The Christian concern for social justice and the common good carries forth the legacy of the biblical prophets. It is in this tradition that humanity first discovered the mercy of God and its reflection in the human race. Mercy was understood by the prophets to be the supreme attribute of the just king who is able with gratuity, beyond the strict demands of justice, to dispense relief to those who are in need or misery. It was a manifestation of God’s kingship and its gratuitous exercise, but it was also understood to be among the consummating virtues of all of God’s royal people in the line of Abraham, whom God called out to give true worship and sacrifice to him. The prophet Hosea (8th century B.C.), criticizing the growing presence of idolatry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in his day, said that God requires of his people mercy and not sacrifice. Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was, in his City of God, among the first Christians to show that, in the full context of the teachings of the prophets, there is in fact no opposition between the two. “Mercy,” Saint Augustine said, “is true sacrifice.” Justice, mercy, and sacrifice, he realized, are intertwining realities. We cannot have one without the other.
It is clear from the tradition of Catholic social doctrine that justice and mercy are inextricably linked. Pope Benedict XVI, in Augustinian fashion, asserted as much in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Mercy, according to the pope, is a figure of the charity that surpasses justice in a consummating way. “The earthly city,” he said, “is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties [social justice], but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy, and communion.” Charity “demands justice,” but it also “transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving.” Both Caritas in Veritate and Pope Francis’s social encyclical Laudato Si exalt the logic of giving, of generosity and gratuitousness, as the basis for the Church’s social doctrine. “The human being,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “is made for gift.” Gift, in this context, is “the dynamic charity received and given” in society that mirrors the eternal life of the Trinity and shows forth the love of Christ in the polis. In our fallen world, we call mercy that true gift-giving that overcomes the limitations of mere obligation, of giving to one only what is one’s due.
In his pre-papal writing The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI clarified the meaning of gift-giving in connection with sacrifice. Sacrifice, he argued, is an essentially positive reality, the locus of love or self-gift in our world. Sacrifice is the heart of worship, enabling us to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all things. It does not entail destruction or giving something over to God that would no longer belong to one. It is, instead, the gift-giving that enables one to find oneself anew. It is “love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God.”
To sacrifice, to “make sacred” (sacrum facere), is the consummation of human freedom. It is essential to integral human development. Throughout history, sacrifice has frequently taken on a dark face, nourished by idolatry, as in the case of human sacrifice, and this is why it is so often confused with destruction or annihilation. It does indeed, even its truest expression, in the Cross and Eucharist of Christ, possess the power of suffering expiation and atonement. This is so because we have fallen into sin and cannot offer ourselves to God in self-gift without the purifying, representative, efficacious sacrifice of the Lord of History to uplift us in a redemptive way. Sacrifice entails both loss and gain, but, perfected, it is the full actualization of creation.
The biblical theme of mercy emerges from within the sacrificial pattern of redemption. Mercy is the gratuitous remedying of defect. It is the elevating face of divine love turned toward the deficient creature in need. Christ’s atoning work is a gift of mercy freeing us from the deficiency of sin and its consequences. We are called to model the merciful sacrifice of Christ in our own social involvement. Saint Augustine puts the point precisely: true sacrifice is given in “works of mercy shown to ourselves or to our neighbors, done with reference to God.” Social mercy, in line with this, is the worship of God installed through healing action in the midst of the pain and suffering that is inherent to the earthly city. It is sacrificial gift-giving ordered to the social and even cosmic perfection of the earthly city taken as a whole. Care of oneself and one’s neighbor through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy embody this in the life of the individual and constitute true worship or true liturgy. Only the healing grace of God communicated through the Eucharist makes the sacrifice of mercy possible. Yet, the City of God is built up through concrete actions of mercy, which, as social doctrine teaches us, can be instantiated in the realm of political, economic, and social remediation.
The sacrifice of social mercy involves participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ, and this is why, to the extent that the social magisterium of the Church clarifies the theological basis of social doctrine, it often meets with resistance. Mercy requires letting go of the false self, the ego trapped in pride, selfisheness, greed, and lust. This is not easily or immediately accomplished. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the earthly city can only be a type or prefiguring of the eschatological city of God. We are called by the Church to strive urgently for social mercy in the city, even now, for the good of human flourishing in its transcendent consummation, but the letting go just described cannot be perfectly accomplished short of the Eschaton.
If our social, political, and economic order are to reflect in their institutional structures the mercy of God, they would require inscription in the act of self-surrender. The social order would have to inculcate a sense of eschatological displacement of self. Both Caritas in Veritate and Laudato Si have implied as much, and both documents have met not only resistance but refusal as a result. The establishment of a global institutional logic of gift, charity, and mercy would be destabilizing of the rigid efficiencies of our modern technocracies. The old logic of self-possession that these technocracies embody, so often confusing vice for virtue, is imprinted deeply in our individual hearts and minds. If the law of merciful generosity is to fill our social order in the “civilization of love” that we are called to build, certain sacrificial reversals are required. The profit motive must recede in prominence. Consumerism must be overcome. The human ecology that demands new forms of human sacrifice—especially of children in the womb and the elderly—to the idols of modern “values” must be reformed. The sacrifice of social mercy bears the promise of a civilization of love, but it necessarily shows itself in the form of the Cross of Christ, which will always elicit accusations of folly or scandal.