Justice and Mercy on the Way to Love

by | Apr 17, 2016 | Formation, Reflections


In the previous meditation, we embarked on an exploration of the somewhat tense if not actually tortured relationship between mercy and justice.  We also highlighted the various “station stops” we would make along the way.  This first such “station stop” simply seeks to examine some of the major themes considered in Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction (Misericordiae Vultus) especially as articulated in sections 20 and 21.

Francis is hardly the first pope in living memory to highlight the tension between the two.  St. John Paul II examined it in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia (#12 “Is Justice Enough?”) and Pope Benedict XVI examined the same theme in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (#26-29 “Justice and Charity”).  While cognizant of those two encyclicals (and recognizing that a papal encyclical weighs more heavily than a Bull of Indiction) we shall focus primarily on the Pope Francis’ Bull.

First, Francis notes that God’s mercy and justice do not oppose or contradict one another but rather they are “but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fulfillment of love.”  Francis speaks of justice as a “fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law.”  Justice ensures that each individual receives that which she or he is due.  Mercy, however, while not opposing justice exceeds it.  In biblical terms, justice entails observance of the Law.  Such an approach, however, tends towards the very real risk of legalism (which quickly begets self-righteousness).  Francis suggests a far more profound understanding of biblical justice: “To overcome this legalistic perspective, we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to the will of God.”

As testimony to this perspective Francis highlights Jesus’ emphasis on faith over and above the observance of the law.  Here Jesus in Matthew 9:13 references Hosea 6:6: I desire mercy/love not sacrifice.  Francis also highlights Paul’s emphasis on salvation as arising not from the observance of the law but from faith in Jesus Christ.

Here Francis links mercy and justice in a quite proximate and possibly even singular identity.  To put it in a nutshell: “faith in the death and the resurrection of Jesus brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies.” To put it even more simply: mercy justifies.  Referencing Psalm 51: 11-16 Francis states: “God’s justice is his mercy.”  He returns to this idea towards the end of section 21: “God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

By way of theological interlude here we must recall that all this talk of God’s mercy in relation to God’s justice must abide by general observations concerning the very possibility of any God-talk.   First, God always and everywhere remains incomprehensible mystery.  Recall St. Augustine of Hippo’s little dictum: If I’ve understood, it is not God.  Recall Lateran IV’s dictum: Any similitude between Creator and creature, always presumes an even greater dissimilitude.  Recall St. Thomas Aquinas’ dicta: Concerning God we cannot grasp what God is but only what God is not, and how God stands in relation to other creatures” (SCG); and “A creature can be spoken of as in some sort like  God but not that God is like a creature” (ST).  Given the linguistic and conceptual abyss the point is clear: in grappling with all this we need remarkable shyness.   Second, all this talk must bear in mind God’s simplicity; when taking God “apart” we must exercise caution.

This ushers in the question: If justice is not simply superfluous nor in opposition to mercy, than what is the relationship between the two especially as they pertain to God?  Francis puts the matter rather succinctly: mercy does not oppose justice but “surpasses justice.”  A limping analogy might be: justice jumpstarts love but it is not enough in itself to journey towards the fullness of love.  Something more is required, namely mercy.  In Francis’ words: “God does not deny justice.  He rather envelops it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.”

Here Francis notes two point of significance.  First, “mere justice is not enough.”  Paradoxically an appeal to mere justice often issues into its destruction.  Long-range human wisdom based on experience seems to suggest this.  As St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew: justice without mercy often issues into vengeance.  That being said Francis seeks not to devalue justice.  He bluntly notes: “anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price.”  Hence, mercy is not another name for anarchy and lawlessness.  Though he does not chase the application of the idea in section 21, the meaning and dynamics of “paying the price” deserves some consideration.  Surely something beyond retribution is implied, namely, rehabilitation.  Or as Francis puts it: “this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God.”  Or as the great woman mystic Julian of Norwich might put it: first there is the fall, then there is the recovery from the fall; both are the mercy of God.”

Francis does not here discuss the issue of justice in relationship to mercy vis-à-vis, for instance, those who have committed serious crimes.  He does, however, explore the topic in a wonderful book entitled The Name of God Is Mercy.  The book narrates Francis’ response to a series of questions pertaining to God’s mercy.  The question is put to the Holy Father: “May I ask how you conciliate earthly justice with mercy, especially as regards those who are stained by serious misdeeds and terrible crimes?”  In part Francis responds:

Where there is mercy, justice is more just and it fulfills its true essence.  This does not mean that we should throw open the doors of the prisons and let those who have committed serious crimes loose.  It means that we have to help those who have fallen to get back up.  It is difficult to put this into practice and sometimes we prefer to shut a person in prison for his whole life rather than trying to rehabilitate him and helping him find his place in society.

Oddly (at least to this meditating mind and heart) Pope Francis does not mention the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16) in these two sections of the Bull.  (He does note the importance of the “parables of mercy in MV #9 but this particular parable is not noted.)  Given that one possible (though not exclusive) interpretation of this parable allows for understanding the extravagance of God’s mercy beyond but not in opposition to the requirements of justice it would make for excellent meditation:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’  So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’   When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’  When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’  He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.* Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’  Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s mercy and generosity is spacious beyond a mere accumulation of “works” or activity (and possibly beyond vice as well).  It makes one think!