Divine Mercy 101: Aquinas on Mercy, Judgment, and Mary

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

WEEK 22: Aquinas on Mercy, Judgment, and Mary

St. Thomas Aquinas goes on to say that by requiring satisfaction for sin, God was not only being just, but also merciful. He argues that it is even more merciful for God to ask for reparation for sin than if He had just decided to "let bygones be bygones," so to speak. John Saward sums up St. Thomas' insight as follows:

God wanted a two-way covenant, one in which man, his free and rational creature, would be a committed partner. In so doing, the Father shows the richness of his mercy and his infinite respect for the dignity of man made in his own image. It was far more glorious for man to restore his nature and destiny by his own acts [to some extent] than purely and simply to receive salvation....

This human involvement has two moments.

First, superabundant satisfaction for all human sin is made by the man who is God, by the divine person of the Son in his human nature, through his human actions and through his sufferings, through his loving human will.

Then he associates human persons in that victory over sin; he gives us, his members, grace to cooperate in our salvation and our brethren's, by making satisfaction for our sins and theirs. We do not render atonement by our own unaided powers (to imagine so would be the delusion of Pelagius). No, the satisfaction of the members draws all its efficacy from the satisfaction of the Head.

In this way the Church is said by modern theologians to be "co-redemptive" in its mission: sharing in Christ's redemptive work, filled with His grace and thereby enriched with His merits. This is a far greater dignity for humanity than if we had just been saved as passive objects of irresistible, coercive grace (as in, for example, the classical Calvinist understanding of salvation).

In short, for St. Thomas not only the fact that we are given a Savior, but even the manner in which we are saved is an expression of God's mercy toward us, restoring the lost dignity of the children of God.

The Final Judgment of a Merciful Judge
St. Thomas points out that it is significant that when our Lord speaks of His second coming as judge of the world, He refers to Himself as "Son of Man." There are several reasons for this:

(1) if He came only in divine form to be our judge, He could not be seen except by the blessed;
(2) it is fitting that Christ comes again to judge the world in the same form in which He was judged and condemned by Pontius Pilate;
(3) it is in accord with the Mercy of God that mankind will be given final judgement by a man.

In this regard, St. Thomas refers to Hebrews 4:15: "We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses." In other words, as it is in His human form that the Son of God ascends to the father, so it is in the same compassionate human nature, both affectively and effectively merciful, that He comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Mary, Mother of Mercy
Preaching on the Feast of the Purification, St. Thomas quotes a text from the letter to the Hebrews: "Let us therefore go with confidence to the temple of grace, that we may find mercy at the opportune time" (Heb. 4:16). St. Thomas applies this text to Mary and sees her womb as the temple of grace. In other words, by bringing the merciful Christ into the world, Mary shows mercy to us, her fellow creatures, a mercy that is feminine and motherly. For example, in the Summa Theologiae (ST III.30.1), St. Thomas writes that "at the Annunciation the Virgin's consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human race."

Again, the thought here is that by her "fiat," by her consent in faith and love to the divine plan of the Incarnation, "Mary gave the Son of God in his human nature to the world, and so made possible the supreme revelation of God's mercy" (Saward, p. 94).

This series continues next week on the theme, "St. Thomas Aquinas & St. Catherine of Siena." 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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