How is this possible? Mercy and Justice are the same in God.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 12, 2016

In the sixth of his Wednesday catecheses on mercy, Pope Francis explained that “God’s justice is mercy.” This is not a new idea, but it is worth our reflection. And since it is part of the mystery of God, there are definitely multiple ways of looking at it.

The particular insight Francis chose to emphasize is that God’s mercy always elicits justice. God wants all of us to be just, to live in justice, to share in His own perfection. The way he converts us to this justice is through the gift of His mercy:

There is then another way of doing justice, which the Bible presents to us as the royal road…. It is a process that avoids recourse to the tribunal and allows the victim to face the culprit directly and invite him or her to conversion…. Only in this way can justice triumph, because thus, if the culprit acknowledges the evil done and ceases to do it, the evil is no more; and he who was unjust becomes just….

Divine mercy is in one sense the same as Divine justice, in that the former actually initiates us into the latter.

Justice leads to mercy too

This is as far as Pope Francis goes in one brief audience, but we can see that the identity between mercy and justice is strengthened in that the relationship goes both ways. Not only does mercy draw the sinner to justice, but justice draws the sinner to mercy.

What I mean is this: Typically we become aware that something is missing in our lives, that we do not enjoy perfect goodness, that we are suffering in some way, that in fact we are not presently fulfilled by perfect happiness. This emptiness which gnaws at our very being is itself a manifestation of God’s justice. It is something that we experience as a deficiency or a discontent as long as we are not perfectly united with God (whether we recognize the cause or not). But when God touches us with his mercy, we experience something like a profound relief, and we are strongly drawn into His presence.

It is primarily pride which impedes the process. It is pride which causes us to regard ourselves as better, fuller and more complete than we really are, and to close ourselves from those (including God) who might wish to draw us into somethings deeper, richer, fuller. God may well prod us through the afflictions he sends or permits. We may, of course, grow angry with God. But when we recognize the perfect justice of our own insufficiency apart from God, we can begin to appropriate His mercy.

We are led by God’s justice into His mercy, and we are led by His mercy to share His life of perfect justice.

Acts of Justice are Acts of Mercy

We can also see how particular acts of justice are actually also acts of mercy, because the ultimate purpose of justice is to restore goodness wherever goodness is lacking. Each time God punishes, either through His active or permissive will, it is because it is the best way to bring us to greater goodness. Thus do all saints recognize suffering as a gift. As we grow in holiness, we more easily recognize each cross as an act of mercy.

Each act of God in our lives gives us a fresh opportunity to come to our senses and turn (or turn more) to Him, in ever-growing perfection. Exactly the same thing is true when a human parent disciplines his children. We discipline imperfectly, of course, and sometimes even from mixed motives, but—as with God’s justice and mercy—the whole point is to treat the child in the way most likely to work for his good. In this sense, every parental act of justice is an act of mercy.

In contrast, when parental actions are determined by our own comfort or worldly aspirations, we are exhibiting what spiritual writers call “natural” love, a love that is not properly ordered toward the Good, which always includes the supernatural. In moral matters, just as in medical matters, when we facilitate another’s deterioration in the name of love, it means that we do not know what love is, or we lack the courage to love as we should.

Mercy and justice in God are intimately connected with love and, with respect to love, they are essentially the same thing. An act of love is always an act of mercy, even when it serves justice and takes the form of punishment.

What of Damnation?

The problem of the identity between God’s mercy and His justice tends to be difficult to understand only when it comes to the Last Things—namely, to Hell. We can see that eternal damnation can be just, but it is more difficult to grasp how it can be merciful. Centuries ago it was taken for granted that punishments for breaking the laws of man or God would be harsh, and that consignment to hell was perfectly compatible with the goodness of God. Our sensibilities, for better or worse (and probably in some ways both) are quite different at the present time.

Theologians have responded to this problem very differently. For example, St. Augustine proposed a “massa damnata” theory which suggested that the bulk of human persons, being both unjust and unjustified in the Christian sense, were damned. While Augustine also expressed other opinions (this was not his only word on the subject), he at least did not find this theory incompatible with God’s mercy. On the other hand, the brilliant twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, was so troubled by the problem of damnation that he raised the question of whether Catholics could dare to hope that all would be saved.

St. Paul states that “God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). It can hardly be heretical to hope for what God desires. But to assert that all will, in fact, be saved is the heresy of universalism. It seems unlikely to be true, when all the theological data is considered, and it certainly goes beyond what God has revealed.

Still, we can see some possible avenues of exploration. It may be a kind of mercy to forbear forcing the damned into the presence of God, which they so ardently desire to escape. It could be that the only awareness of God left open to such souls is an awareness of His absence. Could this be better than nothing? Or again, just as we can see that God does not cause our sins, either as punishments or rewards, so neither is damnation so much a Divine action as a personal choice, an act of free will which God has no choice but to permit in a creature capable of love.

What seems certain is that, apart from an absolute standard of the Good (that is, God), both mercy and justice become irrelevant concepts. Since God is one and simple, each quality we ascribe to Him actually describes the very same Divine plentitude considered under a single aspect more amenable to a finite mind. Logically, God’s mercy and God’s justice must be identical. But we can go only so far in plumbing the mystery of God. We cannot yet grasp all that we would like to know.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 13, 2016 11:38 AM ET USA

    loumiamo: Thanks for catching this problem. In editing the final draft, I swapped two parts of a sentence without removing some of the words that had been moved. I've corrected it now.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Feb. 13, 2016 8:03 AM ET USA

    Seems to be a typo I can't figure out in sentence just before "what of damnation?"

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Feb. 12, 2016 5:33 PM ET USA

    On von Balthasar's "hope that all will be saved," (a thorny issue!) you may be right if "hope" is taken in a weak sense. However, I do not see how capital-H Hope could take the salvation of all as one of its proximate objects. Some of the ideas you raise about the mercy of damnation seem irrelevant. There may be mercies shown to the damned, but those do not make the damnation itself merciful. Free will is the only way I see to make the two compatible. Still, thank you for another great essay.