Mercy is the ‘fullness of justice’?

Eduardo J. Echeverria, Ph.D. | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Recently, in Pope Francis’s first interview with an Italian television channel, he stated, “Justice and mercy in God are one thing. Mercy is just and justice is merciful.” How can justice and mercy be the same thing? If the justice of Jesus’ death on the cross has to do with the message of judgment for our sins, then how can mercy be the same thing as justice?

Perhaps attempting to clarify, the pope adds, “When Jesus forgives Zaccheus and has lunch with sinners, forgives Mary Magdalene, forgives the adulterous woman, forgives the Samaritan, what is he? Overgenerous? No. He is imparting God’s justice, which is merciful.” How is God just and at the same time merciful? Francis doesn’t say. Of course, mercy and justice meet at the cross; neither is excluded there because the cross is rather their mutual fulfillment.

This is not the first time that Pope Francis has spoken of justice and mercy. For example, in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he stated more clearly, “Mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth” (§311). Here, too, Francis does not explain what he means, in particular, with the claim that “mercy is the fullness of justice.”

Now, no biblically knowledgeable Christian would be surprised to hear Francis say that God’s mercy, which is revealed in the Incarnate Word’s atoning work, is not only the Light radiantly shining in the darkness (Jn 1:5), but also that it is the fullest revelation of God’s truth regarding man’s reconciliation with God (2 Cor 5:17-21). “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et spes §22).

Mercy and justice are one in Christ

I’d like to say something in support of Francis’s claim that mercy is the fullness of justice in order to help the reader of Amoris Laetitia understand, not only its important meaning, but also to show that Francis’s claim may be seen in the line of St. John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical Dives et Misericordia, and, furthermore, of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In describing mercy, St. Thomas uses the phrase “fullness of justice” in the following paragraph (Summa theologiae I, q. 21, a. 3):

“God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, buts acts liberally or mercifully. The case is the same with one who pardons an offence committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift. Hence the Apostle calls remission a forgiving; Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you (Eph 4:31). Hence it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof. And thus it is said: Mercy exalteth [triumphs] itself about judgment (Jas 2:13).”

Thomas makes several important points here in response to the question of the relationship of mercy to justice. First, God is not merciful at the expense of His justice. Mercy does not exclude His justice, nor is it opposed to it. Pope Francis shares this conviction in Misericordiae Vultus §21: “Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.” Second, Jesus atones for our sins by paying our debt, as it were, to God for sinning against his holiness and justice. In other words, Jesus makes perfect satisfaction for our sins. God’s justice cannot be understood without the righteous wrath of God, and His wrath, which is God’s holy displeasure, is motivated by the sins of men. Since man has sinned against God and is therefore guilty, God takes sin seriously and hence man’s guilt against God, holding man responsible for it.

Third, the reality of God’s mercy does not undermine the reality of His wrath against man’s sin. In and through the atoning work of Christ, God the Father not only forgives us our sins, wiping away our guilt, having Christ compensate for them by his sacrificial death on the Cross. But also God the Father acts liberally or mercifully such that mercy realizes fully the aim of justice, which is to restore our relationship with God, and in that sense is the fullness of justice. Therefore, God’s justice and mercy (the latter being an expression of love) are, in that sense, but one, simultaneously revealed in the reality of the Cross. In that sense, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).

Fourth, God acts liberally, or mercifully, because He is love (1 Jn 4:16). Indeed, the love of God sets mercy in motion — mercy is the face of God’s love turned toward sinners, searching them out, and offering them pardon and salvation through Christ’s atoning work, a redemption that reveals the fullness of justice. As John Paul II puts it, “love is ‘greater’ that justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love.” He adds: “The primacy and superiority of love vis-à-vis justice — this is a mark of the whole of revelation — are revealed precisely through mercy” (DM §4). Of course this is a constant theme throughout Pope Francis’s proclamation of the Gospel.


The cross: The key that unlocks the mystery

In sum, the cross takes our sins away because it is the act of God’s gracious judgment on Christ for our benefit: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Furthermore, the basis of this act is divine love: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5). Again, in that sense God’s merciful love brings the aim of justice to fulfillment, because God was in Christ reconciling us to himself, and hence mercy is the fullness of justice’s aim, and is, therefore, its perfection as well as its profound source.

Now, John Paul II refers to mercy with the phrases I used in the conclusion of the last sentence, namely, “perfection of justice” (DM §8), “most profound source of justice,” and the “fulfillment of justice” (DM §14). Insightfully, John Paul says the relationship between mercy and justice is such that “love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice — precise and often too narrow” (DM §5). Too precise? Because the standards of justice would only give us what we truly deserve for breaking them. Too narrow? Because if it was only about justice — of course, it is certainly about divine justice — Christ would only pay satisfaction for our sins. But rather, as we saw above, justice serves divine love, which is a love that is revealed through mercy. Indeed, as John Paul says, “Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends toward it. . . .[T]his justice, which is properly justice ‘to God’s measure’, springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love [through the power of the Holy Spirit]” (DM §7).

So both justice and mercy have their origin in God’s holy love. Pope Francis explains that “these [justice and mercy] are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love” (Misericordiae Vultus §20). God’s love is the single reality that unfolds dynamically throughout salvation history in the dimensions of justice and mercy with these two harmoniously and simultaneously coming together supremely in the cross. In this way, mercy is the fullness of justice — the perfection of justice, the most profound source of justice, and the fulfillment of justice — because mercy triumphs over judgment, granting man “access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God” (DM §7). Thus, by restoring man to God, the loving mercy of God also restores man to himself and to his relationship with his fellow man (see DM §14). So, Pope Francis is right that mercy is the fullness of justice.

Eduardo J. Echeverria, Ph.D., S.T.L., is a professor of philosophy and systematic theology for Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.