E. Borgman – A Field hospital after Battle

3. Mercy as the basis for justice 

For Thomas Aquinas, being merciful has a Divine quality in the sense that mercy desires to bestow on that with which it engages the good that it lacks. It gives freely what the other needs, or hopes and longs for.[15] Thus, for Aquinas, mercy is both the awareness that others lack something that would benefit them, and that they have the intrinsic value and dignity that make them worthy to receive that. In other words, counter to common understanding, in Aquinas’s view mercy has nothing to do with pity in the condescending sense of the word. It is by no means thinking someone is pathetic and offering him or her something out of an arbitrary sentiment of feeling sorry (no. 37). 

Mercy means recognizing others as God’s creatures, as expressions of God’s goodness. God ‘brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them’, Thomas Aquinas writes, and Pope Francis has quoted him affirmatively. ‘And because [God’s] goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another’.[16] This means that every creature, and especially every human being, has something unique to contribute to the common good. Everyone is uniquely valuable in his or her own way. Mercy means seeing what is lacking for people to fulfill their true potential, as God desires for them. Therefore, in Pope Francis’s view, mercy leads to a better society, not only for those being mercifully approached, but for all involved. In his remarkable speech to the American Congress during the apostolic journey mentioned above, Pope Francis stated: 

Let us remember the Golden Rule: ’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt. 7:12). This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.[17]

Being merciful means providing opportunities where they are not. In this way, everybody gains opportunities to become what they are meant to be: unique expressions of God’s goodness that contribute to the common good. Merciful contemplation means seeing all human beings not as burdens or competitors for limited and scarce food and shelter , but as enriching and beneficial sources of renewal. 

[15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 30, a. 4. 

[16]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 47, a. 1; quoted in Pope Francis, Encyclical letter Laudato si’ (24 May 2015), no. 86.

[17] Pope Francis, address to the joint session of the United States Congress (24 September 2015).