My Lay Dominican chapter had a retreat yesterday led by Fr. Brian Mullady, OP. Given that this is the Year of Mercy, Fr. Mullady spoke extensively on mercy and the works of mercy; and he made a point that I hadn’t considered before.
In normal, everyday speech we often contrast justice and mercy, as though to be just is to not be merciful and to be merciful is not to be just. But this is not quite right. Justice and mercy are certainly distinct, and complement one another; but the true opposite to mercy isn’t justice but envy.
This becomes clear if you define mercy and envy as Thomas Aquinas did. Mercy, quoth Fr. Mullady, is a kind of sorrow: a sympathy of the heart for the sufferings of another that leads us to regard their suffering as our own. This differs from the dictionary definition of mercy, which concerns merciful acts; it’s the fellow feeling that underlies our merciful acts.Envy is similar to mercy in that it’s also a kind of sorrow…but it’s sorrow due to the good that befalls others. They have receive something good and my heart burns because they have it and I don’t.
Think about that. Mercy: something bad happens to you, and I feel bad and am moved to action. Envy: something good happens to you, and I feel bad and am moved to action. When you put it that way, it becomes pretty clear why mercy is the virtue and envy is the vice.
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