In the history of the Church and of the world, we find evidence of various ways of regarding both the theory and the practice of mercy in interpersonal and social relationships. Each model of mercy emphasizes some particular aspect of doing good to another person, and all are complementary and more completely describe this reality we call mercy in human relationships. In our times we can rediscover each of the models of mercy evident in the history of the Church, and also a false notion of mercy that equates it with a feeling of pity, leniency towards evil, or shattering justice; and we find philosophical currents denying any need for mercy whatsoever. We are also witnessing the birth of a new school of mercy, created by St. Sister Faustina and John Paul II and called by theologians – personalistic. Learning from these schools of mercy will allow one to know the truth of Christian mercy, for the practice of mercy depends on the way it is understood.
A Look at Christian Mercy
Conversations with Father Prof. Henryk Wejman
What was the concept of mercy in the first centuries of Christianity?
To discover the reality of mercy in the first centuries of Christianity, one needs to refer to its understanding by the important people of that time, such as Tertullian, who is considered the father of Christian Latin literature; St. Cyprian – Bishop of Carthage, called man of mercy; and St. Augustine – Bishop of Hippo, considered the greatest theologian of the Patristic period. The concept of mercy at that period can be presented only in the light of their teachings.
Tertullian used the concept of alms to denote mercy. However, he did not limit its content merely to giving physical assistance to another person, but included showing spiritual support. He put it perfectly in the treaty: “On running away from persecution” (De Fuga in Persecutione) from the work Apologeticus, in which he set out the meanings of both concepts. He wrote that “It is not alms he looks for, who comes not to be pitied, but to be feared. I will give, therefore, because I pity, not because I fear” (De Fuga in Persecutione, 13). In Tertullian’s understanding almsgiving meant providing assistance to someone who asks for it, and not when the person in need wants to enforce it by fear. Mercy, therefore, is a voluntary act involving assistance freely given to another person and precludes any element of force. All human needs, both material and spiritual are to be included within the scope of showing mercy, and the basis of showing mercy must be the mercy of God revealed in Christ.
Cyprian’s understanding of mercy (c.200-258) approximated to a rea- lization of the religious and moral duties of the faithful. He saw in Christ’s command to be merciful the motivation for such action on their part. When the faithful undertake acts of mercy in such a spirit, they show them to Jesus Himself, but when they avoid such actions, they deny mercy to Him. Jesus’ rewards for showing mercy are spiritual joy for those here on earth and spiritual good things in the afterlife; and for lack of mercy Jesus gives them in this life a “whipping” in the form of misfortune, and threatens them with the ultimate punishment, hellfire. According to Cyprian, mercy in this way consti- tutes an essential act of making amends to God and meriting eternal life.
Augustine (354-430) perceived mercy as the act of rescuing a man in need. Mercy gains its value, however, due to supernatural motivation, i.e. when it is practiced for God (cf. “City of God”, X, 6). Thus, mercy, according to Augustine, has two planes of reference: to people and to God. In both of them acts of mercy achieve their effects. On the one hand they support the needy, and on the other hand they express the glory of God. God is the source of such mercy. God pours it out over every human being, even the godless, but He does not preclude the condemnation of evil people.
These analyses lead us to the conclusion that mercy during early Christian times was perceived not as a human weakness, but as the mark of genuine wisdom. By showing it to one’s neighbours in a Christ-like manner, man would bring relief to the needy and merit eternal bliss with God.
Over the centuries, the concept of mercy underwent development. Probably St. Thomas Aquinas played a considerable role here. What characterizes his understanding of mercy?
Aquinas’ understanding of mercy emerged in response to its sentimen- tal presentation by the ancients. While criticising their concepts, Aquinas argued that mercy is a virtue. His claim was that mercy is a duty of man, since man’s mercy should follow from Christ’s command to imitate God in His Mercy (Mt 5: 48; Lk 6: 36), rather than a reaction to one or another kind of human misery. Thus St. Thomas in some measure altered the concept of sentimental mercy at its most practical level. According to Aquinas, everyone is at all times required to practice mercy, not only when directly confronted with human misery. He next took steps to revise the concept of the nature of mercy. He is merciful who has a compassionate heart. Of course, Aquinas understood pity not as an aid to the needy, but as a feeling of sadness, caused by the misery of the needy. Therefore he concluded that mercy is a grief, which is caused by a lack, and a lack must prompt action (STh II-II, q.30, a.2). Aquinas insisted that the sign of true mercy is that a man is sad and finds himself bewailing someone else’s evil as if it were his own. The reason for this perception may be: firstly “a community of feelings”, where the loving person considers his friend to be his other self and feels his friend’s evil as his own, grieving over him, as if from within the situation; or secondly “a community of things”, where a man takes pity on another man with the thought that the same thing could happen to him (cf. STH II-II, q. 30, a.2). This feeling, in turn, leads to a judgement of the reason, which induces man to show goodness towards the person who is in physical or moral need, in accordance with the requirements of justice. Based on these assumptions, St. Thomas acknowledged mercy as an act morally justified, but also as a moral virtue. According to him, mercy meets all the requirements of a moral virtue. Although its ground is emotions, it is activated by intellectual and volitional power. Mercy is therefore a virtue close to love, but its provocation is human misery, arousing compassion in another person (STH II-II, q.30, a.3). Where remedying the needs of others is seen as a sign of superior virtue mercy must be the greatest virtue. In the relationship of man to God, however, it cannot be regarded as the highest virtue, since love is more important than mercy, because love unites us with God. Love makes man grow in likeness to God in an existential way, and mercy does this in action. Hence mercy belongs to the effects of love. And as such mercy remains relative to justice. Without justice mercy becomes a spiritual anarchy, while justice without mercy becomes cruelty (STH I, q.21, a.3).
The catechism lists acts of mercy relating to the soul and to the body. Where does this division and this concept of mercy come from?
Aquinas’ concept of mercy, called the ‘aretologic’, was not fully inter- preted by his successors. Its commentators emphasized the so-called works of mercy and as a result the so-called ‘actualistic’ concept emerged, which entered theology textbooks and the practice of the Church. This concept was based on a willingness to systematize areas of practicing mercy in a theological way. The concept of man as a psycho-physical being became the criterion for the classification of these areas. Deeds were thus distinguished as relating either to the body or to the soul. And the biblical vision of the Last Judgement (Mt 25: 31-46), including, naturally, the acts governing man’s future life, were key for the number of people receiving mercy within this classification. This categorization seems to exhaust the topic of the existential situation of man, but needs to be further filled in. For example, the call to feed the hungry cannot be comprehended as an incentive to encourage alcohol or drug addiction. If one’s neighbours feel this kind of need, showing mercy towards them must consist in something completely different. This suggests that today the first step in showing mercy is to verify the true needs of others. While in one respect mercy may consist in refusing to meet certain needs, in another respect it may simply mean awakening reasonable needs not yet felt, such as cultural, aesthetic and religious needs.
Today, the word ‘mercy’ covers various meanings. Many of them come from the concept of mercy which appeared in the history of the Church and of human thought. In the previous issue of “Message of Mercy” we discussed three concepts of Christian mercy: the concept formed in the first centuries of Christianity, the concept of St. Thomas Aquinas and the concept of his students, who categorized works of mercy, as those pertaining to man’s soul and those pertaining to his body. Some among the many existing descriptions of mercy see this virtue as an obstacle to human development. What is their source and message?
Some of the views that occurred in history distorted the image of mercy. Such views were founded on philosophical thinking which sought to interpret history in accordance with principles of aggressiveness, desire, power and human aspirations to power. Such views concerning mercy can be called ‘a vegetative-biological concept’. Machiavelli (1469-1527), a Florentine writer, historian and diplomat, was the first one to introduce this concept. Emphasizing the principle of deception and violence in pursuit of one’s objectives, he perceived mercy as being of value for some people, yet a cruelty toward others. His psychological axioms relating to human nature were later echoed in the views of nineteenth-century positivists, among whom two philosophers in particular were especially noticeable: the Italian, V. Pareto (1848-1923) and the German, F. Nietzsche (1844-1900). For many the philosophical reflections of the latter had a very marked influence on the whole concept of mercy.
Based on the assumption of radical Darwinism, Nietzsche claimed that human life was guided by the same forces as the entire cosmos. According to him human life does not go beyond the vegetative-biological realm. The only rule that can guarantee human growth is biological vigour and competition. Only in this way can man – in Nietzsche’s view – achieve full humanity and gain his proper position in society. Mercy is the one thing that can hamper human progress in this field. That is why Nietzsche strongly opposed the ethos of mercy. He regarded mercy as a sign of weakness and an obstacle in man’s struggle to realize his humanity and achieve an important social position. For him, mercy underlies the morality of slaves – whose desire is to attract attention to themselves in this way and to draw attention to their position so as to discredit their masters. For this reason, his contemptuous and even hostile attitude towards people relying on the mercy or charity of others is not surprising. He expressed this hostile attitude perhaps most clearly in the words: “Verily, I like them not, the merciful ones, whose bliss is in their pity: too destitute are they of bashfulness” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, p. 57). Discrediting the need for and value of mercy in interpersonal relationships led Nietzsche to deny the existence of God. According to him, faith in a merciful God is the greatest contributor to the regression of man. For this not to affect man, and equally for man to be able to experience proper human fulfilment, it is necessary – according to Nietzsche – to reject God. In the place of God, however, as rejection causes a void, man must introduce – claimed Nietzsche – confidence in one’s own power. Only then can man fully develop. This is how Nietzsche came to question the value of mercy in human relationships.
Under communism, with its struggle for class equality and social justice, mercy was as if excluded from people’s consciousness. Was mercy not needed at that time?
The fact that during the communist period, the principle of class struggle was emphasized as the only and the inevitable means of abolishing social inequalities and achieving social progress, and thus improving the human condition, does not mean that mercy was not needed and that it had no raison d’être. The more the principle of class struggle was promoted, the more the value of mercy revealed itself in interpersonal relationships. The idea of social justice, so strongly emphasized by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and F. Engels (1820-1895), and intended to contribute to the abolition of class and bring about a classless society, when practiced in everyday life proved instead to create ever deeper divisions and social inequalities between people. As a result what emerged was the need for a special kind of mercy. Its value was noticed not only by ordinary people, i.e. those who experienced various difficulties arising from the introduction by communism of the principles of ‘social justice’, but also by the representatives of communism. Of course it is difficult to determine whether those representatives emphasized the value of mercy in interpersonal relationships intending to address the shortages of people in need, or in order to secure their own position, but nevertheless it should be noted that they saw this need. M. Fritzhand, a continuator of Marxist thought, expressed this in a special way. He believed that although fighting and violence are not intrinsically evil and may therefore be justifiably used to achieve social justice, to achieve this end certain conditions have to be taken into account. He expressed this in the following statement: “Hatred should not be understood otherwise than as hatred for the living conditions which cause and maintain social evil. The proletariat in its struggle with the bourgeoisie should not make the task of exterminating the human substratum of the hostile class their rule.” The first part of his statement is a repetition of the distinction, popular in Christianity, between the hatred of the evil act (the sin), and the hatred of the evil doer (the sinner) (one can condemn the sin, but never the sinner). The second part of his statement is an appeal not to associate the violence of class struggle with the physical extermination of class enemies. The position of M. Fritzhand shows that in communism, although mercy was officially discredited, indirectly the need for mercy was to some extent noticed.
What are the manifestations of the negative concepts of mercy in the world today?
Negative interpretations of mercy, both the vegetative-biological represented mainly by Nietzsche, and the socio-political promoted by K. Marx and F. Engels and their followers, have had negative consequences for the existence of modern man.
To some extent, Nietzsche’s view of mercy, looked at from a biological perspective, still has its effects today. It finds its expression on the one hand in the defence of human self-sufficiency in terms of personal development, i.e. not taking into account any assistance offered both by another human being or by God, and on the other hand, the glorification of power in interpersonal relations, i.e. valuing powerful people more than those with life wisdom and sensitivity to the needs of others. Another consequence of this perspective is that, still today, many people narrow down their conception of mercy to pity alone.
The Marxist approach to mercy has also influenced the conceptions of people today. The theory of social justice, advocated for many years, today leads many people to wish to isolate the idea of justice from the idea of love. In practical life it manifests itself in the fact that many people enforce their claims by means of pure justice. In other words, it seems that if one has a right to some goods, one does not necessarily have to take into account the personal needs of others. Such an ideology clearly constitutes a return to the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (cf. Lev 24: 20). The ancient Romans already recognized as fact what John Paul II reminded us of in the Encyclical Dives in Misericordia, i.e. that a world of pure justice becomes a cruel and merciless world, summum ius – summa iniuria (cf. DM 12). Thus, in order to avoid depersonalization, it is essential that one’s relations with others must be guided by mercy.
Sr. M. Koleta Fronckowiak OLM gives her warmest thanks for the conversation.
„Orędzie Miłosierdzia” (Message of Mercy) 63(2007), 64(2007), pp. 8-9.
Translated by Orest Pawlak