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"Love's Second Name"
Saint Thomas on Mercy


Fr John Saward

Except where otherwise indicated, references in parentheses are to Saint Thomas's Summa Theologiae.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
The Merchant of Venice

Portia speaks with the unmistakable voice of Christianity. Mercy is a grace, she says, a gift from above. It is not strained, it drops; it is not forced, it falls. And where it falls, it heals and blesses, both "him that gives and him that takes." Mercy is "an attribute to God himself," and when it is found among men, earth shows itself most like heaven. Nothing is more revealing of Shakespeare's Christian heart than his praise of mercy and his protest, in King Lear, at all "sharp-toothed unkindness." In both praise and protest England's greatest poet concurs with the Church's Common Doctor.

The quality of mercy not only engaged the mind of Thomas Aquinas, it graced his life. What struck his contemporaries was his unfailing kindness. In the conflicts of his career, he seems never to have exploited an opponent's weaknesses. In the cut and thrust of mediaeval disputation, there were always opportunities for invective. But that was not Saint Thomas's way. He attended only to the truth and avoided all judgement of persons; in him, in the words of the Psalm, mercy and truth really did meet (cf 85[84].11). On one occasion, during a philosophical debate, the Franciscan John Pecham (later Archbishop of Canterbtry) attacked him in an arrogant and overbearing manner. Thomas did not retaliate; according to Kenelm Foster, he remained throughout "unalterably humble, gentle, and courteous" (The Life of Saint Thomas). The mercifulness of Saint Thomas himself is to be remembered in all that follows. For here is a man who knows about mercy with that knowledge he himself calls "connatural"; he knows about it from the inside, as possessing it himself.



Saint Thomas considers human mercy as one of the effects of that principal act of charity which is dilectio (II-II.30). The discussion is a good illustration of the unslavish way in which Christian Thomas makes pagan Aristotle his own. Although the philosopher's study of pity provides the Angelic Doctor with much material for his psychological analysis, the principle that informs and organizes that material is a Christian theology of charity. Mercy was not universally perceived as a virtue in antiquity. For the Stoics, the habit of being moved by another's troubles was a vice: "the vice," says Seneca, "of a feeble soul." Cicero is cited by Augustine and Thomas as judging mercy to be the greatest of Caesar's qualities, yet in his Tusculana he seems to revert to the Stoic opinion that the wise man avoids misericordia. Even in Aristotle there remains a certain ambiguity, reflected famously in his enigmatic statement that the purpose of tragedy is the purgation and purification of fear and pity: is dramatic purgation a positive reordering of pity or merely it's elimination? The Poetics gives no ambiguous reply.

It is not Aristotle but Augustine who furrnishes Saint Thomas with his definition of mercy: "the compassion in our heart for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him" (II-II.30.1). It follows that mercy has two aspects, affective and effective. In its first as­pect, mercy is an emotion, the pity we feel for the plight of another. In its second, mercy is something we do, the positive action we take to help him.

According to Saint Thomas, misericordia means having a "miserable heart" (miserum cor) at the misery of another person. Misery, the opposite of happiness, is what a person experiences when he suffers against his will. So there are three levels of misery corresponding to the three ways in which men will. First, there is the distress of those who suffer from what goes against that most basic kind of willing: the natural appetite for existence and life. This is the misery of the sick man. It is natural to want to be healthy and to live; it is miserable when health and life are threatened. Next is the unhappiness of the suffering that goes against our free, premeditated choice, the trouble that comes by chance or accident or, as Thomas says, quoting Aristotle's Rhetoric, "when evil comes from where we had hoped for good." Finally, there is the misery that collides with the whole will of a person when he consistently pursues the good yet meets with nothing but evil. All of these unhappinesses move us to mercy, but the last most of all when, as Aristotle says, "misfortune afflicts a man who has not deserved it."

Saint Thomas asks whether it is a defectus that makes a person merciful. His answer is that human mercy is indeed grounded in the "defect" of universal human vulnerability. I have pity on my suffering brother because I too am subject to suffering. The old, the weak, and the wise tend to be merciful, because in their different ways they know how easily tribulation befalls us all. "Those, however, who reckon themselves happy and so powerful that no ill may befall them are not so compassionate" (II-II.30.2). The feeling of mercy is fellow-feeling. King Lear, having broken down in madness on the heath, eventually breaks through to mercy when at last he exposes himself "to feel what wretches feel." Now the extent to which we feel the misery of our fellow human beings as our own depends on how closely united to them we are in friendship, in charity. "The person who loves," writes Thomas, following Aristotle, "regards his friend as another self, and so he counts his friend's troubles as his own and grieves over them as if they were his own" (II-II.30.2). Charity has a decisive sway over mercy as over all other virtues, enlarging and ennobling it.


Mercy is pain at another's distress (I.95.3). If we consider such sympathetic pain on its own as just an affective reaction, it is hard to see it as virtuous. Compassion as a passion, a form of suffering, is not good in itself. It is only when we consider mercy concretely and relationally as compassion, suffering with, as a loving response to another person's troubles, that its praiseworthiness emerges. The feeling of compassion becomes the virtue of mercy when the feeling of pity is ordered according to the rule of reason. Mercy, to be virtuous, must be rooted in right reason, in the truth (II-II.30.3). It must engage the co-sufferer's will and prove itself in effective action. Here Thomas's doctrine is plainly distinguished from that of Aristotle. For Aristotle, compassion is first of all a passive sentiment, whereas for Thomas it is active, loving service. It is an immediate effect of charity, love in action.

But is mercy the greatest of the virtues? In itself, says Thomas, it is supreme, for of its very nature it implies a certain grandeur, a nobility. Effective mercy is the generous relief of need from one's own abundance, something, highly fitting to one who is greater. That is why having mercy is proper to God and manifests his omnipotence. Considered more concretely in terms of its possessor, it can only be said to be the greatest of the virtues if the one concerned is sovereign, with none above and all below him; someone, therefore, who can only give and not gain When he acts. As Portia says, "'Tis mightiest in the mightiest." Mercy is God's supreme attribute because, as the absolute superior, the self-existent Creator, he is never self-seeking but acts only with infinite liberality. If the possessor of mercy is not the greatest but has a superior, then his chief virtue will be what unites him to his superior. In man's case, charity unites him to his Creator and so is greater than mercy, which relieves the wants of his fellow creatures. On the other hand, where the virtues governing our relations with our fellow men are concerned, when we think of mercy toward our neighbour practised out of love for the merciful God, then mercy is the supreme virtue in man, too (II-II.30.4).


Mercy is God's distinctive mark. Portia knew this, too:

But mercy is above this sceptred
It is enthroned in the hearts of
It is an attribute to God himself.

Mercy is mightiest in the mightiest, supreme in the supreme, the mark of God's transcendent nobility. The mercy of the impassible God, however, cannot be an emotion or passion, something that happens to God or overcomes him. It is effective, not affective: God's mercy is his goodness coming to the aid of our misery, especially the misery of sin. It is not a pang or a shock but the positive action which God in his wisdom and love takes to remedy the deficiencies of his creatures, communicating to them a participation in his own perfections (I.21.3). As Thomas says in expounding Saint Paul's description of God as rich in mercy, "when love causes goodness in the beloved, it is love proceeding from mercy." And so God's mercy, "the root of divine love," is at the root of everything he does. In creation, redemption, and sanctification, God's mercy is manifested—his infinitely generous self-giving love, his unshakable desire to pour goodness into things, to enrich and beautify his creatures.

In recent years some writers, especially those influenced by process theology, have attempted to ascribe a univocal compassion to God, suggesting that God as God suffers with his creatures. This is misconceived on a number of grounds. First, it seems to equate the impassibility of the Creator with the heartless indifference so often found among his creatures. The thought seems to be that either one is emotionally affected by another's misfortune, or one is callously indifferent. But, as Michael Woods has shown in his major study of immutability in Saint Thomas, The Unchanging Love of God, this false opposition cannot apply to God: "God's infinite being transcends such either/or situations of limited creatures." Second, the process theory does not recognize that the essence of compassion, in man as in God himself, is not emotional experience but the constructive loving relief of human unhappiness. The heart of mercy is love. In the felicitous words of Pope John Paul II, mercy is "love's second name" (Dives in misericordia 7). God is said to be compassionate not because he is subject to suffering but because he overcomes it, because his love is more powerful than suffering and every form of evil. The boundless compassion of God is not some absurd divine Angst, but his love casting out and overcoming the misery of man. Finally, even if we could make sense of a divine suffering it could have no saving significance for us, for we suf­fer as men, not as gods. It is precisely and only the Incarnation that makes it possible for us to attribute suffering to God, though we must remember that God the Son suffers as man, in the human nature hypostatically united to him, while remaining absolutely impassible in his divine nature. It is precisely our suffering that the divine Word makes his own in order to redeem us.


It is above all the forgiveness of sins that demonstrates God's mercy. Saint Thomas loved the prayer which speaks of God displaying his almighty power "chiefly by showing mercy and forbearance." God's forgiveness of our sins is an act of omnipotence; his mercy is his love showing itself to be more powerful than evil. In fact, says Thomas in his treatise on grace, "forgiving men, taking pity on them, is a greater work than the creation of the world" (II-II.113.9). When we forgive one another, we only annul the vindictive justice that we would otherwise have inflicted; we control our anger, curb our resentment. What we cannot do is remit the fault itself. Sin is imputed to man as guilt inasmuch as it is voluntary. Since God alone can change the will and so move a person to penitence, God alone can remit sins. To err is human, to forgive really is divine. God's mercy is infinite, boundless in its reach, unlimited in its power to destroy sin and rebuild the sinner.


In man, Justice and mercy are two different virtues, but in God they coincide. Like all the divine attributes, they are identical with one another and with the divine essence, the only real distinction in God being that between the divine persons. Thomas therefore considers God's justice and mercy together in the same question (1.21). In fallen man "justice without mercy is cruelty, mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution" (In Mt 5.2). Human history is scarred with an apparently unending succession of savage judgements and unreasonable sympathies. But in God justice and mercy meet in the peace of his simplicity. Divine mercy does not detract from or destroy divine justice. When God acts mercifully, he does not act against, but above, justice: "The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is based on it" (L21.4). Beyond and underlying every act of divine justice with regard to man is the gratuitous love and mercy of God, without which man would not even be.

The rewarding of the good and the punishment of the wicked is a work of mercy as well as justice, because God' s rewards far surpass man's merits, and his punishments are far less than the sinner's guilt. In fact, God is more inclined to have mercy than to punish. Mercy is more his mark than punishment. Mercy is proper to God as God, whereas punishment is his only as taking account of our sins. God is merciful because of himself, but he punishes because of us. Had Lucifer and Adam not sinned, there would be no divine punishment, but there is always divine mercy precisely because God always is.

In arguing, in the Disputed Questions on Truth, that God is more properly merciful than punitive, Saint Thomas makes a distinction, inherited from Saint John Damascene, between God's "antecedent" and "consequent" will. God's antecedent will is that loving, merciful, fatherly will of which Saint Paul so often speaks. It is his eternal will, from "before the foundation of the world," to make us his adopted children and thus sharers in his divine life (cf Eph 1.3ff). It is his desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (cf 1 Tim 2.4). This is what God wills antecedently, that is to say, first and fundamentally. Now God in his mercy has given his rational creatures a wonderful liberty which he causes and never overrides. They are free to reject his love; they can even die spurning his mercy. And so by his consequent will God wills the punishment of his creatures—the eternal punishment of the damned, the temporal punishment of the just. God's consequent will is not really different from his antecedent will; it is in fact that same loving will as it takes into account his rational creatures' self-determined (and self-destructive) hostility. God's love is immutable. He loves, and never ceases to love, everything he has made. Indeed, according to Thomas, hating is one of the things it is impossible for the omnipotent God to do: even his hatred of evil is only his willing of good to be and of evil not to be. Divine punishment is the living fire of divine love as experienced by sinful man; it is torment for the damned, those who were made by the God of love for himself but who have turned irrevocably away from him, whereas for those holy souls whose surrender to him is not yet complete, the flame burns only to purify and heal. Not only purgatory, then, but hell too is the effect of divine mercy, for it was made, as Dante saw, by "the primal love" (Inferno 3).


God's mercy is shown above all in his liberation of man from the catastrophic miseries of sin and eternal perdition. What is more, in his merciful providence he is able to use the relative miseries of temporal adversity as an instrument of liberation: "God gives to just men the quantity of temporal goods and also of evils that helps them attain eternal life (I-II.114.10). To understand this hard saying, we should recall the co-ordination Saint Thomas envisages between suffering and sin. "The tradition of the faith," he says in the Disputed Questions on Evil (1.4), "holds that the rational creature would not be able to incur any evil in the soul or in the body unless a sin had taken place." Thomas is not intending to say, crudely and cruelly, that there is an exact correlation between suffering and sinfulness. What he is thinking of, first of all, is the link between suffering and original sin. There would be no suffering or death in this world were it not for the sin of Adam. God does not want his creatures to suffer. Suffering is an evil, the privation of a good, and so God does not, cannot, will it per se. In fact, he does nor even will the suffering of his incarnate Son for its own sake, but for the good of redemption.

It was because he did not want his creatures to suffer that God bestowed on them gratuitous gifts of impassibility and bodily immortality in the state of innocence. Adam, by his disobedience, lost those gifts for himself and for us, his sons and daughters, and so passibility and mortality now have the quality of penalty. The miseries of man are not God's doing; all have their origin ultimately in creaturely sin and folly. Nonetheless, these tragic ills which God does not want for themselves can, by his wisdom and mercy, serve to heal and help the sinner toward eternal life. Suffering is something we do not want. Sin, by contrast, is the act of doing what we want against the will of God. Sin disrupts the order of justice, wreaking havoc in the world. When the sinner is punished through suffering, order is restored. But not to the sinner. The sinner can only be reordered when he embraces the suffering with his will in satisfaction for his sin. The trouble is that this is precisely what a mere man by himself cannot do. No creature can make a satisfaction even remotely equivalent to the insult which sin offers to the divine majesty. No human person of himself can "do enough" to make up for sin's offensiveness which, says Saint Thomas, has a certain infinity because of the infinite dignity of the One offended. Human nature needs to be renewed, man needs to make satisfaction, yet both satisfaction and renewal are altogether beyond human power. It was to this tragedy of unredeemed man that God responded in the Incarnation. God the Father, rich in mercy, sent his Son in human nature, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, in order to set us free from sin by making superabundant satisfaction.

WE HAVE NOW ARRIVED AT THE christological centre of Saint Thomas's theology of mercy. Before proceeding further, I want to apply an insight of C.S. Lewis's to Thomas's discussion of the merciful co-ordination between sin and suffering. We were created by the Triune God to share his life of love, to share in the loving surrender of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Now, according to Lewis, because of self-will, self-surrender hurts us:

To render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own is in itself, whatever and however it is done, a grievous pain. Even in Paradise I have supposed a minimal self-adherence to be overcome, though the overcoming, and the yielding, would there be rapturous. But to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death. The Problem of Pain

These words offer an illuminating gloss on Saint Thomas's otherwise disconcerting remark that God's temporal punishments are a sign of great mercy. The debt of temporal pain due to forgiven sin has a restorative purpose. It re-establishes the order of justice; it brings home to the sinner the gravity of sin; but, even more important, it helps to wrest him from himself and educate him back into love. Charity, self-abandoning love of God and merciful love of neighbour, is a sharp ecstasy. The person who has faith and charity does not look on the unavoidable suffering of his life as willed per se by God. But he does see these pains, which God does not want for themselves, as providential opportunities for growing in love. For real loving means sharing, through the Spirit, in the crucified Son's surrender of himself to the Father. It costs nothing less than everything.



The supreme manifestation of divine mercy is the Incarnation. God did not abandon us to the power of sin and death, but gave us his Son to bear, and so bear away, all human misery. It is through the mercy, affective as well as effective, of his real human heart that Christ manifests the infinitely effective mercy of God. The eternal Son made true man is, in the words of B. de Margerie, "the humanly merciful mediator of the divine mercy of the Father" (Les Perfections du Dieu de Jésus-Christ). As Pope John Paul II says in Dives in misericordia (8), he "makes it incarnate and personifies it. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy." In his manhood the Son of God knows by experience the human misery which as God he knew from eternity by simple knowledge. God incarnate does not just know about human misery; he has felt it.

To bring us the effective mercy of the Father, God the Son became incarnate from the Virgin and thus capable of affective mercy. While remaining impassible in his divine nature, he assumed a passible human nature into the unity of his divine person, and in that human nature he felt true pity and pain, and really suffered for our salvation. In order to destroy sin, Christ as man took upon himself the suffering and death which flow from that primordial woe. The remedy for the wretchedness of fallen man is the Son of God's assumption of all those human defects which come from original sin and are not incompatible with perfect knowledge and grace.

In his treatise on the Passion, Saint Thomas tries to convey the breadth and depth of the Son's human miseries by which he brought us the mercy of the Father. He says that Jesus underwent every kind of human suffering: not every species of suffering (for many of these are mutually exclusive, eg, death by fire and death by drowning), but certainly every genus of suffering. He suffered at the hands of every kind of person; he suffered through the desertion of his friends, the blasphemies against his good name, in his body and soul, and in every part of his body and in all his bodily senses. Thomas says that the bodily and spiritual pain suffered by Our Lord in his Passion was the greatest pain possible in this present life. No human being has been more sensitive to pain than the Word made flesh:

His body was superbly put together, for it was formed miraculously by the operation of the Holy Spirit . . . and so his sense of touch, the sense through which we experience pain, was extremely keen. His soul likewise, by all its interior powers, perceived all the causes of sorrow with the greatest clarity. III.46.6

The chief cause of his interior, spiritual pain was the monstrous burden of the world's sins, for which he was making satisfaction by his Passion. In fact, says Thomas, the sinless Son of God, the Innocent Lamb, ascribed them to himself as if they were his own. He suffered from the sins of the world far more acutely than any penitent sinner ever could, because his pain proceeded from a greater wisdom and love. The greatness of what Christ suffers is explained by the greatness of the end for which he suffers, namely, mankind's liberation from sin. To remove the vast burden of the world's guilt the incarnate Son lovingly endures the vast burden of the world's pain.

The incarnate Son does not just suffer with us, alongside us, as a noble example; he is not merely one more sufferer in the procession of human misery. In some sense, he takes over from us onto himself the full weight of our burden. He suffers for us, putting himself in the place of human misery, so that we can be in his place and enjoy the happiness of the Father's house and heart. The merciful man, by his charity, treats his brother as another self, taking on his friend's troubles as if they were his own; our divine Redeemer is capable of a merciful friendship that takes on the pain and helplessness of all humankind. Through its hypostatic union with his divine person, Christ's humanity, without losing any of its concreteness, has a certain inclusiveness. He is our Head, and we are his members, forming together, as it were, a single mystical person (as Saint Thomas reminds us when trying to explain the universal efficacy of the redemption). As man, but because he is God, Christ our Head is able to identify more profoundly and more completely with human wretchedness than any ordinary man could ever do; all he does and all he endures as man has a universal scope. "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole" (Is 53.4-5). Obedient to the Father, loving us into the depths, Christ with his human will let the monstrous burden of the world's guilt fall upon him. All the pains merited by the sins of men he lovingly took upon himself, not as punishment but as reparation and satisfaction.


We cannot understand the mercy of the incarnate Word without reference to the purpose for which he took our frail flesh: to make satisfaction for our sins on the cross. Since man by himself was unable to make satisfaction for all human nature, God the Son became true man, and as true man made perfect satisfaction for the sins of the human race (cf III.2, 2) God as man did for man what man by himself could not do.

He needed to be a man in order to be able to make satisfaction; and he needed to be God, in order that having alone power over the whole human race, he might be able to make satisfaction for humanity.
Commentary on Hebrews 2.4

Redemption through satisfaction is a greater manifestation of mercy than one without it:

For man to be liberated through the Passion of Christ was in harmony with both his mercy and justice With justice, because by his Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race, and so man was liberated through the justice of Christ. But also with mercy, because since man by himself could not make satisfaction for the sin of all human nature . . . God gave his Son to be the satisfier . . . and in so doing he showed a more abundant mercy than if he had forgiven sins without requiring satisfaction. III.1.2

But what is "satisfaction"? The word and concept come from Roman law and provide Thomas with a useful analogy for understanding the saving mystery of the Lord's Passion. A person can be said to make satisfaction for an offence when he offers to the offended party something which that person accepts with a delight matching or outweighing his displeasure at the original offence. The offender "does enough" for the debt to be remitted. Despite the importance of satisfaction in his thinking, Saint Thomas is insistent that this, no more than any other concept drawn from ordinary experience, cannot exhaust the mystery of redemption.

"Saint Thomas," writes Hans Urs von Balthasar,

aligns four concepts, all of which perceive one aspect of the mystery, but all too need to be surpassed, all are mutually complementary. Each indispensable, each on its own insufficient; merit, satisfaction, sacrifice, redemption (or ransom). Au coeur du mystère rédempteur

The satisfaction which Jesus makes to his Father for the sins of the world is not only sufficient but superabundant. What explains this salvific prodigality? First, there is the greatness of the charity Our Lord showed in suffering for us. This is the key element in satisfaction. What makes pain satisfactory is love. What transfigures the Son's suffering into sacrifice is his loving obedience to the Father unto death, even death on the cross (cf Phil 2.8), and his generous love of man "to the end" (Jn 13.1). Christ's affective experience of human misery becomes effective mercy and satisfaction when he embraces that misery with all the love of his human heart. Then again, Christ's satisfaction is superabundant, overflowing, because of the intrinsic dignity of the life he lays down on Calvary. For this is the life of one who is God and man, the human life of a divine person. Christ's human actions and sufferings have an infinite saving value because the one whose actions and sufferings they are is a divine person. The third reason for the superabundance of Christ's satisfaction is the greatness of the pain he suffered, and its inclusiveness; Christ as our Head makes satisfaction "for all human nature." It is as bearing us all, as somehow sharing the pain and helplessness of every man, that Christ makes satisfaction for the sins of the world.

Satisfaction is not just the harsh demand of justice but a privileged gift, a mercy. A new and everlasting covenant established without satisfaction would have been one-sided. But God wanted a two-way covenant, one in which man, his free and rational creature, would be a committed partner. In so doing, the Father shows the richness of his mercy and his infinite respect for the dignity of man made in his image. It was far more glorious for man to restore his nature and destiny by his own acts than purely and simply to receive salvation. This human involvement has two moments. First, super­abundant satisfaction for all human sin is made by the man who is God, by the divine person of the Son in his human nature, through his human actions and sufferings, through his loving human will. Then he associates human persons in that victory over sin; he gives us, his members, grace to co-operate in our own salvation and our brethren's, by making satisfaction for our sins and theirs. We do not render atonement by our own unaided powers (to imagine so would be the delusion of Pelagius). No, the satisfaction of the members draws all its efficacy from the satisfaction of the Head.


Our merciful redeemer is our judge. Our judge is our merciful redeemer. It is significant, says Thomas, that when Our Lord speaks of coming again as judge, he refers to himself as Son of Man. There are various reasons for this. The first is that, if he came only in the form of his divinity, he could not be seen except by the good. Second, Christ comes again in the form in which he was judged by Pilate. Third, it is because of the clemency of God, so that men might be judged by a man. As it says in Hebrews 4.15, "we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses." It is in his humanity, crucified and risen, that the Son of God ascends to the Father, and it is in that same compassionate humanity that he comes again to judge the living and the dead. Our judge is our God, and he judges because he is God, but he is also true man and our brother, the one who has borne all our sorrows and known all our griefs, and so his judgement of incandescent justice is also one of heartfelt mercy. Saint Thomas must many times have gazed on the Last Judgement in the west façade of Notre Dame in Paris, carved in the early years of the thirteenth century. There he would have seen an iconic rendering of the dogmatic truth we are here considering— Christ displays the wounds in his hands and side, proving he was and remains forever fully and completely man, the humanly compassionate judge.


Jesus is divine mercy incarnate. Mary is his mother and so truly, in the words of the Salve Regina so beloved of the Dominicans, Mater misericordiae. Preaching on the feast of the Purification, Thomas says that his text from the epistle of the day, "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple" (Mal 3.1), can be read as a prophecy of either the Lord's Presentation in the material temple in Jerusalem or of his entry into the temple of his mother's womb at the Incarnation. He then adapts and applies to the Virgin's temple-womb a text from the letter to the Hebrews: "Let us go therefore with confidence to the temple of grace, that we may find mercy at the opportune time" (Heb 4.16). What this seems to suggest is that, by bringing the merciful Christ into the world, Mary shows mercy to us, her fellow creatures, a mercy that is feminine, virginal, motherly. What she does in the Incarnation she does for us as our representative. According to Thomas, "at the Annunciation the Virgin's consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human nature" (III.30.l). On behalf of us all, in faith and in love, Mary gave the Son of God his human nature and so made possible the supreme revelation of God's mercy. Moreover, though now in heavenly glory, Our Lady has not resigned from her mission of motherly mercy: through her prayers and charity we can obtain the divine clemency of her Son. Sinners may call her blessed because she delivers them from distress, comes to their aid in danger, and obtains forgiveness for their sins.


Mercy is the distinctive mark of the God who is Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity. It is an essential attribute, and so is not the private property of any one divine person but is common to the three. However, each person possesses (is) divine mercy as the person he is, according to the order of the eternal processions. Thus, mercy as connoting abundance, a treasury to be drawn from, is reasonably appropriated to God the Father, the primal source and origin of the whole godhead. The divine mercy, really identical with the divine essence, is the Son's as received from the Father, the Spirit's as received from the Father and the Son, but it is the Father's as not received from another. He is truly "rich in mercy," the underived deriver of the entire commonwealth of trinitarian mercy. There is something specially fatherly about mercy. "As a father hath compassion on his children," says the Psalmist, "so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear him; for he knoweth our frame" (Ps 103[102].13). And so God the Father, the Father of the eternal Son, is fittingly called "the Father of mercies" in the love he shows us in his Son. The incarnate Son reveals, makes present to us, the Father who is love and mercy.

God the Father is so rich in mercy that he gives us his only Son. But in showing us his mercy, did the Father act cruelly toward his Son?

It was not impious and cruel for God the Father to want Christ to die. . . . For he did not coerce an unwilling Christ but delighted in the will by which Christ, out of charity, accepted death; indeed, he effected this charity in Christ's soul. Contra gentiles 4.55

This is an extraordinarily dense passage. First, Saint Thomas is saying that Christ was not mercilessly forced into death against his will. He died willingly, out of love for the Father and mankind in a freedom not only divine but human; he accepted death with his human will in obedience to the will of the Father. Second, the charity that burned in the human heart of the Son, the spirit of love in which he suffered and died, was the Father's infused gift. The Father inspired the Son as man to suffer and die for us. Third, the Father loved the Son for the love of his human heart, delighted in the love that fired him to be obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

The Father does not punish the Son in our place. The incarnate Son takes on to himself the immense burden of pain due to the world's sin, and he does so with his human will, out of love for the Father and for us. In lovingly taking sinful mankind's place, the sinless Son replaces punishment with satisfaction. He thereby shows his love, divine and human, for us ("Greater love has no man. ."; Jn 15.13) as well as his Father's love for us ("God so loved the world. . ."; 3.16). But in his Passion he also reveals his love for the Father (expressed in human obedience: "I do what the Father commands so that the world may know that I love the Father"; 14.31) and his Father's love for him ("Therefore doth the Father love me: because I lay down my life that I may take it again"; 10.17). According to Thomas, one interpretation of this last text is that it is by the love which the Father has for the Son that he ordains that the Son should redeem the human race by his Passion. This must be so, for it is by the same Holy Spirit of love that the Father loves not only the Son but himself and us as well. The Father does not love us by punishing his Son; he does not show us mercy by being merciless toward the Beloved.

The Passion of the incarnate Son— even, above all, his abandonment by the Father—reveals the Triune God as a mystery of love, not only as the God who loves us but also as the God who is an eternal consubstantial communion of love. The Father abandons his Son made man not only by not protecting him from his Passion but also by infusing into his human soul the charity which produces the will to suffer. That charity is the effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who fills Christ's soul with his grace from the moment of his conception. We can therefore say that it is "by the motion and impulse of the Holy Spirit" in his soul that the incarnate Son, in human freedom and obedience, embraces suffering and offers himself to the Father. When we recall that his suffering includes the experience of godforsakenness, we are immediately confronted with a great paradox: it is the Father's very abandonment of the Son on the cross which manifests the love (the Holy Spirit) which in the inner life of the godhead unites Father and Son.


The incarnate Son brought us the mercy of the Father by making satisfaction for our sins on the cross. Through, with, and in Christ, by the grace of his satisfaction, we can make satisfaction for our sins; that is to say, do something toward remitting the temporal punishment due to the sins whose guilt is forgiven. What is more, since in Christ we are members one of another, we are enabled, by his grace, in the communio sanctorum of his Mystical Body, to make atonement not only for ourselves but for one another. By our prayers and good works, by our sufferings offered up in union with Christ's sacrifice, we can contribute to the salvation of our brethren. In so doing, we act mercifully. The mercy we have received through Christ is intended to make us merciful toward one another. The consolation we have received from the Father of mercies is to be translated into consolation for others.

The Christian way of mercy is what Charles Williams called "the way of substitution and exchange." The merciful man bears his brother's burdens. because the sinless Lamb on the cross has borne and borne away the crushing weight of the whole genus of human wickedness, we his members, by his Spirit of love, can share for each other what Shakespeare called the "heavy mutual load of moan" (Richard III). The members of the Mystical Body are members one of another (cf Eph 4.25; 1 Cor 12.26). When one rejoices, the others share his joy; when one suffers, the others feel his pain. But what does this mean in practice? According to Thomas, Christ's members can be said to "bear one another's burdens" in three ways: first, by patiently tolerating their weaknesses of mind or body; second, by relieving one another's needs; and third, by making satisfaction, by prayer and good works, for the [temporal] punishment due to one another's sins. Every sacrifice we make, however small, bears fruit for our brethren.

Bonum est diffusivum sui. Goodness bubbles over and spreads itself through the Mystical Body. The good of Christ the Head, the saving power and grace of his Passion, is communicated to his members through the sacraments. Then, in and through that power, the good of one member is communicated to another. Such is the mystery of goodness, love, and mercy. Such is life in Christ.


Our Judge is merciful, but on what grounds does he judge us? The answer is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mt 5.7). Divine mercy shows mercy to the merciful man, the one pained by his neighbour's pain and who takes pains to repel it. If we are to receive and experience God's mercy, we must practise mercy ourselves. According to Jesus's teaching, we must show mercy to the afflicted because the Son of Man, though his flesh be now glorified and impassible, continues to suffer in the hungry and thirsty, in the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. How can this be? Because, says Saint Thomas, "Head and members are one body" (In Mt 25.3). Christ, divine mercy, beatifies the man who has shown him mercy. Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said it many times. She is not a social worker, but a contemplative in action, one who sees Jesus in the starving and the dying and tries to serve him there. This is the newness of Christian mercy, and to the world it looks like folly:

What never occurred to Indian wisdom in all its sublimity—to gather up the dying from the streets of Calcutta—has been accomplished by the foolishness of Mother Teresa, who has thus "enlightened" all the holy gurus as to how and why Christianity is a human religion. Hans Urs von Balthasar New Elucidations


In his mercy God remedies the deficiencies of his creatures. Now, according to Thomas, God incarnate has given the Church the seven sacraments to perfect man in all that pertains to the Christian worship of God and as a remedy against the defect of sin. Each of the seven corresponds to some want in fallen man which God in his mercy wants to satisfy. By these visible, human means the Word made flesh heals, enriches, and beautifies poor and needy humankind.

The sacrament of penance is in a special way the sacrament of mercy, the instrument by which the Word incarnate communicates to us the forgiveness he won for us by his Passion. Criticizing the Novatianist view that a man cannot through penance obtain pardon a second time for sins once forgiven, Thomas argues that this error grievously offends against "the infinity of the divine mercy, which is greater than any number or magnitude of sins . . . the mercy of God grants pardon to sinners through penance without any limits . . . hence it is manifest that penance can be administered many times" (III.84.10).


I want to return to Pope John Paul's Dives in misericordia, and in particular to what he says about the social implications of the Gospel of mercy. The pope develops, without explicitly referring to it, Saint Thomas's assertion that justice without mercy is cruelty. In the modern world, says the pope, there has been a reawakening of the sense of justice, justice between individuals, social groups, classes, political systems, whole "worlds" (the "first," "second," and "third" worlds). The Church shares this longing for justice, as is clear from the social encyclicals of the past hundred years. Yet she also perceives that the action taken to secure justice is frequently disordered. Hatred, greed, and envy gain the upper hand. The lawful ambition of the oppressed for freedom expresses itself in merciless terrorism. Zeal for a fair distribution of goods is deformed into the systematic spite of class struggle:

The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions. Dives in misericordia 12

The political revolutionary rightly grasps that there can be no true peace without justice, but he fails to see that there can be no true justice without mercy. Real mercy is, in fact, the "most profound source of justice." While justice makes people equal in the sharing of extrinsic goods, love and mercy achieve a true meeting of persons, a communion of mind and heart:

In every sphere of interpersonal relationships justice must, so to speak, be "corrected" to a considerable extent by that love which, as Saint Paul proclaims, "is patient and kind" or, in other words, possesses the characteristics of that merciful love which is so much of the essence of the Gospel and Christianity. Ibid 14

It is the saints who are God-given proof that justice and mercy can meet on earth, in the lives of men and women. That is why, on the subject of mercy as on so much else, Thomas Aquinas is his own most powerful argument. According to Bernard Gui in The Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Kenelm Foster, OP, translator and editor), Thomas was always zealous for justice, severe on sin, keen to ensure the exact correction of abuses:

Yet Thomas always found it hard to believe in the sins of his fellow men; seeing them like himself in nature, he thought them like him in innocence; and when it was brought home to him that anyone had fallen into sin through human frailty, he would grieve as if the sin were his own—like the Apostle whose charity caused him to feel the failings of others like a scorching fire. So much charity and kindliness had a wonderful effect even on his outward appearance; as we know from the constant and loving testimony of those who knew him; they say that it was a refreshment to the spirit merely to live with him and to be able from time to time to speak with him. All this is clear evidence that the Holy Spirit was in him; such fruits have no other root than the divine love.

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The above essay first apeared in The Canadian Catholic Review, March 1990.                                                                                

Version: 25th February 2009

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