On this last day of the octave of Easter, the Catholic Church celebrates the Divine Mercy in a special way. This feast of Divine Mercy recognizes 2 things especially: that our Lord specifically asked for the faithful to worship Him by reference to His mercy, and that it is mercy more than any other “attribute” of God that shines forth as expressing His life and perfection and love in regard to creation. Regarding the former, there are any number of websites devoted to spreading the particular model of prayers respecting Divine Mercy, including the novena, and the Divine Mercy image. Our Lord made it known to the Church, especially through St. Faustina Kowalska, but also through other means, that He wants us to throw ourselves on His mercy with a lively hope and faith in its unlimited power. God especially wants us to call forth forgiveness both for ourselves and for others by pleading for mercy on behalf of the whole world and all of us sinners.
In reflecting on who God is, we can be perfectly free in extolling His mercy and love above every other attribute.
This is not perhaps because mercy is logically prior to the other virtues of God, nor because He is (in Himself) more virtuous with regard to mercy than with regard to justice, or fidelity, or truthfulness. Philosophically, in some sense God is rightly to be identified with His own perfections: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14) rather than “I have the way and the truth and life”. But in our minds, given our limited capacity for grasping truth, it is inevitable that in forming an understanding of God some attributes take on a more central role than others. St. John manifests this in his first Letter, emphasizing “God is love.” The Church has taken this expression of John’s and adapted it for this age by developing the thought more fully: at least with reference to creation, God is mercy. Even more than by way of his justice, which is indeed immense, He wants us to think of Him in terms of mercy, as being the distinct overwhelming characteristic that we can contemplate and lose ourselves in without end.
For us poor sinful humans, it is probably impossible to think about mercy without at least implicitly comparing and contrasting it with justice. And thus it becomes necessary to make distinctions. In the simplest possible terms, justice is giving to each his due, and mercy is giving something more (or better) than what is due. Jesus makes it perfectly clear that at least in principle there is nothing about mercy that conflicts with justice, in his parable about the hired workers in the vineyard: the owner rightly and justly pays those hired at the beginning of the day a full day’s wage, the agreed-upon price. He also pays those hired only an hour before the end of the day a full day’s wage, thereby exceeding the just wage owed them as due, and in no way does this damage the justice done to the first workers.
God’s mercy to us starts with the very first moment of our existence, since it is impossible that a creature be owed “to exist” before God creates him. And after that, mercy continues on in one repeated offering of grace and blessing after another during every moment of our lives: parents to love us, food to sustain us, health (at least partly, if not in full) beyond our just desert, etc. But nothing is more merciful about God than this: that while we were still sinners and enemies of Heaven, He sent His Son to die in our stead, and win for us grace - to have faith in that Son, to hope in the continuance of His grace, and to love Him. In earthly matters, nothing shows that a person’s heart has been changed by divine grace more definitively than that this person forgives his enemies even when those enemies are unrepentant – indeed, while they are still in the midst of their offenses.
However, it is true that often mercy and justice are taken to be in conflict, or at least in tension with each other: where one is in the forefront, the other must retire. At the level of the state, it appears, it is difficult to manifest mercy without actions which at least leave room for doubt about whether justice is served. For example, in a state university affirmative action admission, where the univ. chooses to mercifully undertake to admit a person not fully qualified for entrance, and does so on account of his status as a member of a class that has in the past been mistreated on a wide scale, this illustrates giving to the individual a benefit that he does not strictly deserve for his own sake. But this may be at the cost of denying admission to other persons who are qualified to be admitted to the school on their own academic merits.
And this tension is especially true of the penal system: If it is established that the just punishment due for a crime is 10 years in prison, then 10 years in prison restores justice: the offender pleased his own will in a matter in which he owed deference to the common good and obedience to the state, and the due recompense is that he suffer something proportionately against his will at the command of the state. If the judge mercifully lightens the penalty to 2 years in prison, by that fact the penalty is not proportionately contrary to what the offender would normally will, then retributive justice is not served, justice is not restored, and the offense/punishment leaves the community deprived of justice. At least, this is one understanding of the matter.
Against this perhaps superficial approach, some suggest that just as God forgives our debt to Him in releasing us from sin, so also the community as a whole forgives the debt owed to it when a lenient penalty is adjudicated. This argument might have more weight if it were the case that God simply decides to wipe the slate clean and write off the debt. But in reality, the debt produced by our sin was paid, and our enslaved souls were redeemed at cost: Christ paid the price. God did not simply wield a divine eraser and erase the tally of our debts on the great ledger in the sky, He sent His Son to take up the debt on Himself and accept death to pay off the obligation. Is there any analogous satisfaction of the debt to society when the judge applies a lenient punishment of 2 years instead of 10? How is the state able to use mercy in dealing with criminals without damaging justice, which is one of the essential purposes of the state?