The Complementarity of Justice and Mercy

Birgit - sacred heart

We have just celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday during the season of Easter, which can rightly be viewed as a season of mercy. Pope Francis has declared that the Church will celebrate a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning December 8, 2015. Through both the rhythm of the liturgical calendar and the guidance of our Holy Father we are prompted to reflect on the nature of mercy.

In many ways, mercy is often misunderstood. Mercy is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that excuses us from suffering or enduring the consequences of our failings. Instead, mercy is a salve of hope applied to our suffering. Peter failed miserably when he denied Christ three times. He felt guilt and self-loathing and suffered a painful separation from Christ. Jesus could have given up on Peter and said, “What a loser!” Who would blame him if he looked for someone more worthy to lead His Church? It was an outpouring of Christ’s mercy that allowed Peter to profess his love three times (John 21:15-19) and fully reconcile with Him.

This is the message of mercy we should take away from Easter. Christ lovingly took all past, present, and future sins upon his shoulders as he stretched out his arms on the Cross. Our sins, no matter how large or small, made the wounds in his hands and feet and pierced his Sacred Heart. Through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection Christ poured out his Divine Mercy so that no matter what, we are never beyond redemption. There is always hope for our salvation.

Which brings us to the hard part. Christ told us to “Love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). That could also be phrased, “Be merciful to one another as I am merciful to you.” Do we offer mercy to one another as Christ offers mercy to us? Or do we nurse our grudges and offenses and refuse to forgive and love? Do we put our self-interests first and avoid the sacrifice that would be required to show love and mercy?

This is a challenging road to walk because our fallen nature is very quick to cry out, “That’s not fair!” Our self-righteous indignation obstructs the path to mercy. Instead of mercy, we are on a quest for justice.

At the other end of the spectrum, mercy can be misconstrued to mean avoiding making others uncomfortable or avoiding confrontation. There is no talk of right and wrong or good and evil. There is no fraternal correction of destructive behavior. Such misguided approaches to mercy often ignore the root causes of suffering and just try to smooth the surface in the name of being “pastoral” or “non-judgmental”.

This is a false dichotomy. Justice and mercy are complementary, not antagonistic to each other. Seeking justice without mercy yields vengeance, not justice. Mercy without a sense of justice foments the tolerance of evil. There is nothing just about demeaning another human being and defiantly allowing him to go hungry because his hunger is the result of his own poor choices. There is also nothing merciful about enabling or encouraging this person to continue making the same poor choices so that he is perpetually hungry.

Fortunately, as is so often the case, the Church has already wrestled with this balance and developed guidelines to help us be authentically merciful. These teachings are commonly known as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and address mercy aimed at both physical and spiritual needs (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447). We are urged to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and bury the dead. But we are equally charged to admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, bear wrongs patiently, be willing to forgive, comfort the afflicted, and pray for both the living and the dead. We are called to alleviate bodily suffering but not at the expense of our eternal souls.

The upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy is the perfect time to explore the wisdom of both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Just as the agony of Christ was unavoidable to atone for our sins, each of us will have to carry our own crosses as we journey through this world. There will be times when we will need help carrying our cross, and times when we are able to help others carry their crosses. Our challenge will be to artfully blend justice and mercy, to foster repentance and conversion yet promote human dignity, and always convey hope.

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9 thoughts on “The Complementarity of Justice and Mercy”

  1. Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION - Big Pulpit

  2. Wonderful essay! You have hit the nail on the head and it is this sort of discussion which I have regularly with my students in Religion Class (at Catholic School). There is right and there is wrong, and the wrong is never right even if the majority of people says it is so. That is the stuff of moral courage. If there is not a permanent touchstone for determining right from wrong (e.g. 10 Commandments), then NOTHING can ever be wrong. It all becomes subjective and leads to the dangers found in totalitarian regimes.
    The Nazi Regime did not start out killing Jews. They started out by determining that some people were not worthy of life—the severely disabled—–and they put them to death. Very few people disagreed with them (the most notable exception was the Catholic Church under the brave, outspoken leadership of Cardinal Clemens von Galen–check out his speech of August 1941). It was morally wrong, but society had agreed that it was “a mercy” to put these lives to death. Then it expanded—slowly but surely.

    Tolerance means to accept various forms of goodness. It does not mean to accept evil. My husband and I chose to have a large family; others choose to have small families or to live a single life. All are good. But to choose intentional killing in any form, other than for self-defense, is always wrong. Once you begin to say that some killing is OK, then you have no argument against any other killing.

    Great article, thank you!

  3. ” Instead of mercy, we are on a quest for justice.”

    We are not on a quest for mercy, the world is on a quest for peace; and
    as the saying goes ” If you want peace work for justice.”

  4. There is a huge difference between respecting a difference in opinion and tolerating evil. I strive to always do the former. I hope never to do the latter.

  5. What is missing from this discussion is not justice, or mercy, but tolerance. Specifically, what is needed is a tolerance of an act, habit, lifestyle or worldview that you believe to be “sinful” but you know the other person does not believe to be wrong. Before you assume that the other person is misguided or has a poorly formed conscience, consider how misguided and scrupulous you might be. What a thought.

    1. There is a huge difference between respecting a difference in opinion and tolerating evil. I strive to always do the former. I hope I never do the latter. I would never stand by and allow a blind man to walk out into the middle of traffic assuming that is his choice to do so. Likewise, I cannot just stand by indifferent to the mortal danger sin poses to eternal souls. If I am true to my faith I must respond. Sometimes, but not always, my response is with words, hopefully offered with charity. Always my response includes prayer. The point of evangelization is not earthly power but the salvation of souls.

    2. “There is a huge difference between respecting a difference in opinion and tolerating evil.”

      I applaud your willingness to respect a difference of opinion. However, people like you all too often see what some would consider respecting a difference of opinion as the dreaded “tolerating evil”. We’re not talking about not warning a blind man that he is going to be run over or is walking off a cliff. We are talking about allowing a woman to have an abortion without trying to stop her, accepting same sex marriage, respecting the second marriage of a divorcee or a terminal patient’s right to die on her own terms, etc.

      These are all matters of respecting people’s personal decisions not matters of tolerating evil. The sooner people like you understand this, the sooner we will get rid of the intolerance that comes from overly religious people.

    3. That is an interesting phrase you keep using, “people like you”. As far as I know you and I have never met but you are lumping me into some nebulous broad brush category. Is that category female, Latina, Catholic, or some other generalization? The first step to truly respecting differences of opinion is to listen to each other as individuals with human dignity and avoid the bigotry of labels.

    4. “People like you” are those who live by the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is not intended to be an insult or an oversimplification of what it means to be Catholic. I just know what the Catholic Stand is on every contentious issue and disagree with most of it. I value the intelligent responses I get on this blog.

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