His Mercy and 'Tough Love'

To mark the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) on Jan. 28, the following is the second in a two-part series on the saint who explained in the greatest depth why Divine Mercy is central to the faith of the Church. (Read part one.)This series is extracted from the book by Robert Stackpole, STD, Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press):

Saint Thomas argues that in God's nature, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice coincide: They are one in the simplicity of God's essence. God is always and everywhere just and merciful, at one and the same time. When God acts mercifully, He does not act against justice but, in a sense, goes beyond it. In other words, God's justice always furthers His work of mercy, and never detracts from it. Aquinas writes: "The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is based on it" (I.21.4). For example, if God chastised the people of Israel by letting them be taken captive to Babylon, it was only so that they might be brought to repentance and national conversion. In a sense, His justice permitted them to suffer because they deserved it, but His underlying plan was not merely to "get even" with His wayward people, but ultimately to restore them to a right relationship with Himself. In this case, His mercy took the form of "tough love."

In his essay "Disputed Questions on Truth," St. Thomas explains that God is more properly merciful than punitive. To articulate this truth, St. Thomas draws upon a distinction made by St. John Damascene: a distinction between God's "antecedent" and "consequent" will. Antecedently, that is, from all eternity, God's will "before the foundation of the world" is to make us all His adopted children and sharers of His divine life. His antecedent will is that "all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4).

God's consequent will, however, is what He wills as a response to the choices made by His human creatures. He gave human beings the freedom to reject His love and spurn His mercy. If we choose to do so, then God's consequent will is to forgive the penitent and punish the hard-hearted: temporal punishment in this life, and for the stubbornly impenitent, eternal punishment in the life to come. Hence, God's antecedent will is grace and mercy for all, while His consequent will is punishment for the wicked. However, even divine punishment, St. Thomas claims, is a work of mercy as well as of justice, because God rewards the righteous and penitent far beyond their merits, and punishes the impenitent far less than they deserve.

Thus, even in His consequent will, Divine Mercy at least tempers Divine Justice. In his essay "Disputed Questions on Evil," St. Thomas writes: "The tradition of Faith holds that rational creatures would not be able to incur any evil in the soul or in the body unless sin had taken place" (I.4). Saint Thomas here refers to the effects of original sin on the human race. God did not want His people to suffer, so He created Adam and Eve incapable of suffering, along with the gift of bodily immortality. But when Adam and Eve fell from grace, they lost those gifts for themselves and for their posterity by their disobedience to God. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, a new kind of human existence, a kind God had never intended, thereby sinned itself into existence. As a result, Adam and Eve and all of their descendents became subject to suffering and death. All of this was certainly not God's antecedent will for His people! Nevertheless, God permitted the fall of man, with all its tragic effects, because it made possible the most amazing display of His merciful love for us, when He sent us Jesus the Savior to die for our sins on the Cross.

Humanity was certainly in a dire predicament after the fall of Adam and Eve. It is possible for sinners to have a right relationship with God restored only if they make a proper "satisfaction" to God for sin. The problem is that making satisfaction to God for sin is precisely what man, by his own power, could not do. He could not make up for sin (for the past cannot be undone, and a man has nothing "extra" in the present or future to offer to God for his past sins, since a life of perfect obedience was owed by each of us to God our Creator anyway). Besides, man owes to God an infinite compensation for sin, since by sin he has betrayed and offended Infinite Love. Yet we have nothing infinite to offer God to make up for our sins. Moreover, human nature, corrupted by sin, needs to be regenerated and renewed, for only a renewed, regenerated soul could possibly offer any pleasing satisfaction to God: but again, the regeneration of the soul is beyond human power.

Given that both the satisfaction for our sins and the regeneration of our sinful souls is entirely beyond our power, the human race is desperately in need of a Savior. Of course, St. Thomas argues that God Himself is our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

View archived Q&A columns.

You might also like...

The letters in the New Testament from Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast we celebrate on Jun. 29, are the praise and proclamation of God's mercy, and an exhortation to practice it.

Today bring to Me THE SOULS WHO ARE DETAINED IN PURGATORY, and immerse them in the abyss of My mercy.

Today bring to Me THE SOULS WHO ESPECIALLY VENERATE AND GLORIFY MY MERCY, and immerse them in My mercy.