God’s Mercy

Can we speak of the attributes of God? Man is finite, sinful, and prone to error. God is infinite, holy, and without error. Catholic theologians answer in the affirmative but with the profound acknowledgement of the previously stated difficulties. Faith seeking understanding fides quarem intellectummost notably coined by St. Anselm in the Proslogion.This posture of man seeking to understand his Creator and Father is what drives the questioning. However, since we are prone to error, it is proper to look to those great minds through the centuries, validated by the Magisterium as reliable guides.

A basic definition of mercy is “a word (from the Latin merces, meaning reward) that refers to the kindness or compassion shown to an offender, especially the forgivenessthat Godshows to sinners.  The theological glossary directs the reader to §1422 in the Catholic Catechism. The Catechism §1422 and following discusses the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. This sacrament is one of two dealing with the healing of man both in his soul and then his body in the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

The Catechism draws our study first to the more important healing, that of healing our souls. God as Father wants to elevate man to the relationship of son. Mercy is predicated on the desire of God to enter into this relationship with man.       Man for his part must freely accept this offer of filial relationship by conversion. Man is wounded by concupiscence. Baptism does not wash this weakness away from man but it does provide the grace to overcome it, though with great difficulty at times. Chesterton once said, “ Certain theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[1]Four thousand years of Scriptural tradition records this Doctrine.It is our common experience that man fails in his quest to live a holy life. The Sacrament of Forgiveness “grants the penitent pardon and peace.”[2]Interior conversion proceeds with the knowledge that sin in the first place is an offense against God.  The outward acts of penance give witness to the heart’s renunciation of evil.

God’s mercy towards man rests on the acknowledgement that man does not render to God what is His due as Creator and Father. Justice means rendering to the other that which is his due. Man owes to God his very existence, in addition to the many other blessings freely given to him. Sin fundamentally ruptures this relationship. Justice then seems at odds with God’s mercy.

Aquinas considers the concepts of God’s justice, truth, and mercy in ST I Q21 Art 1-3.[3]Two objections are pertinent.  One objection is that man ‘owes’ something to God. God is no man’s debtor. Previously I spoke of man owing to God his love evidenced by his obedience. This might seem to put God is the position of indebtedness.

This would be wrong. God is not beholden to man. Aquinas clearly states “And although God in this way pays each thing its due, yet He Himself is not the debtor, since He is not directed to other things, but rather other things to Him. Justice, therefore, in God is sometimes spoken of as the fitting accompaniment of His goodness; sometimes as the reward of merit. Anselm touches on either view where he says (Prosolog. 10): “When Thou dost punish the wicked, it is just, since it agrees with their deserts; and when Thou dost spare the wicked, it is also just; since it befits Thy goodness.” What is owed to God is not because of some prior claim man has over God but rather it is in respect to who God is. God is not diminished if man fails to love Him. He is Perfect in Himself. It is man who is diminished.

A second objection of God’s mercy is that it would be a relaxation of God’s justice. On the contrary, God exceeds the requirements of justice, which shows the power of God’s mercy.  “Hence the Apostle calls remission a forgiving: “Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). 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 itself above judgment” (James 2:13). God’s actions are both just and merciful in the same instant.

This unity of action within God is sometimes called convertibility. As God is one, whole, simple, and without parts, He cannot at one moment be just and the next merciful. All of His actions have justice, truth, and mercy bound to them.

God’s mercy both fulfills justice, by recognizing the truth of man, but goes beyond what is due to man’s willful disobedience. God’s mercy takes the form of a cross. God does not merely wave His hand, analogously speaking, to absolve man. Rather he empties Himself and takes the form of a slave, and dies a most horrifying death. Man’s problem is that he does not take sin seriously, if at all.

God’s mercy, even if dimly understood, is to follow the trajectory laid out by the Catechism. Mercy in the first place deals with the action of God towards sinful man. Without an understanding of justice and truth in regards to what man owes God, God’s mercy remains weak and perfunctorily. I offer this prayer by John Henry Newman in the hope that we have more regard for our sin from the viewpoint of the Cross.

The Heinousness of Sin

            [1]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Maniac(Doubleday: NY) 1959) 15

            [2]Catechism of Catholic Church CCC §1424

             [3]http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1021.htmaccessed August 31, 2018

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