Part 1: Confusion Reigns!

The following is the first of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice:

If you ask people devoted to the Divine Mercy why they find the message and devotion so helpful, often they will tell you, "Because it helped me see that God is not a God of wrath and anger, but One who loves us all with great mercy and compassion."

On the other hand, if you ask many "ultra-traditionalist" Catholics what they object to about the Divine Mercy message and devotion, often they will say (and do say, especially on their websites), "It distorts Catholic doctrine about God, because it says that He is a God of mercy only, and not also a God of justice."

These two perspectives have something very significant in common: They are both wrong.

As the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, a post which I have held for 17 years, I meet people with these misunderstandings all the time. For example, a while back someone pointed out to me an article on an ultra-traditionalist website that claimed that the revelations given to St. Faustina were heretical, because they offered us "complete remission of sins and punishment" on Divine Mercy Sunday without the requirement of penance and perfect contrition for sin. This, they said, is unheard of in Catholic Tradition, and violates the justice of God.

It's not, and it doesn't. In any adult Baptism, the soul is washed clean with the complete remission of sins and punishment even if the soul is in a state of imperfect sorrow and repentance for sin. And this is not a violation of Divine Justice. As St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in his Scriptum super Sententias (d.2, q.1, quaes. 2), since in Baptism we are baptized into the death of Christ, as Romans 6 teaches, the baptized person receives the full effects of Christ's Passion and Death. In other words, our Savior's merits completely remit our sins and all the punishment due to them.

And yet, the ultra-trads are right about one thing: The Catholic Faith holds that God is both a God of perfect justice and of perfect mercy, at one and the same time. That truth of the faith is almost completely ignored in the Church today. But it is the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, of Sacred Tradition, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and of St. Faustina's revelations, as recorded in her Diary. In fact, as I hope to show in this series, without a proper understanding of the justice of God, we cannot fully appreciate His Divine Mercy either!

To begin with, we need to be clear by what we mean by the terms "Divine Mercy" and "Divine Justice."

For a definition of Divine Mercy, I am going to quote here what I wrote in my book Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (2009 edition, pp. 19 and 26):

Divine Mercy is God's love reaching down to meet the needs and overcome the miseries of His creatures. The Bible, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope [St.] John Paul II all assure us that this is so. ...

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in general as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him" (ST II-II.30.1). Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that God's eternal love takes when He reaches out to us in our need and our brokenness. Whatever the nature of our need or our misery might be - sin, guilt, suffering, death - He is always ready to pour out His merciful, compassionate love for us, to help in time of need.

By Divine Justice, on the other hand, we shall mean, first of all, what theologians traditionally called God's "commutative justice" - in other words, the attribute by which, in the end, He renders to each and all precisely what is their due for all the good and evil they have done. It's what our Lord was referring to when He said in Matthew 16:27, "For the Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and He will repay every man for what he has done." It is what St. Paul taught in Romans 2:6-8: "For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who with patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life, but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury."

Scripture and Sacred Tradition are emphatic: God is not only a God of merciful love, He is also a God of judgment and commutative justice. In that sense, and in that sense alone, He is a God of "wrath" and "anger." These terms do not refer to emotions or temper-tantrums in God, but are simply metaphorical, human ways of speaking about His commutative justice. The trouble is that contemporary Catholic theology in general, and popular presentations of it in particular, tend to mute the uncomfortable truth about Divine Justice almost down to silence.

For some radical, dissident Catholic theologians, of course, there is no hell, there is no purgatory, nor does God ever chastise anyone in this life, nor is anything owed to God on the scales of justice because of our sins. We are not really guilty of serious sin anyway; just mentally and emotionally ill. In short, God is really no more than a cosmic psychotherapist.

But it's not just the radicals who spread confusion about all this. In his otherwise excellent popular book and DVD series, Catholicism, Fr. Robert Barron reassures us that even if there is a hell, we can "reasonably hope" that no one will ever end up there. Purgatory, he shows, is a place of spiritual healing - a painful healing process, to be sure - but not also a place of "temporal punishment" for half-repented sin (at least, he never explains the judicial dimension of that painful, purgatorial healing process). Moreover, 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 to Divine Justice or "paying the penalty" for them on our behalf - at least, Fr. Barron never mentions that aspect of the doctrine of the Cross at all.

Why this shying away from the fullness of God's revelation here - even by many of the best Catholic writers today?

On the one hand, they shy away from speaking of the Justice of God for very good pastoral and historical reasons. One could make the case that down through history, both Catholic and Protestant history, it was the merciful love of God that all too often was "muted" by theologians while they proceeded to work out their grim scenarios of predestination, election, and final judgment. This left far too many Christians in fear of God but few who could truly love and trust Him. How can we forget that for more than 1,000 years, from the beginning of the dark ages until the end of the 19th century, most Christians, both east and west, were afraid to receive Holy Communion more than a handful of times per year, lest they receive "unworthily" and provoke Divine Judgment!

Given how deeply wounded many people are in our contemporary western world - wounded especially through family breakdown and dysfunction on an unprecedented scale - the first thing most people need to hear is that they have a Savior from all this misery, a Good Shepherd and Beloved Physician of the soul whom they can approach with trustful surrender of the heart, not a Judge who is standing over them, ready to issue a sentence of "guilty on all charges." Many people are so psychologically broken and confused these days that it's hard for them to sort out what they are really guilty of and what they are not guilty of. Many do not even understand the basics of the natural moral law. We are in a new era, I think, not one that should lead us to deny the reality of sin and judgment, but one that should lead us to recognize the fact that a lot of initial, remedial clarification first needs to happen. Only then can people come to an authentic understanding of their sins and thereby experience true repentance.

So I appreciate the historical and pastoral caution manifest, for example, in Fr. Barron's book. Nevertheless, Divine Justice and Final Judgment are revealed truths of the Christian faith, and again, as I shall explain in this series, I don't see how we can fully appreciate the merciful love of God without a proper understanding of His justice, too.

One of the underlying problems, it seems to me, is that many Catholics have bought into the modern view that God's attributes of justice and mercy are really incompatible opposites, alternative and mutually exclusive ways in which He might relate to His creatures, whereas classical Christian teaching saw them as united in the infinite mystery of God's own nature. Somehow, God's justice is always exercised with mercy, and His mercy is never unjust.

In fact, some of the greatest saints and theologians have struggled to find a way to fuse together in a single vision God's justice and mercy. Indeed, this is a mystery we can never completely fathom with our limited minds. Even in this life, however, from a Catholic perspective, as I explained in Divine Mercy: A Guide (pp. 96-97):

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. If He sometimes chastises us by permitting us to suffer, it is only to "wake us up" and summon us back to repentance and faith ("Those whom the Lord loves, He chastises" [Heb 12:6]), and purgatory is not only a place of temporal punishment for half-repented sin; it is also, at the same time, a "purging" that mercifully sanctifies and heals the soul (see Catechism, 1030).

More difficult to fathom 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: [the Catholic philosophical tradition] shows us that God's nature is absolutely simple and indivisible, so that His justice must always be an expression of His mercy. [In fact] the simplicity and indivisibility of the divine nature was a truth solemnly defined at the First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter One. Moreover, the Psalms clearly state that God's mercy is over all His works (see Ps 145:9). Most of all, as we shall see, the Cross of Jesus Christ ... is the supreme exposition of both the mercy and the justice of God.

Moreover, it's not just the commutative justice of God that is often overlooked by Catholics today. Even devotees of the Divine Mercy often forget that God's merciful love demands that we seek "social justice" as well. Proclaiming Divine Mercy without seeking social justice for all, as much as we can, is a scandalous sin of omission. This, too, we shall explore in the weeks to come.

Suffice it to say here that throughout the rest of this series, I hope to show how important it is to our Catholic faith - and especially to the Divine Mercy message and devotion! - to believe that God is always perfectly just and perfectly merciful in all that He does for us and all that He asks of us. Unless we really understand this, our devotion to the Divine Mercy will be merely slushy and sentimental rather than the life-changing expression of the Gospel that our Lord intended it to be.

In the weeks to come, therefore, we will look closely at the way Divine Mercy and Divine Justice are properly expressed in the doctrine of the Cross and the doctrine of Hell, and finally, in the Church's important teachings about social justice.

Read the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.


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