St Thomas Aquinas: the relationship of mercy to justice

We have heard a lot about (the new) mercy during the past months, and with respect to the (sometimes strange and surprising) topics discussed at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

The remarks of some of the participants in the debates gave the impression that the insistence on truth—and on justice based on truth—is indicative of a merciless mentality.

Does that mean that in order to be merciful we have to reduce our emphasis on truth and justice?

And so the broader question arises: What is the correct relation between mercy and justice according to the traditional teaching of the Church?

In order to answer this question it is useful to take a brief look to St. Thomas Aquinas.

In unfolding his concept of justice, Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle.

He defines justice as the cardinal virtue which leads a person to give respectively leave to everyone that to which he is entitled or that he owes him. The aim of justice is the common good.

But the circumstances under which justice is to be granted can be of various types. Therefore it is necessary to distinguish between different manifestations of the general principle of justice.

In the case where the individual owes something to society, he has to follow that justice which is in accordance with the law (justitia legalis).

If it is society that owes something to the individual, distributive justice (justitia distrubutiva) has to be applied.

If an individual owes something to another individual, their relationship is to be regulated according to commutative justice (justitia commutativa).

However, there are cases in which an individual or group lacks that to which this person or group is entitled because it is necessary for its survival or at least essential for its good life.

Such lack does not necessarily have its origin in unjust conditions, but is often due to ethically neutral circumstances. This is the situation in which mercy comes into play.

Thomas adopts Augustine’s definition of mercy as compassion in declaring, “Mercy is the compassion of our heart when considering the misery of another person”. Continue reading


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