Thomistic Reflections on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice

Thomistic Reflections on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice

The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas by Benozzo Gozzoli

Many paths can be taken during this Year of Mercy. Above all, we must tread the path of experiencing mercy—in our own participation in the Sacraments, and in our extension of Divine Mercy to others. Nevertheless, knowledge of the faith and, more specifically, of Divine Mercy, is an indispensable element for inflaming our loving embrace of Divine realities. As was once stated ably by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain:

Prayer, particularly in the case of intellectuals, can only preserve a perfectly right direction and escape the dangers which threaten it, on condition of being supported and fed by theology.

Knowledge of Sacred Doctrine has a peculiar tendency of its own to shorten, and render safer, the spiritual journey. It saves the soul from a number of errors, illusions, and blind alleys. In relation to the purgative life, it possesses an ascetic virtue which succeeds in detaching the soul from the degradations and trivialities of self-love. As for those living the illuminative life, the purification that it brings simplifies the gaze of the soul, and turns it from the human self, to God alone. And finally, in relation to the unitive life, a knowledge of theology plants the roots of the soul deep in faith, and divine truth, a predisposition essentially required for the life of union with God.

No doubt, Charity comes before everything. It is better, here below, to love God than to know him. It is his pleasure sometimes to raise the ignorant to the most sublime contemplation and, on account of our perversity and vanity, knowledge is often an obstacle to the Holy Spirit. It would, however, be imprudent and rash to expect a gratuitous infusion of doctrinal light, which is in our power to acquire by study—apart from the fact that the intellectually vitiated atmosphere of the modern world needs a general recourse to theological science.

In conclusion, we may say that the normal method for those who have the grace to lead these two lives together, is to unite the life of the intelligence to that of charity, on a basis of mutual inter-aid, on condition, however, that they thoroughly understand that the latter is worth infinitely more than the former, and that they always hold themselves ready to abandon all for the sake of Divine Love.1

Many methods are possible for endeavoring to combine knowledge of God with love of him. In this brief article, I will follow a master theologian, namely St. Thomas Aquinas, as he reflects on the relationship between Divine Justice and Divine Mercy. I will not undertake a grand theoretical treatment of the topic. Rather, I will follow a single text closely, throwing light on the moves of the Angelic Doctor’s argument, helping my reader to understand Aquinas himself. The translations are mine, fashioned for clarity without intending to twist the sense of the text.2 My commentary should be read as a kind of pedagogical presentation of one set of remarks by Aquinas concerning the relation of Divine Justice and Divine Mercy. It is intended to provide a brief, yet clear, pastoral reflection during this Year of Mercy.3

Let us begin, therefore, to consider together the text of Summa Theologiae {ST} I q.21 a.4, “Whether in every work of God there is justice and mercy.” Aquinas states:

As a reference point for my argument, consider Psalm 24[25]:10, “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.”

We must say that, in any work of God, both mercy and truth are found. When I say this, note that mercy indicates the removal of any kind of deficiency. However, strictly speaking, not every deficiency can be called a misery. Only a deficiency found in the case of a rational being (to whom it is proper to experience happiness) strictly speaking—for misery is opposed to happiness.4

Notice that Thomas affirms the idea that in every work of God, both mercy and truth are found. He is taking as his starting point a scriptural verse and troping the sense of “truth” into a concept of “justice.” As we proceed, it is necessary to remember that he is showing that both are found in every act of God. However, as we will see, Thomas explains that, ultimately, mercy is foundational, and presupposed by justice, in every action of God vis-à-vis the created order.

Initially, Thomas clarifies the notion of mercy (lit. misericordia). Strictly speaking, “mercy” pertains to the removal of deficiencies found in rational (i.e. having a soul with intellect and will) creatures like the human person. God’s mercy involves the removal of a defect which prevents the human ability to be happy, to have felicity (lit. felicem). He states that only such a deficiency (lit. defectus, or defect) is properly called a form of misery (miseria). Thus, misery is a privation of happiness. By limiting this to the case of the rational creature, he implies that misery is the lack of attainment of man’s proper end—whether imperfect happiness in this life, or, ultimately, the perfect happiness of the Beatific Vision.5 Thus, Aquinas stresses that mercy is most proper to the removal of deficiencies or defects—whether culpable or inculpable—which prevent us from reaching the felicity to which we are called as humans.

However, a broader sense of misery exists—one that could be extended to non-being in all of its forms , for being is a perfection. Still, remember that misery deals primarily with the fall from our proper perfection, and the grandeur of our supernatural vocation. Thus, the term mercy first applies to that reality. Secondarily, we can see that the general notion of “mercy” extends beyond this domain. Aquinas continues:

The reason for the necessity of God’s Justice being in all of his works can be explained as follows. A debt which is repaid from the Divine Justice is either a debt owed to God, or a debt owed to some creature. Neither of these can be omitted in any of God’s works, for God is not able to do anything that is not in accord with his wisdom and goodness. Thus, it is in this manner that something is owed to God.6

The argument which Aquinas makes here, if understood in syllogistic form, is as follows:

Major Premise: A debt of Divine Justice can only be one of two kinds of debts—a debt owed to God, or a debt owed to a creature.

Minor Premise: God does not omit either such debts in his works.

Conclusion: Divine Justice is thus present in all of God’s works.

If God’s activity must be in accord with his infinite goodness, and is incapable of defect, we may grant that God does not omit a debt in his works.7 Still, we need to be careful when we speak of God as a “debtor,” for this language really is not appropriate in a strict sense when we speak of God. To understand this point, we should note carefully Aquinas’ commentary on God’s debts:

In things, we can consider two kinds of order. On the one hand, there is the kind of order that exists from one created thing to another created thing. Such an order is found in how a part is ordered to its respective whole, various accidents to the substantial beings in which they inhere, and how anything is ordered to its own end. On the other hand, there is the kind of order by which all created things are ordered to God. For this reason, the notion of debt can be applied in two ways with regard to the works of God—namely, according to what is owed to God, or according to what is owed to a creature. In both of these ways, God can be said to repay debts.8

Let us consider a few thoughts about Aquinas’ remarks here. Note the two different ways in which one thing may be ordered to another thing. The first could be considered “horizontal”—from one created reality to another. Horizontal ordering occurs in three different ways:

  1. Part-to-whole ordering: For example, a doorway is ultimately ordered to the functionality of a house. In a way, a house is “owed” a doorway so that it can be a house. Likewise, the functionality of a liver is intelligible, qua part of a human, only in terms of the chemical-processing “services” that it renders to the whole human body. Thus, for the full flourishing of human nature, a liver is “owed” to the nature.9 Likewise, qua citizen, a person acts (with regard to civic matters) as a part in the whole civic enterprise of pursuing the common good. Thus, as regards civic functions, the part owes certain things to the whole—duties of honor, taxation, etc .
  2. Accident-substance ontological ordering: The way in which “accidents” are ordered to substantial wholes. For example, one can only have this or that attribute insofar as a person is a human substance. Various accidents of a given being ultimately are subordinated to the being, and activity of the substantial whole in question.
  3. Intrinsic teleological ordering: A given being is ultimately ordered to what is its most proper set of activities and excellences—i.e., to its particular end. Thus, the tree—in all of its varied activity and existence—is ordered to living and growth. Humans are ordered to a life of activity in accord with the highest virtues. We can consider human activities—thinking, eating, loving, etc.—as being ordered to our overall end of living a truly human life, especially insofar as that life can have some contemplation of reality, and its Source, ultimately inhering in the Beatific Vision.

The other relational ordering could be called a “vertical” ordering, namely how every creature owes to God its very being. Thus, in a way, there is a justice between creature and God, though the debt exceeds anything a creature could repay. It is for this reason that Aquinas classifies the virtue of religion among the various types of justice—though, it is a kind of “justice beyond justice.”10

Now, let us watch how Aquinas continues, in q.21 a.1 ad 3, by explaining his claim that God repays debts in both of these ways. The first which he explains is the “vertical debt”:

First, there is the debt which is owed to God, i.e., that which pertains to his Wisdom and Will, as well as what manifests his Goodness, may be fulfilled in created things. From this aspect, the Justice of God pertains to that which is befitting to him—that is, inasmuch as he repays to himself that which is owed to himself.11

The second, which he explains, are the “horizontal” debts:

Second, it is also owed to a created thing that it should have whatever is ordered to it. For example, it is owed to the human person that he or she have hands, and that other animals should serve the human person. And, thus, also God can be said to work with Justice, when he gives to any such created thing that which it is owed on account of its nature or condition.12

Then, he notes that the horizontal debts ultimately rely upon the vertical one:

However, this latter kind of debt depends upon the first—for whatever might be owed to a created thing is so owed to it only on account of the order of Divine Wisdom. However, God is not to be accounted for this reason as being a debtor to another, even though he can be said to give that which is “due” (or “owed”). This is so because he himself is not ordered to other things; nay rather, other things are ordered to him.13

In light of these last three paragraphs from the Summa Theologia I, q.21 a.1 ad 3, we can now see the point Aquinas is making in the article we are primarily considering (ST I q.21 a.4). When we speak of what is “owed” to a creature, this is ultimately not due to the creature. While certain things are owed to a human precisely because he or she is human—e.g. life, the promise of living a life in truthfulness in society, and so forth—the very fact that human nature exists ultimately depends upon the Creator. Thus, the root cause of human nature is in the Divine Wisdom, and in repaying what is “due” to the creature qua creature, God ultimately respects the order created in harmony with his wisdom. Thus, our perspective is always from the creature to the Creator. Because he always acts in accord with his wisdom, and given that all orders of “debt” are ultimately reducible to that Wisdom, we do not do injustice to our words by saying that God works with Justice in all of his works.

A kind of justice exists in the order and proportion which is found in created things. Aquinas takes this as an obvious point. In a way, this is a kind of reiteration of the kind of justice discussed on the “horizontal” level above. Hence, in ST I q.21 a.4, he continues:

Similarly, also, in whatever he does with regard to created things, this he does with a proper order and proportion—and the notion of justice consists in such order and proportion. Thus, it is necessary in every work of God for there to be justice.14

But, as we continue, note the transition:

However, the work of Divine Justice always presupposes the work of his mercy. Indeed, the former is founded in the latter.15

Up to this point, Aquinas merely discusses the fact that justice is in all of God’s works (though he does introduce some points regarding the notion of “mercy”). He has not yet discussed the Divine Mercy. However, now that he is going to do so, he makes it clear that we will only understand God’s Justice if we have first understood his mercy. Of course, in God, there is no distinction between one divine attribute and another. However, according to our discursive manner of knowing, we will need to relate one aspect of God to another in order to understand him. This point is very important, for it is saying that as regards the human way of understanding the works made by God, we must always presuppose the fact of his mercy as the pre-eminent cause of all that he does. Let us consider his argument:

{N}othing is owed to a creature except on account of something that already exists in that creature, or is foreknown about that creature. And, in turn, if this is owed to the creature, it must be on account of something that precedes that. However, since it is not possible to proceed infinitely from one owed thing to another previous owed thing, it is necessary to arrive at something that depends only upon the goodness of the Divine Will, which is the ultimate end. For example, we can say that having hands is owed to a human person on account of his or her rational soul. Likewise, he or she has a rational soul in order that he or she may be a human person. However, that he or she is a human person is due only to the Divine Goodness.16

The core of this argument is that even what is owed (“horizontally”) to a creature is ultimately owed (“vertically”) to God. He begins by noting that something is “owed” to a creature only if we consider that creature as already existing, or insofar as we foresee something about that creature. As regards an already existing creature, we can say that we owe to our neighbors truthfulness in conversation, precisely because they are human. However, the very humanity of this or that person is not owed to anyone other than to the very Source of humanity—namely, ultimately to God.17 And the very fact that this or that person exists—indeed, ultimately, through the long history of creation, that anything exists—is due to God’s wholly gratuitous willing of creation.18

Ultimately, this point flows from what we discussed above. When we talk of “debts,” or what is “owed” to a creature, we ultimately mean that the creature actually exists as this or that kind of creature. The ultimate explanation for this fact—both for the essential nature of anything, as well as its existence—is, according to Aquinas, God’s free and wise act of creation. It is a way of expressing the Pauline insight, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). The fact that anything is owed to a creature is ultimately something owed to God’s sovereign and free goodness—for all of God’s acts are in accord with his Goodness.

Aquinas continues by stressing that mercy appears with preeminence in all of God’s works:

Thus, in any work of God, there appears mercy as something at the very root of that work. The power of this mercy remains in all that follows upon it. Indeed, such mercy is active more powerfully in that which follows upon it than is the very thing following upon it, for a first cause has a more powerful influence than does a secondary cause. Likewise, for the same reason, does God, out of the very abundance of his Goodness, grant that which is owed to any creature in a manner that exceeds what would be justly demanded in proportion to the creature itself. Indeed, it would suffice for the preservation of the order of justice that less be granted than what is, in fact, granted by the Divine Goodness—for the Divine Goodness exceeds every proportion to a creature.19

Thus, if we consider mercy in terms of “removing a defect,” we can actually see God’s “mercy” in all of his works. Strictly speaking, mercy involves removing a defect with regard to human felicity. Thus, mercy shines forth most in the conversion of the sinner, as well as in the way that God mercifully stewards every aspect of our lives’ stories.

However, in an extended way, we can say that creation itself is a kind of “mercy.” God calls us out of nothingness not because of something that is owed to us. Indeed, when we consider just our mere created nature, nothing at all is owed to us. Only on account of God’s pre-ordaining, free, and good act of creation do we have anything owed (“horizontally”) to us whatsoever. Indeed, this comes across when Aquinas answers the fourth objection offered against his own point-of-view. The objection runs:

The notion of justice implies the paying of a debt, and mercy to the relieving of misery. Thus, works of justice, as much as those of mercy, presuppose something in that on which they act. However, creation presupposes nothing. Therefore, in creation there is neither mercy nor justice.20

The objector suggests that, at least in the case of creation, no mercy or justice is involved. It seems obvious—you can only be just or merciful to something which already exists. To this, Thomas replies that we can still maintain the notions of justice and mercy even with regard to creation ex nihilo itself. Justice is maintained because creation presupposes Divine Wisdom and Goodness,21 and mercy is expressed in the very gratuity of the act of creation. In Aquinas’s own words:

Although creation does not presuppose something in the nature of real things, it does however presuppose something in God’s own knowledge. For this reason, the notion of justice can be maintained as regards the activity of creation, for that which is produced (i.e., brought into existence) is so produced in accord with the Divine Knowledge and Goodness. Likewise, the notion of mercy is maintained in a certain way—namely, inasmuch as things are brought into being from non-being.22

Notice how Aquinas is showing that there can be broad senses of justice and mercy with regard to creation. Thus, not merely in matters pertaining to forgiveness and preservation from sin, but actually with regard to all of creation, God’s activity can be considered as being both merciful and just. However, note well, that insofar as the order of justice presupposes the very gratuitous acts of creation, and election to the life grace, it is important to see mercy as being presupposed by justice.

To illustrate this, Aquinas uses the idea of primary and secondary causality. Though Aquinas almost certainly takes this maxim from the Neo-Platonic Liber de causis, his remark can be explained by providing a down-to-earth example. When an organist plays on an organ, we say that both the organist, and the organ, are causes. However, the organ is the secondary cause, and the organist the primary cause. Someone may ask, “What is the cause of that music?” It is more appropriate to say, “It is the organist,” even though the organ certainly is the cause as well—as a secondary (in this case, instrumental) cause. Without the organ, there would be no organ music. You cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, and you cannot play Bach on a block of cheese. Indeed, it is easy to overlook the organist, and pay attention to the organ. As Yves Simon once observed, with some wit:

A great amount of human energy may be most normally engaged in purely instrumental functions, and that it may take some intellectual effort to understand a voluminous, and conspicuous instrument for what it is. (In most churches and auditoriums of the world, the organist attracts less attention than the organ.)23

Nevertheless, in spite of the distractions to which we are wont to succumb, the organist’s musical art is more powerfully in-action in the production of music than is the pipe organ’s particular ability to craft the air. The organist—i.e. the primary cause—gives a kind of spiritual form to the mere modulation of airwaves. Air becomes the medium of spirit.

Aquinas’ point, therefore, is that mercy is like a primary cause. It’s not actually a primary cause, for one Divine Attribute is not a cause vis-à-vis another Divine Attribute. However, it helps us to sort out our way of thinking of the “influence” of mercy on justice in God’s actions. When we try to understand the notions of God’s Justice and Mercy, we will always need to presuppose the latter when discussing the former. Remember: both are present in all of God’s works. However, it is more correct to say that God’s Justice presupposes his Mercy than vice-versa.

Sometimes, one or the other aspect will appear to be more dominant. As the Angelic Doctor writes in his response to the first objection considered in the article:

Justice is attributed to some of God’s works because, in them, justice appears more strongly. Likewise, mercy is attributed to others because of a stronger appearance of mercy in those particular works. For example, in the damnation of those who have been condemned, mercy indeed appears—not that God totally relaxes their punishment but, instead, that he lightens it since he punishes less than is deserved. Likewise, in the justification of the unrighteous, justice also is apparent, for God remits sins on account of love (though, however, he himself infuses this love)—just as is written of Mary Magdalene, “Many sins have been forgiven for her, for she loved much” (Lk 7:47).24

But notice, in both cases, that mercy shines forth more prominently than does justice. Even the damned are mercifully condemned, and the justice shown in redemption ultimately has its foundation in the merciful infusion of God’s grace and love. Mercy is at the root of all God’s activity in his creation, precisely because there is nothing due to the creature unless we already presuppose the loving and free action that flows from God’s goodness and wisdom.25

As stated at the beginning of the article, this little exegesis of Aquinas’ text is not meant to give us a “silver bullet” concerning the issues surrounding the human discussion of God’s mercy and justice. However, it is my hope that our reflections on Aquinas’ words have provided you with a sense by which we can say that God’s Mercy touches at the very heart of his super-abundant, and gratuitous, Love, which washes over all of his actions, and infuses all of his works.

  1. Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Prayer and Intelligence, trans. Algar Thorold (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943), 6-7.
  2. My translation does not differ significantly from the classic Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae.
  3. Aquinas’ style follows the standard medieval method of disputed questions: first, listing contrary opinions; then, presenting a citation which supports his position; next, expressing his own position in detail; and finally, answering the objections. In this presentation, I am reordering the text for the sake of expositional clarity and accessibility. The original Latin text can be found in Thomas Aquinas, Sancti Thomae de Aquino opera omnia, Leonine edition, vol. 4, Summa Theologiae (Rome: S.C. de Propaganda Fide, 1888). Likewise, it can be found online at
  4. ST I q.21 a.4.
  5. The notions of “imperfect happiness” and “perfect happiness” are discussed in ST I-II q.1-5, especially 3-5. You should think of “imperfect happiness” as the kind of “incomplete happiness” that we attain in the course of this life’s vicissitutdes. To this end, I find Maritain’s expression “felicity in motion” to be quite helpful. (NB: He primarily focuses on merely natural “happiness.” I would add, however, that in statu viae, our supernatural felicity is also in motion and imperfect.) See Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to the Basic Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Cornelia N. Borgerhoff (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1990), 107-115. Also, Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 136-137.
  6. ST I q.21 a.4.
  7. For Aquinas’ discussion of the nature of divine goodness and will, see ST I qq.6, 19, and 20.
  8. ST I q.21 a.1 ad 3.
  9. Clearly, this is not the same as saying that in this or that circumstance a liver is owed to this or that human person. The general point—merely being illustrated here—is that the liver as a part is “owed” to the human person and not vice-versa. Remember, before dismissing an illustration, recall that it is merely an illustration.
  10. See ST I-II qq. 81-100 . Also, see the very insightful remarks in Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, trans. Lawrence E. Lynch et al. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 104-113.
  11. ST I q.21 a.1 ad 3.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. ST I q.21 a.4.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The notion of the impossibility of an infinite regress cannot detain us here. Likewise, we leave open the possibility that Thomas’s basic words on this point could be accommodated to our knowledge concerning evolution. Once more, I stress, this is a pastoral article, not a full-blown treatise in theology, dragging in tow a complete discussion of metaphysics, and the philosophy of nature.
  18. As regards foreknowledge, I am setting aside the issue only because it will quickly involve too many complexities to consider at this time. The notion ultimately involves the famed De auxiliis controversy concerning predestination, merit, grace, etc. For a clear (though a bit dated) overview of the famed controversies between the Jesuits and Dominicans, see Frederick Copleston, Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, Vol. 3, in A History of Philosophy, 342-344. A classic exposition of the traditional Dominican position on this matter may be found in Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Predestination, trans. Bede Rose (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1938). Though many contemporary sources could be cited, consider merely the recent work of Michael D. Torre on the Dominican Theologian Francisco Marín-Sola—Do Not Resist the Spirit’s Call: Francisco Marín-Sola on Sufficient Grace (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013). Historically, the issue was discussed as a theological problem. However, insightful philosophical remarks may be found in Jacques Maritain, Existent and the Existent, trans. Lewis Galantiere and Gerald B. Phelan (New York: Pantheon, 1948), 85-122. See also Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1942) and Jacques Maritain, God and the Permission of Evil, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1966).
  19. ST I q.21 a.4.
  20. ST I q.21 a.4 obj.4.
  21. See remark below in note 26.
  22. ST I q.21 a.4 ad 4.
  23. Yves R. Simon, The Tradition of Natural Law: A Philosopher’s Reflections, ed. Vukan Kuic (New York: Fordham University Press, 1965), 94.
  24. ST I q.21 a.4 ad 1.
  25. Thus too, we can see that God’s Unity, Truthfulness, Goodness, Freedom, Love, etc., are all presupposed by his Justice and Mercy. However, we cannot discuss all of that in one little article.
Matthew Minerd, Ph.D. About Matthew Minerd, Ph.D.

Matthew K. Minerd, Ph.D., .,is an instructor in philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University and at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Seminary. He is a translator of works from French and Latin. His translation of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Le sens du mystère et le clair-obscur intellectual is scheduled to be translated in Fall 2017, followed by several additional translations in 2018. His writing has appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, and the proceedings of the American Maritain Association.


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