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The God of Both Justice and Mercy

DM 101: Week 17

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 28, 2005)
St. Augustine tells us in his Enchidrion that God's mercy is expressed especially in the practice of penance (section 65):

But we should not despair of God's mercy for the forgiveness of actual crimes, however great, in the holy Church for those who do penance, each in a way appropriate to his sin. But in works of penance, when a sin has been committed of such a kind that he who committed it is also cut off from the Body of Christ, time should not be measured so much as sorrow, since God does not despise a broken and contrite heart.

He continues in the same work (section 82):

Penance itself, when there is a good reason for doing it according to the custom of the Church, is often neglected because of weakness, for shame brings with it a fear of being ill thought of when we care more for the good opinion of others than for the righteousness that leads a person to humiliate himself in penance. So we need God's mercy not only when we do penance, but in order to do penance.

In fact, Augustine writes, forgiveness of sins is so readily available in the Church that the only unforgivable sin " the sin against the Holy Spirit " is not to believe that sins are forgiven in the Church (section 83).

The most disappointing aspect of St. Augustine's treatment of Divine Mercy comes in his discussion of pre-destination. St. Paul says in Romans that God's will is to "have mercy on all" (Rom. 11:32), and in his first epistle to Timothy he writes: "His will is for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." It is hard to see how this Scriptural teaching about God's offer of mercy to 'all' fits with what St. Augustine writes in his Enchidrion (sections 107, 98, and 102):

God makes out of the mass of perdition [that is, out of fallen humanity] that has flowed from [Adam's stock] some vessels of honor and some of dishonor; the vessels of honor he makes through his mercy, those of dishonor through his justice, so that nobody may boast of humanity and consequently nobody may boast of himself. ...That is, he has mercy in his great generosity, and he hardens the heart without any unfairness, so that one who has been set free should not boast of his merits, nor should one who has been damned complain, except of his lack of merits. For grace alone distinguishes the redeemed from the lost, who have been formed into one mass of perdition by a cause common to all from which they draw from their origin. ...So, almighty God either in his mercy shows mercy to whom he will or through justice hardens whom he will, and never does anything unfairly or unwillingly, and does everything that he wills.

The underlying thought here is that God wills to have mercy on some sinners, but not on all of them. Original and actual sin has left all people worthy only of damnation. By His eternal decree, however, and as an act of sheer mercy, God has elected some sinners to be the objects of His mercy, objects of His (evidently irresistible) saving grace, while others His mercy has simply passed by: they are treated solely as objects of His justice, for he leaves them wallowing in sin and its consequences. They have no right to complain, however, because they are only receiving what they deserve.

What has happened here is that St. Augustine has treated God's justice and God's mercy as alternatives, as two distinct "sides" of God's nature, so to speak. Some sinners encounter His mercy side, and some sinners encounter only his justice side. Yet it is not at all clear how God could be said to will the gift of mercy for "all" (Rom. 11:32) or will "all to be saved" (I Tim. 2:4). As St. Paul clearly taught, if God in fact bestows His mercy only on some, others are completely passed by. The damned may indeed only receive in the end what, they truly deserve, but how can God be said to desire to have mercy on all if He never gave to them, at some point in their lives, grace sufficient for them to be saved, if only they would have received it?

This, of course, brings us to the centuries-long conflict between the Jesuits and the Dominicans (and in another way, in the Protestant world, between the Arminians and the Calvinists) regarding the whole doctrine of pre-destination. We certainly do not have the space to unfold that theological controversy here. Suffice it to say that the Dominicans generally held to the view of St. Augustine (with some clarifications, in an attempt to preserve the free consent of the human soul to saving grace), while the Jesuits objected to their formulation of the doctrine. Both points of view are permissible within the Catholic Church, according to the magisterium. Quite apart from the technicalities of that debate, however, is the danger of seeing God's justice and mercy as alternative ways in which He relates to His creatures " opposite sides of his "character," so to speak.

A surface reading of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska's Diary also might lead us to believe in this two-sided God. For example, St. Faustina heard Jesus say that those who run away from His merciful Heart will fall into the hands of His justice (entry 1728) and with regard to Purgatory, our Lord told her, "My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it" (entry 20). On the other hand, there are plenty of passages in her Diary where she records Jesus' words of comfort, words that show He is reluctant to punish sinners, tempers his justice with mercy, and withholds the full rigor of His justice until the Judgement Day, giving humanity the maximum opportunity for repentance (entries 848, 1160). One of the most poignant of these passages is Diary entry 1588. Jesus said to her:

I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice.

Passages such as these suggest that our experience of the rigors of divine justice is largely self-inflicted, just as a man who leaves the warmth of a fire grows cold through no fault of the fire itself. In Diary entry 1728, Jesus said to St. Faustina that when sinful souls "bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone and giving them what they want."

In the Church today, much of liberal, "progressive" theology denies the justice (in the sense of the commutative or penal justice) of God. Thus, there is no hell, no purgatorial punishment, nor does God ever chastise anyone in this life, nor is anything owed to God on the scales of justice because of our sins. It follows that Jesus may have done great things for us, but he did not need to die for our sins in the sense of making "satisfaction" for them, or paying the penalty for them on our behalf.

On the other hand, much of "conservative," or traditionalist Catholicism falls into the trap of seeing God's mercy and justice as two distinct sides if His nature " much as the later Augustine did. The trick is to activate or respond to His good side, and avoid His bad side!

Some of the greatest saints and theologians in the Catholic tradition, however, have struggled to find a way to fuse together, in a single vision, the justice and mercy of God, without denying either one. How God's justice and mercy are one in the absolute simplicity of the infinite divine nature is, of course, a mystery that we can never completely fathom in this life. It is beyond our capacity as finite minds, and as fallen creatures, fully to comprehend. But even in this life we can begin to see that God's justice " His occasional chastisements of us in this life, and His purgatorial punishments of us in the next " are also, at one and the same time, expressions of His mercy toward us. Even more difficult to fathom, however, is how the final damnation of a soul is also, in another way, God's final act of mercy toward that soul! And yet we can know, right from the start, that it must be so: Philosophy shows us that God's nature is absolutely simple and indivisible, so that His justice must always be an expression of His mercy; moreover, the Psalms clearly say that God's mercy is over all His works (Ps. 145:9), and that all His ways are merciful (Ps. 25:10). Most of all, the Cross of Jesus Christ, as Pope John Paul II clearly taught, is the supreme exposition of both the mercy and the justice of God, at one and the same time (Dives in Misericordia, V.7 and V.8). Throughout the rest of this course, we will continue to explore this great mystery of the just Mercy and the merciful Justice of the infinitely perfect God.

(This series continues next week on Divine Mercy in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas)

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