The Works of Mercy

The Works of Mercy June 26, 2022

“If our church is not marked by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, we are guilty of heresy.” – Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

As Catholics, we are called to work toward bringing about the Kingdom of God. This is done through prayer, it is done through participation in the Sacraments, and it is done through works of mercy.

In the following paper, I will delineate and discuss the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. I will then seek to place the works of mercy in the greater context of charity and justice. First, however, I will examine the biblical basis for these works.

What You Do To The Least Of These 

In a sense, the directive to engage in works of mercy is interspersed throughout Scripture. Isaiah 1:17 admonishes the Israelites to “Learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” 

However, this charge to engage in good works and be merciful is fully realized in Matthew 25:35-40. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, a stranger, and you welcomed me, naked, and you clothed me, ill, and you cared for me, in prison, and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

It is evident from what has been said above that God desires human beings to engage in good works. This interpretation is not intended to address the conflict of works concerning salvation but to set the table for understanding the Catholic teaching on the works of mercy.

The Corporal Works 

The corporal works are acts taught by Christ that provide a model for how Catholics are to treat other people. The Catholic Church identifies seven corporal works of mercy: “Charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.”

These works respond to the basic needs of humanity as we journey together through this life. They are: 

  • Feed the hungry. 
  • Give drink to the thirsty.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Visit the imprisoned.
  • Shelter the homeless.
  • Visit the sick.
  • Bury the dead.

As one can see, these works address concerns of the physical human being. 

The Spiritual Works

As the name implies, the spiritual works concern themselves with the care of the soul. They are:

  • Admonish the sinner. (Give correction to those who need it.)
  • Instruct the ignorant. (Share our knowledge with others.)
  • Counsel the doubtful. (Advise those who need it.)
  • Comfort the sorrowful. (Comfort those who suffer.)
  • Bear wrongs patiently. (Be patient with others.)
  • Forgive all injuries. (Forgive those who hurt us.)
  • Pray for the living and the dead.

Where the corporal works are focused on the physical needs, the spiritual works of mercy concern themselves with ministering to human beings’ spiritual needs and concerns.

Having examined the corporal and spiritual works, I turn now to how these works are grounded in love and justice.

Mercy and Justice

In a sense, mercy is a consequence of love. In the Catholic tradition, love is not an emotion but an act of the will. That is to say, love wills the good of another person. Moreover, love is not a natural human inclination but a result of the soul being infused with the Grace of God. As God is the criterion for goodness, love is to will God on another.

However, mercy also provides a necessary balance to justice. In order to see how this is the case, it is necessary to define justice. For the purpose of this paper, I will use Justinian’s definition of justice as “Giving every man his due.”

Mercy, on the other hand, acts as a counter to the scale of justice. Mercy can be said to be sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, offering compassion to all. It does not punish a person who is deserving of punishment; to the person who is worthy of good, it gives twice as much as it ought. 

The metaphysics of the spiritual life is that what we receive, we are to give away, and in so doing, receive more of it. So it is with mercy. Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). God is merciful to those who are themselves merciful.

I want to conclude by quoting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. “The Church’s love for the poor is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, by the poverty of Jesus, and by his attention to the poor. This love concerns material poverty and the numerous forms of cultural and religious poverty. Since her origin and in spite of the failing of many of her members, the Church has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere with countless works of corporal and spiritual mercy. 

Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God, even if the practice of charity is not limited to alms-giving but implies addressing the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty. In her teaching, the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

Conclusion

In the preceding work, I have sought to describe the Catholic Church’s teaching on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I have suggested that mercy should be placed within and as a counterbalance to justice.


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