Monday, August 8, 2016

St. Thomas Aquinas on Mercy and Justice

Reverend Thomas Petri, OP, Vice President and Academic Dean and Instructor of Moral Theology and Pastoral Studies at The Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, spoke at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference here in Wichita, Kansas this weekend. I attended his session titled “St. Thomas Aquinas: Mercy Flows from Being Loved” on Saturday morning.

Hearing the devout theology of St. Thomas Aquinas on any religious subject is always a great pleasure and joy. Father Petri provided the requisite clarity and application throughout this presentation. With St. Thomas Aquinas as our guide, we were reminded of how great and unlike us God is and yet how much He loves us, in spite of the fact that He does not need us or any of our response at all, since He is perfection. He does not owe us either justice or mercy, but He gives them to us--and they must be present and balanced together--simply because He created us, He loves us, and He wants us to be with Him forever. Father Petri demonstrated that this Thomistic precision in thinking about God and our relationship to Him is not esoteric or theoretical; it applies to our life and our relationship with God and with our neighbor.

This article from The Catholic World Report by Professor Thomas Heinrich Stark covers some of same material Father Petri explained:

Thomas adopts Augustine's definition of mercy as compassion in declaring, “Mercy is the compassion of our heart when considering the misery of another person”.

However, mercy is not confined to a mere sense or feeling of compassion. Rather someone is only merciful if he actively strives to avert the misery of others that touches his heart, in the same way that he tries to evert a misery that oppresses him himself. Because it is the distinctive feature of the affective compassion of mercy, that it—as Thomas expresses it—“moves us to do what we can do to help the other.” Only if the affective aspect of compassion is complemented by the effective aspect producing a truly helpful assistance can mercy manifest itself as that act of charity that recognizes the other—again, as Thomas puts it—as “another self”. Therefore only if the feeling of compassion is ordered according to the rules of reason, does it become the virtue of mercy. . . .

Now a specific feature of the ethics of St. Thomas is that it puts compassion and justice into the closest connection possible to each other. “Justice without mercy is cruel”, says Thomas. But, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution"—and, one might add, therefore cruel as well. This close connection between justice and mercy is not sufficiently obvious in human life. The reason for this is not merely the fact that people are often merciless. Rather, it is much more due to the finite character of human existence, which makes all the virtues in the life of the soul appear to be separated from each other and their exercise separate as well. This of course also applies to the virtues of justice and charity, the juxtaposition of which may highlight this fact of separation with particular clarity, so that justice and mercy may sometimes appear to us as as downright opposing intentions.

The situation is different with God. “The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and it founded in it,” says Thomas. So if God is merciful, then He is not in opposition to justice. That is because in God, unlike in man, justice and mercy are not separated from one another according to their being, although due to our human means of knowing them we must continue to distinguish them by name, and thus speak of them with distinct terms. In short, we are not able to grasp the nature of God in its entirety and in its unity but always only from a certain, finite perspective. So we recognize God as love, as omnipotent, as omniscient, as merciful, and so forth, without being able adequately to imagine that all these attributions form an inseparable unity, because they are identical with each according to their being. That means we have a knowledge of God that overstrains our imagination.

Read the rest there. In the course of his presentation, Father Petri observed that we have to remember that the only way that we receive any grace is through grace; we cannot earn it by pious practices or other means. He brought up terms coined by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: the Pelagianism of the pious and the Pelagianism of the bourgeois. Tracey Rowland explains these terms:

[Pelagianism is the heresy named for Pelagius, a Roman monk (not an ordained priest) who might have been born in England. He believed that we could save ourselves; that Original Sin had not weakened us so that we need a Savior!]

First: Pelagianism of the bourgeois:

The use of the word "bourgeois" in the first label has nothing to do with being a member of the middle class - at least, not necessarily. Rather, the bourgeois mentality is about fitting in with contemporary social norms and being practical and efficient in one's use of resources. The bourgeois temperament is calculating, pragmatic, focused on efficiency and predictable outcomes. It discourages moral heroism as unreasonable and gives priority to the goods of efficacy over the goods of excellence. . . .

Transferred to the spiritual plane, the problem Pope Benedict identifies with the bourgeois Pelagian is the attitude that God doesn't really expect people to be saints. Benedict diagnoses this mentality as evidence of the spiritual disease of acedia - a kind of anxious vertigo that overcomes people when they are presented with the idea that they have been made in the image of God to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Then: Pelagianism of the pious:

The alternative spiritual pathology is that of the pious Pelagian. This type of person seeks a relationship with God that is modelled on contemporary professional practices - in particular the practice of enhancing one's curriculum vitae. The pious Pelagian performs certain works and says certain prayers and expects to get a return on his spiritual investment. While the bourgeois Pelagian is guilty of the sin of despair, regarding sanctity as an impossible pursuit, the pious Pelagian is guilty of the sin of presumption, assuming that he can have a contractual relationship with God. The bourgeois Pelagian is particularly lacking in the theological virtue of hope, the pious Pelagian is quite anaemic in relation to the theological virtue of love. Both have a warped understanding of faith.

I do agree that, as Father Petri noted, we in the USA, with our can-do, individualistic, self-confident attitude, can easily fall prey to the Pelagianism of the pious-- thinking that we can earn our way to Heaven; God has give us our due. We can be too confident in our own power and lack humility. Citing St. Thomas Aquinas, he said that we have to acknowledge our failures and sins and develop the virtue of humility.

This seems an appropriate reflection on the feast of St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. 

St. Dominic, pray for us!
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!
All the Dominican saints and blesseds, pray for us!

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