “Year of Mercy,” and some things should be gotten straight about this gravely misunderstood virtue.

The answer to the title question is yes.

Let me begin my explanation by saying that I do not suggest changing the name from “Works of Mercy” to “Works of Justice.” Besides the fact that the traditional name is canonized in the Catholic lexicon of wisdom and is therefore sacrosanct, there is another compelling reason to keep the traditional name: It distinguishes these acts from other acts of justice by clearly naming their motive force: human misery.

I assume that the motivation behind the question is the contrasting nature of mercy and justice, with mercy being conceived of as a reprieve or relief from the full rigors of justice. If we limit ourselves to this understanding of mercy, there would seem to be a contradiction — or at least some confusion — entailed in a work of “mercy” being something that is demanded in strict “justice.”

But the essential note of the virtue of mercy, as explained by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas, is sympathy for the misery of another, with the consequent offering of succor — which is to say, help. We have a strict obligation in justice to show that sympathy and give that succor when the occasion arises and we are able to do so. It is a question of justice not because we have contracted a debt with the person in need, but because of the moral law of God which demands it. Again, reasoning from the fact that those who failed to perform works of mercy are to be damned by the Just Judge in the General Judgment (remember Matthew 25?), it strictly follows that certain of those works of mercy do oblige in justice.

A work of mercy may or may not be a work of supererogation (i.e., a work not strictly obligatory, but done “over and above” that which is required). Where a work of mercy is a work of supererogation, it does not strictly oblige, but becomes an occasion of abundant growth in merit.

Apparently the false dichotomizing of justice and mercy — all too common now — is nothing particularly new. I mention this because, in his commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Saint Thomas says, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; [and] justice without mercy is cruelty.”

What wisdom in those few words!

Justice and mercy do not contradict each other at all, but, rather, complement each other in a variety of ways. For instance, certain spiritual works of mercy (e.g., to admonish sinners, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful) involve assisting people in the means to setting themselves right with God. By teaching someone God’s law, admonishing him when he is sinning, or encouraging him when he is in doubt along the way, we help someone to do good, and thereby to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. The merciful man tells his friend, as Jesus did, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice” (Luke 12:31).

The merciful man helps to pick up the miserable man from the mire of his misery to enter the state of grace. Grave sin is spiritual misery and the state of grace is also called the state of justification. Those in the state of grace are called “just.”

In the true Religion, justice and mercy not only cannot, but do not exist without one another.

This is why all this vague and amorphous talk of “accompaniment, reconciliation and integration” emanating from the recent Synod’s progressivist party is so very diabolical. It is not directed to setting people right with God. It is therefore neither just nor merciful.

The mercy lauded in Holy Scripture is either a divine attribute or a human virtue. As a divine attribute it is perfectly in conformity with God’s justice. In fact, in God, justice and mercy are attributes that can only be logically distinguished; they have no real distinction in the divine essence Itself which is perfectly simple and not composed of parts. As a virtue of men, mercy is not a mere sentiment or emotion. The pure, unchecked emotion of mercy can lead us to be unjust, in the same way that any unchecked emotion can. Here, “conformity to reason” — a touchstone of perennial wisdom on the virtues — is of utmost importance.

God Himself shows us mercy by giving us His grace. That grace, in turn, makes us “just,” or right with Himself. In Christ, “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed” (Ps. 84:11).

And Our Lord enjoins us to imitate Himself by offering sublime divine promises: “He that followeth justice and mercy, shall find life, justice, and glory” (Prov. 21:21); and “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7).