Justice and Mercy

Author: Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco

Justice and Mercy

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco
Archbishop of Genoa
President of the Italian Bishops' Conference

President of the Italian Bishops' Conference lectures on 'Giving freely without boundaries'

Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, justice without mercy is cruelty

On 24 November [2008], at the Quadrivium Hall in Genoa, Italy, a meeting was held on the theme: "justice and Mercy". It was the first in a series of lectures entitled "Giving freely without boundaries". The following is a translation from Italian, of excerpts of the conference given by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa, and President of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

The conviction reached by the Church in light of what she has witnessed during the 2,000 years of her history with biblical Revelation, is that... fallen order and broken harmony are not perfectly re-established without the unity of justice and mercy. I repeat: unity between them.

Indeed, it would be a real crime if in the current circumstances — facing the divisions prevalent in humanity and in individual countries, as well as the rivalry that sets tribes, families and individual peoples against one another one were to conclude that speaking of justice and mercy was utterly pointless.

Instead, I believe that despite the difficulties present in certain situations, one can and must speak of them. It is particularly important to do so when it is clearly understood that justice and mercy are not alternative terms, nor do they signify opposing goals. Considering the relationship between secularism and faith as if they belonged to two unrelated spheres is exactly how a certain contemporary sensibility likes to describe them.

John Paul II said in his fundamental Encyclical, Dives in misericordia, states that "It would be difficult not to notice that very often programmes which start from the idea of justice and which ought to assist its fulfillment among individuals, groups and human societies, in practice suffer from distortions. Although they continue to appeal to the idea of justice, nevertheless experience shows that other negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice, such as spite, hatred and even cruelty" (n. 12).

In fact, the experience of the past and of our time shows that human justice is always fragile and imperfect, exposed as it is to the limitations and conditioning of individuals or groups, and must therefore be exercised and in a certain sense — supported by mercy, which is the interior form of love. Indeed, John Paul II explains further, "it becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice —precise and often too narrow (ibid., n. 5).

The question of the relationship between justice and mercy is an ancient one that has marked the development of Western civilization from the outset. Every time that the mind has attempted to put order between tendentially adverse opposites, such as personal freedom and social order, sin and punishment, recovery and redemption the relationship between justice and mercy has arisen regularly.

Christianity entered into this speculative effort that was so prevalent in the Greek world — from Socrates to Aristotle and Plato — and in the Roman world — from Cicero to Seneca and to Marcus Aurelius — proposing a daring synthesis that was new while at the same time containing much classical thought; thus was it to leave its mark on history. In this synthesis the ordo iustitiae and the ordo amoris are distinct yet, at the same time, deeply permeate each other.

With the Christian proclamation, justice and mercy stopped being alternatives once and for all. They became virtues that are not only interconnected but also indispensable to each other.

"Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution", St. Thomas was to say, adding that "justice without mercy is cruelty". It is a symbiotic relationship in which the dignity of the person is nevertheless its crucial compass, delegated to confer upon justice its own true dynamism, its true value. Thus it impels justice towards ever loftier goals which, finding fulfilment in mercy, bring humanity's journey to correspond ever more closely to the image of God impressed upon the human face.

Love "does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right", St. Paul says (I Cor 13:6). In fact, true mercy first requires justice, the necessary basis of social life, in which the order of Good must prevail. Those who wish to be merciful must first of all be just and feel the inner pangs produced by the "hunger and thirst for justice" of which Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount.

If it wishes to take its full course mercy must first produce justice. For this reason, mercy neither opposes nor creates alibis for justice but rather contains justice as its principal expression and essential moment. Mercy, therefore, inspires and commands justice, giving it life and light so that it is better able to surpass its own rigid and formal definitions.

The most exalted expression of this perspective is found in the teaching and life of Christ. The Lord, in many Gospel passages, while manifesting what we today would call "respect for the institutions" and for the laws of the epoch, at the same time points out the way to a superior justice that goes beyond narrow, psychological justice and transfigures it.

And he does so until his very last breath. Tortured, violated and hung on the cross by the very representatives of the law, he is implored only by the "good thief", by a criminal. But it was to be precisely the "good thief" who, through his gesture of humility and repentance, was to first merit Paradise.

This is an effective realization of what Jesus himself had predicted to a social class that considered itself formally to be honest and observant of the law par excellence; that is, that "the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you" (Mt. 21:31)

As we were saying, the admirable balance between laws and love, between justice and mercy, was never something peacefully acquired. Rather, it was a depositum that the Church sought to preserve and to continuously propose anew in the light of the acquisitions of time and of the ever greater self-knowledge that mankind gains through the generations.

As a specific example, let us think of St. Augustine and his monumental work De civitate Dei. Particularly in chapter XIX on "true justice", the Bishop of Hippo shows with incomparable effectiveness the depth of the relationship between justice and mercy, which in the Christian vision alludes to the mystery of the relationship between the City of man and the City of God.

Yet, to return more directly to us and our time, it is interesting to note that the most recent Pontiffs have desired to give us precious instructions precisely on this topic, framing them in their most remarkable teachings. One can think that the prospect of the "Civilization of Love", in the Pontificate of Paul VI, represented an ideal of life proper to those who desire to be filled with truth and love, justice and mercy.

Or let us think for a moment longer of the new meaning that John Paul II desired to give to the word "mercy", whose true and proper meaning "does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission"  (Dives in misericordia, n. 6).

I do not think it is wrong to say that the Pope who came from the East — and thus familiar with the stone-cold, anti-human regimes which then existed in that part of the continent — rehabilitated the word "mercy", extricating it from the pietistic vocabulary in order to hand it over to modernity as a convincing and plausible perspective.

Benedict XVI moves along the same lines. Significantly, he entitled a chapter of his first Encyclical, Deus caritas est, "Justice and Charity". "The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves" (n. 28).

This is why, moreover it should never be forgotten that "love —caritas— will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love" (ibid.).

Benedict XVI demonstrates that in the world, whatever degree of progress in justice is achieved by politics, there will always be suffering, there will always be loneliness, there will always be inadequacy with regard to the expectations of the human heart. In other words, there will always be a need for charity expressed in sharing and compassion: "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern" (ibid.).

Thus it is not only a question of gaps to discover and filled, but of intelligence and of the execution of public action, in its implementation as an act of justice. The common conviction that just structures would make any charitable work superfluous, in the Pope's opinion, masks "a materialistic conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live 'by bread alone' (Mt 4:4) — a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human." (ibid.).

This is a reminder that sounds particularly valuable at a time in history when the Church's practice of mercy risks being crushed, deceiving oneself that on the basis of a Promethean conception of secularism the State on its own can successfully attain perfection in justice. This would be a fatal illusion. Justice and mercy either go hand in hand, each preparing the steps of the other, or they both limp along, groping in the fog.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 January 2009, page 13

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