Mercy Is Not Accidental

Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. … Its motive is the misery which one discerns in another, particularly in so far as this condition is deemed to be, in some sense at least, involuntary. Obviously the necessity which is to be succoured can be either of body or soul. Hence it is customary to enumerate both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia, Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy

Our discussion of Felix’s recent paper, Mercy Is Not Strained, Part 1, was thought-provoking and (for me, at least) spiritually fruitful. At the time, I was struggling to articulate what, from my own understanding, is the essential difference between mercy and charity, as well as mercy and forgiveness. That struggle has caused me to think and pray more deeply on this topic, and also to read a bit more on the nature of mercy.

The Catechism tells us that mercy is a fruit of charity (CCC 1829) — so clearly, mercy and charity aren’t one and the same. If mercy is a fruit of charity, it makes sense to me that every act of mercy is also an act of charity, but not every act of charity is necessarily an act of mercy. At our last meeting, I thought that the difference between the two (based in part on Felix’s paper) is primarily internal, having to do with our own perceptions, motivations, and intentions. That thought has been validated somewhat by my reading and reflection this past week.

First, a bit about charity. The Catechism defines charity as “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). St. Thomas Aquinas defines love, in this sense, as willing the good of the other as other. Both of these definitions, to my mind, imply that our neighbor, like ourselves, is made in the image of God, and, if for no other reason than that, deserves our love.

Mercy suggests either something to be forgiven (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner! Amen!”) or some suffering or injustice to be alleviated — for example, in the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), or in Jesus’ account of the Judgement of Nations (Matthew 25:31-46). Neither of these possible conditions for mercy are included or implied in the definitions of charity above. In fact, whereas charity seems to be founded on our shared dignity and beauty as images of the Divine, human mercy seems to me to add an overlay of compassion or pity that stems from our shared brokenness as fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, in need of God’s divine mercy.

My newly-formed working definition for the virtue of mercy, then, is a habitual disposition to help another person out of love and compassion for his or her misery, in recognition of our own (as implied be the word “compassion”). I believe, as Felix suggested, that mercy is charity as focused through the lens of our shared brokenness. It is not necessarily tied to forgiveness, nor does it imply a specific sin (other than perhaps original sin, as the root of suffering and brokeness in this world). In fact, it has relatively little to do with another person’s specific actions toward us (indeed, as New Advent suggests above, mercy is particularly tied to the extent to which the other’s misery is involuntary) and more to do with our conscious recognition of their suffering and our common humanity, and our will to act to alleviate it.

Mercy is not accidental. Compassion by itself is affective, but mercy is effective — it is characterized by action specifically to alleviate misery. That action could be, but is not limited to, forgiveness of a particular wrong; we need not identify something that needs our forgiveness in order to extend mercy. Not every act of charity is an act of mercy, because mercy requires discernment of another’s suffering, and the intentionality and ability to bring some relief. In this respect, it seems to me that mercy requires a great deal of the practitioner and very little of the recipient.

This still says little about what, specifically, it would look like for us lay Americans to show mercy to our Holy Father — but it has given me much to ponder in my own heart. Felix, Part 2 cannot come fast enough!

St. Faustina, pray that we may be reflections of God’s divine mercy as we seek to recognize and help to heal the brokeness of others, including our Holy Father. Amen.

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