Shortly before his death, Pope St. John Paul II prepared a homily for the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday. As Providence would have it, he died on the vigil of the great feast of mercy and never actually gave the homily. For this reason we can look at this homily almost like it was the Saintly Pope’s last will and testament. What was his last testament? “How much the world needs to understand and accept divine mercy!” Notice how the Pope didn’t merely say that the world needed to accept divine mercy, but also to understand it. In essence, Saint John Paul II thought we both needed to engage both head (understand) and the heart (accept). All of us want to have God’s mercy realized in our life, but according to the Divine Mercy Pope we first need to understand the truth of God’s mercy before it can be realized in our lives.
One of the reasons we do not understand it is because it gets caught up with God’s justice. In what has become somewhat commonplace, the less traditionally minded have attempted to do away with God’s justice altogether and focus solely on His mercy. On the other hand the more traditionalist leaning among us often can only see justice and mercy as two different sides of God. As long as you stay on His good side and avoid His bad side, you will receive mercy rather than justice.
In truth these two are not in opposition to each other. In a typically Catholic fashion—embracing both/and rather than either/or—we can say that God is both just and merciful at the same time. Each of us, regardless of our eternal destination, receive both mercy and justice.
If we can make a distinction regarding God’s attributes then we can begin to gain insight into the relationship between justice and mercy. St. Thomas distinguishes between those attributes which relate to God’s being (i.e. what He is) and those related to His operation (what He does). Those properties belonging to His being are things like unity, immensity, goodness, etc. With respect to His operations we have things like wisdom and love with its two virtues justice and mercy. Since God is by nature good (or to be more theological accurate Goodness itself), He loves only one thing—goodness. It is this love of the good that links justice and mercy in such a manner that they cannot be opposed to each other.
Justice is to render to each his due. Because we recognize that God can be the debtor to no one, we tend to only equate justice with punishment. But this is only a partial aspect of justice. From all eternity God is just so “before” creation He was just and there was no one to punish. This is because God is first and foremost just to Himself. God in being just to Himself decreed that there should be fulfilled in creatures both what His will and wisdom require and what most makes His goodness known. In other words, God is just towards His creatures by giving them all they need (c.f. Mt 6:25-34) primarily because He is acting justly towards Himself. While punishment is part of justice, it does not exhaust it. Truth be told, it is only a fraction.
While Justice renders to each His due, God’s mercy is the foundation of the divine love of mankind. To distinguish between justice and mercy, St. Thomas point out that when “a man’s love is caused by the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice but when loves causes the goodness in the beloved then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is presented here as the root of the divine love.” It is mercy that is the cause of all that is good in us. So mercy is not only about forgiving our sins but a recognition that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).
It is not just in opposing justice and mercy that we err. There is also a tendency to put justice somehow above mercy, when it is exactly the opposite. First, mercy precedes justice. Out of a superabundance of goodness, God made man and woman the crown of visible creation because of their innate capacity for friendship with Him. If He has to reward us for anything it was first because He was merciful in creating us.
Second, St. Thomas suggests that if we look at justice and its three acts we can see how mercy is what he calls “love’s second name.” First, God’s justice consists in giving what is necessary for each creature to reach the end it was made for. We have all that we need to reach our natural end of virtue. But in His mercy He provides us with more—namely all that we need to reach the supernatural end He desires to give us.
Justice also rewards each according to his merits. But our reward far exceeds what we our owed. Being natural creatures we can never, no matter how good we act, reach the share in His divinity that God is offering us. He must bestow this capacity upon us. Even if Mary remained sinless throughout her life, if she did not have sanctifying grace that was given to her, she could never have been made Queen of Heaven. Heaven is not a reward for the good people. It is the true home of the holy people that God has made. Only God is holy and only He can bestow Holiness on us.
Justice also has to do with inflicting punishment. But mercy trumps justice. This is where the head and the heart must meet. Mercy is the “sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own.” This sorrow is not merely affective but effective. Its effect is to endeavor to dispel the misery of the other. And this is why Our Lord is truly Mercy Incarnate. He took our misery at if it was His own in order to dispel it.
We may think sometimes that God could have merely “cooked the books” in sending His Son. But there could be no mercy without justice. Justice is not merely superfluous because of mercy. Why? Because they both have the same “source,” namely, God’s love for the Good. If the created order is “very good” and sin has violated the order, then God’s love (i.e. mercy) demands its restoration (justice). Despite our human efforts (especially recently) to the contrary, the misery must be acknowledged as such and its source must be repaired in order for the action to be merciful. Mercy requires that there be some actual misery to be overcome.
The movement to the heart from here has been recently navigated by St. Therese and her Little Way and she can serve as our guide.
“I know well that it is not my great desires that please God in my little soul, what He likes to see is the way I love my littleness and my poverty; it is my blind hope in His mercy, this is my only treasure…. The weaker one is, without desires or virtues the more ready one is for the operations of this consuming and transforming love…. God rejoices more in what He can do in a soul humbly resigned to its poverty than in the creation of millions of suns and the vast stretch of the heavens.”
The Gospel is only truly Good News for the captives, namely the “little ones.” Justice demands we acknowledge our misery so that mercy can be activated. By trusting in His promise and never giving in to discouragement, we too can become great saints. St. Therese, Pray for Us!