Pope Francis on Mercy and Justice: A Short Primer

The Holy Father explains that 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”.

Pope Francis’s Wednesday Audience talk of February 3rd addressed the question of the relationship of mercy to justice. “Sacred Scripture presents us with God as infinite mercy,” he stated, “but also as perfect justice. How are these two things reconciled? How can the reality of mercy be articulated with the need for justice?” I shall address the question he poses in light of Francis’s two writings, namely, the new interview book, The Name of God is Mercy, and last year’s Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus.

What is mercy?
God is rich in mercy (Eph 2: 4). But what is mercy? Mercy is the face of God’s love turned toward sinners, searching them out, and offering them pardon and salvation. Says Pope Francis, “Etymologically, ‘mercy’ derives from misericordi[a], which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. . . . Mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive” (The Name of God is Mercy [NG], 8). He adds elsewhere, “When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus [MV] §3). God’s mercy is the expression of His fundamental love. Yet, to understand properly the reality of God’s merciful pardon and how it is that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), we cannot minimize the wrath of God. God’s wrath is His response to the sins of men (Eph 2: 4)—His holy displeasure against their sin (NG, 32) that entails the breaking of communion with Him (MV §2)—as the expression of His fundamental justice, righteousness, and holiness.

Mercy and justice
When we reflect on mercy the question naturally arises about the relationship of mercy to justice. God is not merciful at the expense of his justice. Mercy does not exclude His justice, nor is it opposed to it (MV §21). How could it? “God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone [oppressed by slavery to sin and its consequences] as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (MV §21). God’s justice entails His taking sin seriously, indeed, “of all the injustice we have committed before God” (NG, 58), by virtue of taking away and atoning for our guilt in history. In the reality of the atoning work of Jesus Christ where there is a turning from real wrath to real grace. Pope Francis explains, “Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgment on all of us and on the whole world” (MV §21). Here Pope Francis echoes St. John Paul II who teaches that God has shown us his justice and mercy “in the cross of Christ, on which the Son, consubstantial with the Father, renders full justice to God.” His death on the cross, he adds, “is also a radical revelation of mercy, or rather of the love that goes against what constitutes the very root of evil in the history of man: against sin and death” (Dives in Misericordia [DM], §8, emphasis added).

Jesus Christ’s finished work is the full and sufficient cause of our salvation. He has undergone the cross because of our sins, redeeming us from them, healing us from the deep wound of original sin and its effects (NG, 42-43; MV §22), and reconciling us to the Father in the power of the Spirit (2 Cor 5: 19). His atoning work “constitutes even a ‘superabundance’ of justice, for the sins of man are ‘compensated for’ by the sacrifice of the man-God” (DM §7). The reference to the “superabundance” of justice is an allusion to its perfection, its excess: past, present, and future sins are fully satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross. Furthermore, it refers to the “excessive” character of God’s reconciling act in that God gives himself in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus’s death for his enemies. “When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). The interrelationship between justice and mercy (NG, 77), of the wrathful and forgiving God, in the light of the cross, which is the manifestation of the fullness of God’s love, is then the key to understanding “God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe” (MV §21). Francis adds: “Salvation comes . . . through faith in Jesus Christ, who in his death and resurrection brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies” (MV §21).

Justice and mercy as aspects of God’s love
So both justice and mercy have their origin in God’s holy love, but how so? These two, says John Paul, spring completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love” (DM §7). 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” (MV §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 coming together supremely in the cross.

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). 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).

This saving act arises at once from the will of the Son and of the Father: “By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who ‘makes himself an offering for sin’, when ‘he bore the sin of many’, and who ‘shall make many to be accounted righteous’, for ‘he shall bear their iniquities’. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §615). St. Paul writes, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him. For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Rom 5:9-10).

The response factor
The way the believer receives the grace of Christ’s atoning work, his gift of infinite mercy, is by faith (Rom 3:21-25; Eph 2:8-9). Thus, Pope Francis identifies the need “to recognize our emptiness, our wretchedness” (NG, 43), “of our need for forgiveness and mercy,” in short, to confess “our miseries, our sins” in order to obtain mercy (NG, 32) by faith in Jesus Christ. Sin is not only a stain upon our soul, but it is also “a wound,” Francis teaches, that “needs to be treated, healed” (NG, 26). Approaching the Lord of mercy with confidence requires, adds Francis, a shattered heart,” meaning thereby, having “consciousness of our sins, of the evil we have done, of our wretchedness, and of our need for forgiveness and mercy” (NG, 32). Of course even this recognition of oneself as a sinner and the corresponding act of repentance stems from an act of grace that is the Lord’s gift to us. Furthermore, we have the promise, Pope Francis tirelessly emphasizes, that “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).

Of course, without repentance and God’s forgiveness, the impenitent sinner calls God a liar, deceives himself, and the truth is not in him. In consequence, the state of the impenitent sinner “causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell” (Catechism, §1861).

The Gospel of Love
Christians pray for the perfection of divine love in our life so that we may stand by God’s grace in the Day of Judgment without fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn 4:17-18). So, mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy is the expression of God’s love toward sinners, and that divine love is fully realized in the cross of Calvary.

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About Eduardo Echeverria 31 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.