Does mercy replace justice?

A Pilgrim’s Notes

Fausto Gomez OP

The Extraordinary Holy Year Christians are celebrating focuses on mercy, on the virtue of mercy, which is a moral virtue and an effect of the virtue of charity. What happens to the virtue of justice? Does mercy replace justice? 

In Sacred Scriptures, justice is justice/love and love is love/justice. The merciful love of Jesus goes beyond and above justice, but it presupposes justice, which is mini-charity, mini-compassion. Justice in Christian perspective is charitable and merciful justice.

“Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36), Jesus says. How is the mercy of God our Father? Divine justice is different from human justice; it is a “superior justice” (Mt 5:20), the justice Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the justice of the father of the prodigal son and not the justice of the elder son (Lk 15:11-32), the justice of the owner of a vineyard who sends workers to his vineyard and at the end of the day, regardless of the number of working hours, pays the same wages to all (Mt 20:1-16).  This kind of justice is mercy with justice, merciful justice. “God’s mercy works above his justice, not against it” (St Thomas Aquinas). His mercy is the root and plenitude of justice. He being just, St John of the Cross writes, “you feel that He loves you and gives gifts justly.”

In our world everybody talks of justice – of “human justice” – but often many practice it, in a cruel, vengeful and unforgiving way, that is, in an unjust way. The saying “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38) is a failure of an authentic justice. It is, as St. John Paul II writes, “a distortion of justice in the past, and today’s forms continue to be modeled on it.” In our world, this “alleged justice” continues unabated: “the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights” (Dives in Misericordia, DM, 12). Justice needs mercy to be purified. One of Dostoevsky’s characters tells another: “You have justice, but you lack compassion, and therefore you are unjust.” St Thomas Aquinas says that mercy without justice is foolishness and justice without mercy is cruelty.

True human justice is not just giving to another what is his or hers. It is more radically “giving” to others their rights, including the right to life, to freedom, to education, to pursue happiness. True justice is equality and harmony. In Christian perspective, justice demands moreover that all have a share in the goods of creation created by God for all (Vatican II, GS, 69).

Justice needs love to be full and perfect justice. Justice in itself – and its language “I” and “mine” – is cold, while love – and its language “we” and “ours” – is warm. Mercy adds to the cold relationship of justice the warm, open relationship of love. For the Christian, justice – like all other saving virtues – is a mediation of charity or love, which is the “form” of all virtues.

In his wonderful Encyclical Letter Dives in Misericordia, St John Paul II states that “mercy differs from justice,” “justice serves love,” and love is greater than justice “in the sense that it is primary and fundamental.”  He adds: “The relationship between justice and love is manifested in mercy.” Jesus, the Sinless One, took upon himself our sins and died on the Cross for them and thus “paid” for us to God: divine justice is rooted on mercy and flows in merciful love (DM, 4-5, 7-8). Indeed, authentic mercy is “the most profound source of justice.” In a true sense, mercy is “the most perfect incarnation of equality” and therefore of justice, too. Love includes justice and moves to mercy “which in its turn reveals the perfection of justice” (DM 8). “Is justice enough?” It is not: merciful love is needed to shape human life in its different dimensions (DM 12).

In his excellent first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (DCE), Pope Benedict XVI speaks powerfully and clearly on the relationship between justice and charity (and mercy), and the need of having the latter to purify and practice the former. Working for a just social order is the central task of politics. Indirectly, however the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (DCE 28). The central role of the Church in society is caritas as love of neighbor, which means “love and concern for the other” (DCE, 7-8, 15). There will always be “the need for the service of love.” Even the most just State will not be able to provide “loving personal concern.” The Pope Emeritus adds: There is “necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor,” as in the loving and merciful life of Christ. Indeed, “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave” (DCE 18).

In His lovely Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus (MV), Pope Francis underlines that mercy is above justice, but there cannot be true mercy without justice, which is the first step – “necessary and indispensable.” He added later: “In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will” (Christmas Eve Homily, December 24, 2015).  But justice is not enough to have even a truly just world, mercy that surpasses justice is needed (MV 10, 20-21).

Does mercy replace justice? Certainly not! Mercy and justice meet! The prophet Micah tells us: “This is what the Lord asks of you, only this: ‘To act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with the Lord’” (Mi 6:8). 

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