MERCY is a specifically divine virtue. If humility is a virtue specifically befitting the creature, so that it can be attributed to God only insofar as He is the God-Man, and that in a merely analogical sense, mercy, inversely, is the divine virtue par excellence, which cannot be attributed to man except by analogy.
Mercy is the condescending, forgiving love of God for sinners
Mercy primarily means the condescending, forgiving love of the absolute Lord, the Epitome of all values, who bends down to us without our deserving it at all. Mercy becomes most manifest in reference to sinful man. None of the Gospel texts impresses mercy on our consciousness so clearly as does the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is love in its particular quality as mercifulness that strikes us in the conduct of the father as he goes to meet his returned son, receives the contrite one with love, and even kills a fatted calf for him.
But the Gospel as a whole breathes the spirit of mercy; for the mercy of God constitutes a central point in Christian Revelation. It upsets the ancient conception of the world, to which a God bending down in love to a creature would have meant an inherent contradiction. It is a stumbling block to the Pharisees, who expect everything from justice founded on the fulfillment of the law. The mercy of God, this primal word of the Gospel, speaks to us movingly from the parable of the Samaritan; it addresses us as a warning in the parable of the master who released his servant from his debt; it overwhelms us in Our Lord’s death on the cross, who, dying, prays for his slayers.
The Gospel calls us to be merciful
Not only does the Gospel reveal to us the mercy of God: it also enjoins upon us to be merciful on our part. Our transformation in Christ requires us to share even this specifically divine virtue. “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” says Jesus in the house of the publican (Matt. 9:13). The merciful are above all pleasing to God; in fact, our mercifulness is the condition on which we in our turn may find mercy in the eyes of God.
Mercy presupposes misery in its object
Mercy obviously connotes love; it means, however, not love pure and simple, but one particular variety of love. We may best grasp the specific quality of merciful love by considering that mercy presupposes in its object some misery, some wretchedness. This is by no means generally true of love. The love uniting the Persons of the Holy Trinity does not possess the quality of mercy at all; nor does, except accidentally, conjugal love or the love of friendship.
Mercy, then, responds to misery in the one received or succored in love; moreover, it implies an attention to which its beneficiary has no claim proper—in other words, a gesture of condescension. It might be surmised, therefore, that mercy is the same thing as compassion; but that would be a grossly erroneous conclusion.
There is, in fact, a fivefold difference between compassion and mercy.
Mercy responds to our metaphysical situation; compassion responds to particular sufferings
First, compassion always refers to some concrete suffering in a definite person. We pity, in the sense of compassion, a person who is grievously ill or poor, or a prey to some other grave affliction. Mercy, to be sure, equally connotes an attitude of pity; but here our commiseration refers to the misery of the human creature as a whole, although represented or manifested by a given concrete case.
The true object of mercy is not this or that misfortune as such but the general helplessness and frailty of man under the sway of original sin. The particular suffering in question is not here relevant except as an expression of the universal misery inherent in the metaphysical situation of fallen man. The glance of the merciful penetrates into the abysses of man’s situation in this “valley of tears”; against this background it also perceives in peculiar clearness the nobility of man qua a spiritual person created in the likeness of God.
With a vision much deeper than that of the compassionate, the merciful one always sees the creature in the light of its metaphysical situation and considers the special circumstances of its case, too, in conspectu Dei. Hence, there is a certain trait of spiritual gravity and heroism proper to mercy, but not to pity as such.
Compassion suffers with the sufferer; mercy does not
Secondly, genuine compassion implies a state of suffering in the subject himself; con-passio, indeed, means suffering with someone. He who evinces compassion is in some sense implicated in the situation of the one he pities. Mercy, on the other hand, is not itself associated with suffering, or else God—in His infinite beatitude, to which no shade of suffering attaches—could not be merciful. The subject of mercy in no way becomes a sharer in the situation of its object; he (in a very specific sense, to be sure) controls that situation from above.
Compassion is between equals; mercy is toward an inferior
By this we have already hinted at the third point of difference. Compassion presupposes a fundamental situation embracing its subject and object alike: it constitutes a relationship inter pares (“between equals”).
Mercy, on the contrary, presupposes a superiority on the part of the merciful one. In the sense of intentional awareness, he certainly assimilates or comprehends the suffering of the creature he pities, but his own center of vision, his own spiritual locus as it were, is outside and above that suffering. Therefore, a gesture of condescension is inherent to all mercy: the merciful one bends down in love to the misery that has evoked his commiseration.
Compassion, on the contrary, not only does not require a gesture of condescension but is actually altered and spoiled by its presence. Once condescension enters, we have in the place of genuine compassion a proud attitude which is most likely to insult the person whom it is supposed to comfort. For compassion is eminently a corollary of an all-embracing solidarity of suffering mankind; it essentially demands, on the subject’s part, an attitude of meeting the pitied one on a level of equality. Though it always refers to some concrete affliction of definite persons, it does so taking for granted the fundamental human situation, common to all, a constant background.
In contradistinction to this, mercy among men is but an analogue of the mercy of God: it is only possible as a participation in the latter, an imitation of the attitude of loving condescension whose primary subject is God and God alone. Therefore, mercy is an eminently supernatural virtue, requiring as its basis the Christian ethos. Every attempt to realize it on a purely natural plane is bound to fail—to result, that is, not in true mercy but in the irritating hybrid of a “superior” compassion.
Mercy is more spiritual than compassion
Fourthly, compassion—a specifically human motive of behavior—presupposes the vulnerable human heart as such. It implies a particular kind of sensitive understanding for the suffering creature, an organic sympathy, a certain feeling of sameness, as it were. Mercy constitutes a response very much more spiritual in character. In it, too, lies an ultimate understanding—a type of understanding, however, which is the privilege of one whose vision measures its object in a perspective of distance and height.
The merciful man thus approaches that object from above—from the altitude of his own response to the condescending love of God, not from a self-assumed position of superiority. He understands the pitiable object indeed, in a much deeper sense: somewhat as God, just because He is infinitely above us, is nearer to us than we are ourselves. This is what we meant by saying that the merciful one “controls” the situation which surrounds the wretched creature inasmuch as he views it in a light borrowed from God and comprehends it from above, conspiring as it were with the divine act of mercy.
Mercy presupposes that the merciful can give help; compassion does not
Finally, he who posits an act of mercy does so in reference to a kind of situation in which his intervention may effect some change. This is obviously always the case with God; in regard to us men, however, the presupposition is fulfilled in a very limited measure only. Compassion, again, is not linked to this condition. Suppose a friend of mine is grievously afflicted by the death of one dear to him—I may vividly sympathize with him and share his sorrow fully, but the case presents no occasion for the exercise of mercy.
This point of difference is connected with the inherence in mercy of a certain aspect of superiority. One’s pity cannot have the character of mercy without one’s controlling the situation, in some way, from above. This, again, is impossible unless one is in some measure able to help: to mold the situation and not merely to deplore it.
Who can exercise mercy? A person in health who can assist the sick; a priest who, by virtue of his office, can cure the wounds of the soul; also, anyone who may remit a debt, renounce a right, or waive a claim for the benefit of another.
Mercy is an antithesis to justice
Having thus clearly established the distinction between mercy and compassion, let us now examine another fundamental aspect of mercy: its antithetic relation to strict justice. Merciful love—not, as is sometimes thought, love as such—embodies, indeed, an antithesis to justice. For it connotes an excess of loving kindness which is over and above the measure of merits. Well we know what our fate would be if God weighed us according to the measure of justice only: therefore do we pray, “If Thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it?” (Ps. 129:3).
Yet, evidently, this surpassing of justice has nothing in common with injustice. Mercy is not an antithesis to justice in a sense implying a negation of the value of justice. It comprises the latter per eminentiam — by overflow, as it were. All that makes up the value of justice is contained to an even higher degree in mercy. God does not cease to be supremely just by being supremely merciful. “King of majesty tremendous, who dost free salvation send us, Fount of pity then befriend us!” (Dies Irae)
Certainly this union of justice and mercy is possible in God the absolutely Simple One, who embraces the fullness of Being and in reference to whom we may speak of a coincidentia oppositorum. But how is our mercy related to justice? What kind of situations are there in which we may and ought to follow the promptings of mercy?
There are two main lines along which mercy unfolds. It may be exercised, first, towards persons against whom we have a legitimate claim: who, for example, owe us money or some kind of service; or again, who have done us some wrong. We may, secondly, behave with mercy towards persons afflicted with any sort of misery towards whom we have no special obligations, be it in the sense of duties inherent in our office (in the widest use of that term) or of obligations implied by a particular personal relationship. It is mercy of this kind that directs us to succor, say, a strange person who is wounded or one who is destitute; or again, one who is despised and ostracized by all.
Mercy can be exercised toward those against whom we have a claim
But let us first examine the type of mercy which involves the waiving of a claim. What is meant here is, of course, our renunciation of a valid right of our own. Mercy impels us to overstep the measure of justice in a case where justice would operate to our personal advantage.
When, on the other hand, we have to decide about the conflicting claims of others—acting, for instance, as an arbiter between two contestant parties—we are not at liberty to transgress the measure of justice. We have no right simply to cancel the debt which an indigent person owes to a prosperous one. By all means, we may—having regard to the particular circumstances—try to persuade the creditor to show mercy, but we are not in a position to substitute in our own right clemency for justice. Yet, we may well do so if the creditor is ourselves.
Even in this case, however, our surrender of the claim in question may not always be an act of true mercy, nor even always the right thing to do. If it is a debt we remit, it must, first of all, be owed us by a poor man—one who, not only as regards the given juridical case but in a more comprehensive sense also, is in a weaker position than we are. To remit a debt owed by a rich man has obviously nothing to do with mercy. The misery to which our mercy responds cannot consist in the weaker position alone in which every debtor as such has placed himself. It must attach to the situation of the debtor beyond this particular indebtedness, too.
It is further ill-advised on our part to renounce our right if by so doing we are likely to inflict upon our debtor a moral damage. Some people seek to capitalize on the magnanimity of others; to help them to success cannot but confirm them in their unrighteousness, whereas a stern treatment, may provide them with a salutary lesson. In such cases, yielding one’s right is not an act of true mercy but a mere indulgence of faintheartedness and guilty weakness. There are, as a matter of fact, several types of complaisant attitudes which, though they lack all intrinsic kinship with mercy, may easily be confused with it by a superficial observer.
Yielding to others out of fear of conflict is not mercy
Some people are simply too weak to defend their rights. They shun every dispute, abhor every act of resistance, and feel unable to sustain any conflict. With some of these the matter is chiefly faint-heartedness; with others, helplessness; with others again, sloth.
In any case their renunciation of rights is an outgrowth of weakness rather than of love. It is not pity for the other party that impels them to yield: rather it is their preoccupation to escape the discomfort inevitably involved in taking a stand. Such people would sooner abandon many things dear to them, and accept great sacrifices—both material and moral—than engage in any kind of struggle. Whenever they are faced with the necessity of claiming or insisting upon anything they immediately feel as though they were in the weaker position. Their dread of conflict, and not the state of right, is what in their minds supplies the determinant note of the situation. Their pusillanimity presents a glaring contrast to the active and heroic, the majestic attitude of mercy.
Pliability is not mercy
Another kind of weakness, nobler than that which is colored by cowardice or inertia, should still be carefully distinguished from genuine mercy. What we have in mind is the behavior of those softhearted people who will never refuse any request nor inflict any displeasure on others.
Unlike the truly merciful, they by no means view the situation from a higher plane. They do not take their departure from that ultimate love which considers the objective good of the fellow person over and above any immediate advantage or amenity. They are slaves to their instinct of compassion.
In other words, they fall short of an adequate response to the situation, in that they do not extend their compassion beyond the range of the present moment, nor care about their fellow’s well-being in an integral and permanent sense of the term. Theirs is an inordinate compassion, which does not arise, as does mercy, from a confrontation of the problem on hand with God and His holy will. Such compassion delivers them over entirely to the dynamism of the momentary situation, which determines their conduct without any counterweight. Such is the compassion of an unconscientious nurse who secretly tenders the coveted syringe to a morphine addict writhing in the torments of a curative treatment.
Indiscriminate generosity is not mercy
Lastly, there are people who, owing to a certain generous disposition, are ashamed to make their rights valid even when this would be the objectively right course. They shy at the idea of taking any advantage of their stronger position as a hierarchic superior, a creditor, a victim of outrage. Thus, they fail in their duty to reproach a person, or to seize him with a peremptory demand, even though this were in conformity with his objective good. Such a type of behavior, again, is not inspired by mercy.
Mercy is rooted in concern for the good of another
For if I am truly merciful I shall derive the principle of my conduct towards others from that ultimate love which is above all concerned precisely with the good of the person in question—regardless of whether it is easy or hard for my own nature to insist upon my right. This—and not pliancy or tractability as such—is the essential mark of mercy, that, by virtue of my participation in the love of God, I relinquish my nature as a central frame of reference and shatter the narrow perspective in which I would see things and situations merely with my own eyes.
And this transformation implies that the instinctive tendencies of my nature, whether in themselves more possessive or more yielding, will no longer play any decisive part in the shaping of my conduct.
He who is guided by true mercy, then, will yield his right on the supposition only that he does not, by so doing, bring moral harm to his debtor. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son more closely, and you will immediately discover that the doctrine underlying it is by no means that of indiscriminate forgiveness. To be sure, the father hastens to welcome his spendthrift son, but he does so in response to the youngster’s repentant homecoming. The presupposition, in other words, is that the disaster his son has brought upon himself has evoked in him a sense of his guilt and a resolution to change his ways.
On the contrary, had he been supported by his father after he had eaten up his fortune, he would—far from having remorse and undergoing conversion—only have been consolidated in his sinful way of life. Unlike those who are compassionate from weakness, the truly merciful will never, as it were, interfere with the divine government of men by substituting mercy for justice regardless of the state of mind of those who are meant to benefit by such a course.
Mercy can be exercised toward those who have no claim against us
Now we must turn to the second dimension of mercy: its exercise with regard to such men as are not our debtors and to whom we owe no specific service. For, wherever such a specific obligation is present—founded, for example, in ties of family or friendship or wardship—it is self-evident that the wretchedness of such persons, whether it be illness, need or a deep sorrow, should concern us. Here our fellow being has a claim to our active help and our full solicitude. There is consequently no room here for the actualization of mercy as such.
Not so when we are faced with the distress of a stranger whose fate is formally no concern of ours: a wounded man whom, like the good Samaritan, we meet on the roadside; a person in the throes of despair, whom we happen to come across; the unknown poor who entreat us to help them—and other similar cases. Here is a situation to which the primary and adequate response is mercy: the overflowing love, the charity that bends down to heal; the sovereign surpassing of the measures of strict justice; the indefectible eagerness of the merciful heart to rescue the miserable from their misery and raise them up to itself.
Hardheartedness is the extreme antithesis to mercy
Of the several attitudes opposed to mercy, the extreme one is hardheartedness or callousness: the attitude of an explicit cold indifference to the misery of one’s fellows. It is characteristic of a soul completely imprisoned in pride and concupiscence. The callous man is moved by nothing; he knows no compassion, let alone mercy. In his barren and stubborn lovelessness, he is liable to pass from mere indifference to something akin to positive cruelty: for any appeal to his mercy is likely to evoke on his part not only no sympathetic response but a definitely hostile reaction.
Indifference is a lesser antithesis to mercy
Another less extreme type is that characterized by indifference proper. In a person who represents this type, there is less emphasis on pride; but his bondage to concupiscence stifles in him all aliveness to the misery of others. He is not so much hard or cold as blunt, dull, and torpid. His complete lack of awakeness and responsibility—his incapacity ever to break away from the spell of his personal interests—renders him insensible to the suffering of his fellows. He is the rich man of the Gospel who, revelling in his wealth, lets Lazarus starve.
Delighting in another’s indebtedness is opposed to mercy
There is, further, among the types of character deficient in mercy, the sort of person who delights in his superiority, in his prerogative of power, as it were, derived from another’s indebtedness to him. He may not be very keen on the content of his claim, nor find it too hard to renounce a material advantage. He is above all anxious to preserve his ascendency over others; to keep them dependent upon him. He will, therefore, not so much insist on his claim being satisfied as he will emphatically maintain that claim; nay, endeavor to bring as many people as possible into the situation of owing him something. He enjoys the consciousness of having them in his power. He loves being beset with entreaties; he savors the idea of others trembling in expectation of his decree.
This attitude, again, is specifically opposed to mercy. For mercy not merely remits the debt of a miserable one, lest his misery should be increased: it is at the same time intent on relieving him from the pressure of his sense of indebtedness.
The ungenerous character, on the contrary, never forgets a wrong suffered nor integrally writes off a debt owed him in a way that eliminates all sense of inferiority on the debtor’s side. He enjoys his position as a superior and exploits his advantage over his subordinates. He always takes care to emphasize and to have acknowledged whatever kind of superiority he can boast of. Whether it is a superiority in the moral, the intellectual, the economic, or the social order, he will see to it that those below him do not forget their inferiority for a moment and he will take pleasure in their consciousness of it.
This attitude is primarily the opposite of generosity, but since there can be such a thing as generosity without mercy (in a good pagan, say) but no such thing as mercy without generosity, it is a fortiori opposed to mercy.
Generosity is essential to mercy
For it is implied in mercy to be generous, as well as to be concerned about the misery of others, and ready to help them. It is implied that we avoid taking advantage of our superior position unless it be definitely necessary for the sake of an objective value.
Whenever we have to deal with a person laboring under any kind of inferiority, whether it is moral depravity or intellectual debility, vital deficiency or lack of culture, a misshapen body or grievous poverty, or any sort of social disability—we must not only notenjoy our advantage but painstakingly avoid letting our partner feel his inferiority in any fashion. In charity we must draw him to ourselves so as to extinguish in him all sense of oppression and inferiority.
This is not to say that we should not inwardly keep to the obligations inherent in our superior position: for we are not free with impious hands to level a hierarchy of values which has not been created by us but imposed by God’s distribution of His gifts. Otherwise we should also reject the opportunity to help the other which God has offered us by placing him and us in our respective positions. Yet, by every means we must avoid making him feel his weaker position—except in special cases where the latter is required by our consideration of his spiritual welfare.
Mercy is more than the proud fulfillment of juridically formulated obligations
Lastly, another specific antithesis to mercy is embodied in the attitude of those who recognize moral obligations only inasmuch as they are in some way capable of a juridical formulation. Such a man will perhaps punctiliously watch over the welfare of a person formally entrusted to his care; one not so entrusted, however, simply does not exist for him.
He is emphatically correct; his only preoccupation is to aver himself irreproachable before his own conscience. It gratifies him to have accomplished whatever could be required of him according to the strict standards of legal justice. Not a step further will he go.
He takes no interest in the realization of something important in itself; he knows no genuine love for his neighbor. His only real concern is the ultimately proud one of acquitting himself of his obligations so as to be proof against any definite accusation and able to look upon himself as a being without blemish.
Should a stranger in distress cross his path, he will shrug his shoulder: “This is no concern of mine; I have not pledged myself to provide for him.” He may even quietly look on without interfering (though it were in his power) while a fellow creature rushes to his ruin: “Ah well,” he would say, “if his affairs had been confided to me, things would not have come to such a pass.” Nor will our “correct” man ever feel inclined to remit a debt. Why should he? Nobody can by rights ask him to renounce a rightful claim.
Mercy far exceeds a bureaucratic concern with obligations
Akin to this pharisaical type of man, though considerably less repellent, is the purely legalistic one, characterized by an infatuation for the idea of right, untarnished, in this case, with the motif of self-complacency. We might also call it the bureaucratic type. The morality of such a man is genuine and estimable, yet sorely defective. Though his mind is not warped by pride, he is entirely devoid of warmth of heart and therefore in an essential sense morally crippled. He simply lacks comprehension for any should and ought that is outside the range of legal obligations.
Whatever he is in justice bound or explicitly engaged to do he will do with eager readiness and conscientious thoroughness; but to perform any good work beyond that would never occur to him and indeed make no sense to him. “Am I formally obliged to do this?” is the one question he always asks himself without bothering about anything else. In possession of a claim upon someone who suffers from some misery, he, too, will be disinclined to renounce it: for so to act is not a precise and stringent duty.
Summum jus, summa injuria (“the strictest justice may mean the greatest iniquity”) is the well-known adage in which the essence of this attitude has been condensed.
The man of mercy, on the contrary, is loath to overemphasize the distinction between what is and what is not strictly obligatory. Not that he would, in ever so slight a measure, trifle with a duty or a commitment; but he in no way recognizes these as a limit to his endeavors for serving his fellows. Mercy thrives in the souls of those alone who visualize everything in conspectu Dei; who, in full awakeness, measure everything by supernatural standards.
Mercy presupposes true inner freedom
It also presupposes an inward suppleness and fluidity; a thoroughly melted, quickened, liberated heart. Every inward scar, as it were—every hardening, every incrustation brought about by an experience we have failed to rectify before God—dams up the flux of mercy. Nay, the path of mercy is thwarted by every kind of inner unfreedom: by our bondage, for example, to anxiety or to disgust; to the rancor evoked in us by an insult; and in general to every overemphatic preoccupation. For everything that stunts our freedom tends to make us self-conscious and to deprive us of the capacity, implied in mercy, of taking our stand above the situation.
He alone who has attained the supernatural sovereignty that results from true freedom and is reserved for those who seek only the kingdom of God and His justice, who expects nothing of his own forces but everything of God—he alone can participate in the specifically divine virtue of mercy.
None but those who have burst through the narrow limits of ego-life, and in full openness and awakeness centered their lives in Christ, can truly respond to the miseria of others and—beyond all mere compassion—perform the act of that redeeming loving kindness which conveys to the wretched a breath of the love of God and lifts them from their misery, “Lifting up the poor out of the dunghill, that he may place him with princes, with the princes of his people” (Ps. 112:7-8).
Mercy presupposes humility
Nor is this holy sovereignty possible without humility. He alone who is deeply humble is blessed with true inward freedom and fluidity; he alone is free from all impeding hardness. The general significance of humility as a condition of all participation in the divine life stands out in particular brightness when it is a question of mercy. Our possession of the highest human virtue (which is humility) constitutes the necessary foundation for our progress towards sharing the specifically divine virtue of mercy. We must die to ourselves so that the mercy of Christ may fill us. With St. John the Baptist we must say: “He must increase; but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Our mercy toward others is the measure of our life in Christ
Mercy, the specifically supernatural virtue, thus provides a touchstone more infallible perhaps than the test of any other virtue for a life conceived and molded in Christ. Hence, the question whether we have been merciful must play a decisive part in our examination of conscience. Many are the occasions for mercy which we miss. Only too often do we, as did the Pharisee, pass by a wounded one—clinging to our personal concerns, circumscribed by our lack of freedom.
Yet, the virtue by which we live hourly is precisely the one of which we ought to be most mindful. And the mercy of God is what we live by. It pervades our lives integrally; it is the primal truth on which the whole being of a Christian rests. “For his mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 135:1). Indeed, the light of which the Psalmist says, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us” (Ps. 4:7), is His mercy who “maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad” (Matt. 5:45) and who “spared not even His own Son” (Rom. 8:32) in order to redeem us.
The way to attain the virtue of mercy lies in our constant awareness of being encompassed by mercy; of the fact that mercy is the air we children of God are breathing. May the mercy of God, of whom the Church says: “With eternal love did the Lord love us, wherefore He drew us, raised from the earth, to His heart in commiseration” (Office of the Sacred Heart of Jesus)—may this mercy of God pierce and transform our hearts. May it draw us into the orbit of its all-conquering, liberating, suave power, before which all worldly standards collapse.
For according to the words of the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”), only insofar as we become merciful ourselves may we harvest the fruits of His mercy and taste, on a day to come, the last word of His mercy “that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard: neither hath it entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9).
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”