“If our church is not marked by concern for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, we are guilty of heresy.” – Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
As Catholics, we are called to work for the realization of the Kingdom of God. It is done by prayer, it is done by participation in the sacraments and it is done by works of mercy.
In the following study, I will delineate and discuss the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I will then seek to place the works of mercy in the larger context of charity and justice. However, I will first examine the biblical basis of these works.
What you do to the least of them
In a sense, the directive to engage in works of mercy is scattered throughout the scriptures. Isaiah 1:17 urges the Israelites to “learn to do good. Make justice your goal: repair the wronged, listen to the call of the orphan, defend the widow.
However, this charge to engage in good works and to 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 took me in, naked, and you clothed me, sick, and you took care of 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 sick or in prison and visit you? And the king will answer them: “Amen, I tell you, whatever you have done for one of my younger brothers, you have done for me.
It is apparent 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 regarding salvation, but to set the stage for understanding Catholic teaching on the works of mercy.
Bodily works are acts taught by Christ that provide a pattern for how Catholics should treat others. The Catholic Church identifies seven bodily works of mercy: “Charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily needs”.
These works meet the basic needs of humanity as we journey through this life together. They are:
- Feed the hungry.
- Give drink to those who are thirsty.
- Dress the nude.
- Visit the prisoners.
- Shelter the homeless.
- Visit the sick.
- Bury the dead.
As we can see, these works respond to the concerns of the physical human being.
As their name suggests, spiritual works are concerned with the care of the soul. They are:
- Admonish the sinner. (Give the correction to those who need it.)
- Educate the ignorant. (Share our knowledge with others.)
- Advise the doubtful. (Notify those who need it.)
- Comfort the afflicted. (Comfort those who suffer.)
- Bear wrongs patiently. (Be patient with others.)
- Forgive all wounds. (Forgive those who have hurt us.)
- Pray for the living and the dead.
Where bodily works are focused on physical needs, spiritual works of mercy are concerned with meeting the spiritual needs and concerns of human beings.
Having examined the bodily and spiritual works, I now turn to how these works are based on 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 will. That is to say, love wants the good of others. Moreover, love is not a natural human inclination, but the result of the soul being imbued with the grace of God. As God is the criterion of good, love is wanting God on the other.
However, mercy also provides a necessary balance to justice. In order to see how this is so, it is necessary to define justice. For the purposes of this article, I will use Justinian’s definition of justice as “Give to each his due”.
Mercy, on the other hand, acts as a counterweight to the scale of justice. Mercy can be said to be the pain and pity aroused by kindness, offering compassion to all. He does not punish a person who deserves to be punished; to him who is worthy of good, he gives double what he owes.
The metaphysics of spiritual life is that what we receive we must give and in doing so receive more. So it is with mercy. Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them” (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, the poverty of Jesus and his concern for the poor. This love concerns material poverty and the many forms of cultural and religious poverty. Since its origin and despite the failure of many of its members, the Church has not ceased to work for their relief, their defense and their liberation by numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere with innumerable bodily and spiritual works of mercy.
Among all these, almsgiving to the poor is one of the main witnesses of fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God, even if the practice of charity is not limited to almsgiving. but involves addressing the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty. In its teaching, the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: when we respond to the needs of those in need, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
In the previous work, I sought to describe the teaching of the Catholic Church on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I suggested that mercy be placed in and as a counterweight to justice.