How can God be both just and merciful?

May 6, 2011

Faith and Reasons

The virtues of justice and mercy were juxtaposed as news of Osama bin Laden’s death came on the Feast of Divine Mercy. While some question the way he was treated, few doubt the justice of punishing a notorious terrorist leader responsible for the deaths of thousands.

Still, the fact that this killing was reported on a day when Catholics celebrate God’s infinite mercy and pray for the grace to be merciful themselves made me wonder what exactly constitutes justice and mercy, and whether God always expresses both virtues.

According to Merriam Webster, justice is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments. Mercy is defined as “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power; also : lenient or compassionate treatment.”

For centuries saints have tried figure out how these seemingly contradictory virtues are fused in God’s nature without denying either one.

St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that God is always just and merciful. Because he only acts according to his wisdom and goodness, doing everything in created things according to proper order and proportion, God is always just.

Also, because God was merciful in creating us anything he does presupposes his mercy and that his subsequent actions are also merciful, St Thomas writes. “So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes.”

What ties the virtues together in God’s nature is the fact that they are both rooted in love, Bl. John Paul II writes in his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia. In the redemption of humanity, it is evident that justice flows from love and that “mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name.”

The two attributes come together most at the Cross, Bl. John Paul states. Redemption is the ultimate revelation of God’s holiness and from it comes the fullness of justice and love. Absolute justice, even a “superabundance” of justice is expressed for our sins which are “compensated for” by Christ’s sacrifice.

At the same time, the paschal Christ is the “definitive incarnation of mercy,” although he himself received no mercy from the humans he would die to save.

Bl. John Paul writes, “The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.”

Perfect in both justice and mercy, the Lord stressed to St. Faustina the importance of mercy. “Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of My hands are crowned with mercy.”

God’s actions may seem more just or merciful but in reality even punishment involves both virtues, St. Thomas writes. “Certain works are attributed to justice, and certain others to mercy, because in some justice appears more forcibly and in others mercy.”

While no one is exempt from justice, mercy is offered to all, Jesus told St. Faustina. “On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls—no one have I excluded!”

About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

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