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Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

(Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace)

184. The Church's love for the poor is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, by the poverty of Jesus and by his attention to the poor. This love concerns material poverty and also the numerous forms of cultural and religious poverty. The Church, "since her origin and in spite of the failing of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defence and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere"… with countless works of corporal and spiritual mercy. "Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God", even if the practice of charity is not limited to alms-giving but implies addressing the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty. In her teaching the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice..."

208. Social and political charity is not exhausted in relationships between individuals but spreads into the network formed by these relationships, which is precisely the social and political community; it intervenes in this context seeking the greatest good for the community in its entirety. In so many aspects the neighbour to be loved is found "in society", such that to love him concretely, assist him in his needs or in his indigence may mean something different ...It is undoubtedly an act of love, the work of mercy by which one responds here and now to a real and impelling need of one's neighbour, but it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one's neighbour will not find himself in poverty, above all when this becomes a situation within which an immense number of people and entire populations must struggle, and when it takes on the proportions of a true worldwide social issue.  

Life in the Tension: Love, Mercy, & Justice

By Douglas Culp

Our Catholic faith demands that we live in the tensions that constitute the fullness of the truth and the tension of love, mercy and justice is no exception. If we are to maintain our balance, we must have a clear understanding of each of these terms and their proper relationship to one another. 

To Each Their Due

The Catechism (1807) describes justice as a cardinal, or human, virtue that “consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” To God, we owe love with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind (cf. Mt 22:37). This means that the right relationship, or just relationship, with God is a relationship of adoration and obedience because Jesus taught us that keeping God’s commandments is how we love God, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

The same passage of the Catechism outlines our duty to our neighbor:  justice disposes a person to “respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.” Again, justice is about right relationships and the role of justice would then be to preserve and restore properly ordered relationships.

Since we can only be in a right relationship with God if we obey the commandments to love God, we can only be in right relationship with God if we love our neighbor. Right relationship with God necessitates a right relationship with our neighbor. 

Breaking the Tension

In his 1980 encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, Saint Pope John Paul II describes how the yearning for justice can go awry when it is removed from its tension with love and mercy. He first affirms the Church’s support of the ardent desire to correct unjust relationships – whether between individuals, social groups and classes, individuals and states, or even entire political systems. 

However, he continues by observing very often programs that start from the idea of justice can be overpowered by “other negative forces…such as spite, hatred and even cruelty” under the banner of justice. When this happens, “the desire to annihilate the enemy, limit his freedom, or even force him into total dependence” overshadows justice and its natural tendency “to establish equality and harmony between the parties in conflict.”

The experience of the neighbor being “destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights” in the name of justice illustrates the danger of isolating justice from the tension of love, which by nature excludes hate and ill-will, mercy and justice. According to Saint Pope John Paul II, it is this shadow side of justice alone that gave rise to the saying, “summum ius, summa iniuria” (the greater the right, the greater the wrong).

The Unconditional Condition

Love is the theological virtue by “which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (CCC 1822) In other words, love is both the new commandment and the virtue by which we keep the commandments that Christ gave us. It is the greatest of the virtues because it disposes us to participate most intimately in the life of God, who is love itself. 

This means that love is greater than justice in that it is primary and fundamental, as Saint Pope John Paul II writes in Dives in Misericordia. Again, justice “consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor” – which is to keep the commandments to love God and neighbor. Consequently, love conditions and orders justice, which, in turn, serves love. Put another way, without love, justice is rendered ultimately incapable of establishing or restoring right relationships between God and humanity or between neighbors. In fact, as we have already seen, without love, justice can actually destroy the possibility of right relationships. 

Oh Mercy, Mercy Me

The question of power lies at the core of the concept of mercy. Mercy is only conceivable when a relationship exists in which one party has power over another. In order to be merciful, one must have power over the one to whom mercy is shown.

Now, throughout our tradition, one of the attributes that has been assigned to God is that of omnipotence. We read in the Old Testament how the prophets often approached the Divine with fear and trembling in deference to this power. In fact, so great is the power of God that when Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory, God answered, "I will make all my beauty pass before you. ... But my face you cannot see, for no one sees me and still lives" (Exodus 33:19-20).

One implication that follows is in order for us to exist, God must withhold or protect us from the sheer power of His Being -- otherwise, we would be completely consumed. In this way, we are at the mercy of God, for God has all the power. That God exercises this power by constraining rather than asserting it may seem peculiar or contradictory to worldly thought. Yet, this is the key to teaching the proper spirit and use of power for Christians.

That the humility of love is real power can be seen in the case of Jesus Christ, simultaneously the incarnation of God’s love for humanity and His power. We are told that Christ, the Word of God, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, emptied Himself to take the form of a human being and accepted death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:7-8) so that we might be brought to life with Christ (cf. Eph 2:5) and share in the divine life of the Triune God. God chose to not only exercise His power by constraining it so that we might have life, but God then emptied Himself and submitted to death so that we might have life more fully with God.  

Love, Mercy & Justice

The mercy of Christ reveals the love of the Father is more primary and fundamental than the Father’s justice. Mercy, in the words of Dives in Misercordia, “signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity” of the world. In fact, “love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice – precise and often too narrow.” 

However, this does not mean that justice is forgotten. On the contrary, in overcoming sin, love transformed into mercy restores right relationships, or justice, by restoring the dignity and value of the offending party. Furthermore, mercy actually calls the sinner to conversion, the most concrete expression of the presence of mercy. Consider Luke 7:36-50. While Jesus is dining at the house of a Pharisee, a sinful woman stands behind him bathing his feet with her tears and anointing them with oil. When the Pharisee objects, Jesus replies, “her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  

Of course, it is in the Paschal Mystery that the fullness of mercy is revealed. Mercy, or love transformed, alone is “able to justify [humanity], to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning.” 

And so we end were we began. Our Catholic faith demands that we live in the tension of love, mercy and justice. As Saint Pope John Paul II so eloquently put it, “Believing in the crucified Son means ‘seeing the Father,’ means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy.” And true mercy is the most profound source of justice.