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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question H: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5.7)?

1. People whose primary love is charity are disposed to divine goodness before all else. But God practices no partiality and is utterly and absolutely faithful; he is unconcerned with justice to himself, for his own goodness is absolute. One identified by charity with the universal good can and will take the same totally disinterested and selfless attitude. Thus the fifth Christian mode of response is to be merciful according to the universal and perfect measure of mercy which God has revealed in Jesus. This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the fifth mode of responsibility: One should not, in response to different feelings toward different persons, willingly proceed with a preference for anyone unless the preference is required by intelligible goods themselves.

In the fallen human condition, the prevalence of unfairness and the harshness of living conditions are important obstacles to the fulfillment of the fifth mode of responsibility. To survive in a situation of struggle and scarcity one needs some reliable companions, and one must meet some standard of fairness in dealing with them. But beyond the circle of one’s own group, one is hardly likely to be treated impartially and can hardly afford to treat others impartially. For practical purposes, people must be divided into friends and enemies; one is virtually compelled to do good to one’s friends and to treat one’s enemies as they seem to deserve. Even apart from the New Testament, divine revelation greatly deepens the mode of responsibility, by making clear the universal need for mercy, God’s universal granting of it, and the general obligation to imitate his example (8‑E).

However, many people unwilling to go beyond the requirements of strict justice seem very conscientious in matters of fairness. What is the basis of this disposition? The answer generally is that people are careful about rights and duties within an established framework of conventional morality, but set some very arbitrary limits. For example, many secular humanists who are very careful to be fair in many matters establish arbitrary criteria of quality of life, by which they are willing to kill certain groups of persons. If one can impose upon others one’s ideology, one can afford to be fair within the framework of this ideology. Those who make the rules normally want the game played by them.

Christian revelation, accepted with living faith, transforms the understanding of human goods and human community. Human goods can and will be realized in the fulfillment of everything in Jesus; there, too, everyone willing to accept a place has one. All the boundaries of existing societies therefore dissolve. Moreover, the fulfillment which consists in commitment to goods and the handing on of redemption to other persons clearly is far more important than the actual share in a good which one receives.

2. The virtuous disposition present in this mode of Christian response is Jesus-like mercy, generosity, compassion, service to others. This is a disposition to require of others not even that to which fairness entitles one and to be available to them without any consideration of what is fair. The vice opposed to this virtue is a legalistic attitude toward others; one tries to protect one’s interests by appealing to a framework of fairness which establishes rights and limits responsibilities.

3. “Mercy” as the Beatitude uses it means not only forgiveness but the generous doing of good to others without counting the cost to oneself.25 The new law of retaliation is to turn the other cheek; the new law for settling disputes is to give more than is demanded; the new law for service is to double what is asked; the new law for lending is to give without reservation; the new law for forgiveness is to love enemies, treat them as friends, and so seek the redemption of persecutors (see Mt 5.38–48). While the Christian must protect what is essential to fulfilling his or her personal vocation, self-interest is entirely excluded.

4. With the parable of the merciless official (see Mt 18.23–35), Jesus makes it inescapably clear that Christians, who are aware of their need for God’s mercy and have received it, are bound by the Golden Rule itself to extend this same mercy to others. Universality and perfection are most proper to Christian mercy. The Christian has obligations to everyone and makes claims on no one. This flows from the fact that Christian life is a participation in God’s own life and love, and the Christian is called to communicate Jesus’ redemptive love to others.

5. Even to the apostles it came as a tremendous surprise that God was so impartial as to make his new family wholly universal. Peter remarks on this with wonder: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10.34–35).

Paul likewise: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11.32; cf. Eph 2). The perfection of God’s mercy in Jesus is that he gave his own Son that we might become adopted children. Having given us the Spirit, is it possible he will withhold anything less (see Rom 8.14–34)?

The Word Incarnate is filled with enduring love, and of his fullness the Christian shares (see Jn 1.14, 16). Christian mercy must share in his life: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 10.32–11.1). Having been redeemed, sharing in God’s own justice, the Christian must be altogether impartial in sharing redemption with others. Only so is the requirement of impartiality fulfilled by one who knows himself or herself to be a child of God.

Hence, the example of Jesus who forgives enemies who are killing him even as he dies in agony on the cross (see Lk 23.34) is followed by the first martyr, Stephen. Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus to the Father, prays for his persecutors, and gives bold testimony, for he is filled with the Holy Spirit and clearly sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God (see Acts 7.54–60). Similarly, in catechetical instruction the doctrinal point that Christians are saved by God’s mercy is followed by an injunction to live blamelessly among the pagans, despite their mistreatment, so to contribute to their conversion (see 1 Pt 2.9–12).

6. In excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says: “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23.23; cf. Lk 11.42). Unless their justice goes beyond narrow legalism, Christians cannot enter the kingdom (see Mt 5.20).

7. According to St. Augustine, the gift of the Holy Spirit corresponding to the fifth Beatitude is counsel. He takes it that this gift makes us realize that it is in our own best interests, for us to be merciful.26 For St. Thomas the gift has a higher meaning; it is a divine practicality, which directs the Christian in mercy transcending ordinary human standards (see S.t., 2–2, q. 52, aa. 2, 4).

It is worth noting that in the work of social justice, nothing truly can be achieved without mercy. As John Paul II says: “A world from which forgiveness was eliminated would be nothing but a world of cold and unfeeling justice, in the name of which each person would claim his or her own rights vis-a-vis others; the various kinds of selfishness latent in man would transform life and human society into a system of oppression of the weak by the strong, or into an arena of permanent strife between one group and another.”27

This is so because in any society, there will be a large body of persons unwilling to act fairly or in error about what fairness demands; hence, a general balance can be achieved only if some substantial group of persons is willing to make voluntary compensation to rectify unfairness. Force and violence can achieve nothing, and no legal system can begin to cut fine enough to attain justice. Traditionally, those who especially devoted themselves to the works of mercy undertook to fulfill this Christian responsibility. Because of the scale of modern social structures, Christians today can fulfill it as they should only by cooperation organized on a larger scale.

25. See Dupont, op. cit., 604–32.

26. St. Augustine, op. cit., 19–20.

27. John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 72 AAS (1980) 1225; The Papal Encyclicals, 279.153. A more general argument that justice must be transformed into mercy is presented earlier in the encyclical (1215–16; 117–22), where the Pope explicitly asserts that Jesus challenged those faithful to the Old Testament to go beyond its requirements.