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April 23, 2020

In a time of challenge, remember justice and mercy

Q: Archbishop J, how do we become mercy?

Mercy is at the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is what a lover does when the beloved messes up. It is what we experience in our baptism and in every encounter of God through the sacraments and our prayer.

Every sacrament is an encounter with Divine Mercy. The whole of the gospel is unintelligible if not interpreted through the key of mercy. So many parables and sayings of Jesus speak to mercy. A Christian who is not merciful has not understood the core message of the Scripture or the core doctrine of our Church (Matt 18: 21–35).

To do mercy we need to first do justice, which is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give God and neighbour what they are owed, Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1807. It is fairness.


Works of Mercy

In our tradition, we have expressed mercy in both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These are like two sides of one coin. The spiritual works are rooted in the tradition and counsel the believer as regards responsibility to the gospel. Counselling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead are among the spiritual works of mercy. Each of these are vital as an expression of the divine mercy we have all received.

The corporal works of mercy are more direct: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoner, bury the dead and give alms to the poor. These come from St Matthew’s Gospel (25:32–46) except for burying the dead, which is from Tobit 1:16–18.

These works of mercy are not just what is expected of the Christian, they are set by St Matthew as the criterion for salvation. We are welcomed into eternity if we do these works of mercy.

Many people who were able to support their families three weeks ago, are now in distress. They cannot see their way right now. Taxi drivers, hairdressers, tradesmen, weekly paid workers have all been asked to stay home with no income for three weeks. Most of these would have lived from week to week. Most of these would have commitments that now cannot be paid. They are the new poor. As Church we need to stand in solidarity with them during this time of challenge.


Universal destination of all goods

The Catechism speaks about the universal destination of the goods of the earth. CCC 2404 states: “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

St John Paul II put it more forcefully in his argument that all private property has a social mortgage. This means that you are only a steward of what you own and if there is a greater need in society your claim to ownership is forfeited. If you do not pay the social mortgage, the property will be forfeited. Just as if you do not pay your fiscal mortgage it will be forfeited.

This is a basic principle of Catholic social justice since the time of St Leo XIII (1878–1903). It is a continuous teaching of the Fathers of the Church. It is a teaching that today we need to hear and live.

Mercy does not mean giving what is comfortable. Everyone who can is going to have to stretch to help those who have been plunged into distress by this pandemic. This is not mercy: this is justice.

Priority of Labour

St John Paul II in his encyclical letter On Human Work states that the human alone is a worker. As such, human work is: “a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (11). He adds: “The value in work is not based on the type of work being done, but in the fact that the one doing it is a person.”

The Holy Father goes on to speak of a principle that has always been taught by the Church, “the principle of the priority of labour over capital” (52). This principle is a touchstone for Catholic social teaching. It is a moral principle to guide all Catholics who offer employment and own businesses.

In a time of challenge, like we are in now, labour always has priority because it is the only way by which the family can be fed.

This time requires tough decisions: the health of the organisation and the health of the worker and his/her family are intertwined. A company cannot come out of this crisis with healthy profits by sacrificing its staff. The priority needs to be the staff and their safety and earnings.

The safety of the company needs to be second, but it needs to be in existence to pay its workers. The business enterprise is not for the benefit of the owner; it is for the good of the worker and the common good of society. This is not a law of mercy: this is a law of justice.

As Church, we too must make very difficult decisions about payment of salaries with very little income coming in. A lot of our income now is for the support of those plunged into poverty.

In this time, we cannot plunge more people into poverty. We will all have to find a way to share the burden together. And, the principle of the priority of labour needs to guide us all in our decision making. The health of the organisation is always second to the health of the worker.


Key Message:

Justice is demanded, as a child of God and as a citizen. Mercy is an attribute of God that is expected of the baptised.

Action Step:

Reflect on justice and mercy in your life. Are you living as a child of God’s kingdom?

Scripture Reading:

Mt 5:43–48