First Place Essay: 2015 Aquinas Center Essay Contest

First Place Essay: 2015 Aquinas Center Essay Contest

For the 2015 Aquinas Center Essay Contest, college and university juniors and seniors were invited to submit an original 1000-word essay on the topic of mercy in honor of Pope Francis’ declaration of an extraordinary jubilee Year of Mercy. Essays were judged by AMU faculty on style, content, argumentative coherence, and organization. Out of a pool of over twenty submissions, Kerry Kennedy’s submission, “Mercy Surpasses Justice,” was selected as the winning essay. 

Miss Kennedy’s full essay follows below. 

“Mercy Surpasses Justice”

by Kerry Kennedy (University of Dallas

Mercy is a heavily debated topic, one often misunderstood. Something that should be so welcomed, so appreciated, is now at the heart of disputes in courtrooms. Most tend to believe that granting mercy to sinners and criminals is an unlawful response to their abominable deeds. The Catholic Church, however, has tried to combat this tendency of viewing mercy as ignorance of justice, and affirms that mercy goes beyond justice. The discussions from Pope Francis and the bishops from the Synod on the Family, and the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas confirm this definition of mercy as a virtue. Real mercy does not permit a soul to persist in sinful actions, i.e. illicit moral objects. It is out of love that the Church calls sinners to repentance and therefore to receive the merciful love of God. There are some bishops, unfortunately, who are trying to argue that when the moral thing to do is too difficult, it is “merciful” as a pastoral response to permit that they do not have to do it, but can persist in a sinful action. This is an incorrect view of mercy. Indeed, mercy surpasses justice because it acknowledges the wrong deed, but seeks repentance, and prompts a soul to imitate the mercy of God.

For many moderns, mercy carries little weight. Most describe mercy as having one or both of the following features: First, “mercy is not a matter of obligation; it is a gratuitous expression of goodwill.” [1] Obviously, merciful acts can be applauded, but in no way is it deplorable not to perform them. A second feature of mercy is its “allegedly judicial nature; on this view, mercy is a matter of punitive leniency.” [2] That is, mercy in this light consists of forgiving an offender’s debt of punishment, or granting pardon to an imprisoned criminal. These two definitions portray mercy as either unnecessary action or a tolerant attitude; both are so limiting, so detached from emotion, and actually cheapen what mercy truly is. Current analysis of mercy seems to ignore those features of human life to which mercy has traditionally been so responsive, namely, human suffering.

In response to these contemporary definitions of mercy, the bishops of the world gathered in Rome for the Synod on the Family this past year. At first glance, the two topics seem unrelated: how can mercy pertain to the family? However, throughout the Synod, the topics of mercy and compassion were continually brought up. In section 23 of The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World, the synod bishops address broken and fragile families impacted by divorce. Of course, the Church recognizes that the only marriage bond for the baptized must be sacramental, and any breach is against the will of God; families who acknowledge and live by this truth bring great joy to the Church. At the same time, the Church acknowledges the weakness of her children who are struggling in their relationships or their journey of faith. To those families, the Church offers the most merciful thing, “to tell the truth in love.” [3] The bishops found that mercy was the only appropriate response for the broken and suffering families of the world. This is the fundamental part of mercy: acknowledging the brokenness in the world and responding with compassion. In a sense, though, the Church goes beyond compassion, because it provides the fullness of truth and brings its faithful to that truth. Merciful love transforms hearts, and provides an invitation to conversion.

Thomas Aquinas affirms the Church’s position of mercy as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” [4] For St. Thomas this virtue has two aspects: "affective” mercy and “effective” mercy. [5] Affective mercy is emotion, the heartfelt sympathy one feels for another’s distress. Matthew 9:36 provides a great example of affective mercy: Jesus, on “seeing the multitudes, had compassion on them: because they were distressed, and lying like sheep that have no shepherd.” Jesus sees their distress and seeks to comfort the lost and broken. Effective mercy, on the other hand, is a physical deed, a positive action for the good of another, taking steps to relieve the miseries or meet the needs of others. These two views on mercy are comparable to the works of mercy, the spiritual and the corporal; for Aquinas, both are inherent to mercy.

Aquinas’ account of mercy as a virtue is richer than a contemporary legal notion of mercy simply as a lesser punishment; it does not consist strictly in acts of “punitive leniency, nor is mercy by nature supererogatory.” [6] His account of mercy is situated within a broader discussion of virtues to which mercy is intimately connected. The virtue that is especially integral to mercy is charity. Charity is a theological virtue, and it is made manifest through love of neighbor and love of God. Most commonly, it is physically present in outward acts of love towards one’s neighbor. It is the responsibility of the Christian to aid those closest who are in need. Aquinas recognizes, “The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works.” [7] Mercy requires compassion, and provides a stimulus for obligatory charitable action.

Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth century thought rings true in the present day. Pope Francis and the bishops of the Synod take his theological discussion and apply it in their pastoral approach. As already proven by Aquinas, the virtue of mercy is both affective and effective. If one merely sympathizes with a suffering soul, and does not seize the best opportunities to help them, then the virtue of mercy is incomplete; it does not fully abide in that person. Pope Francis’ closing homily of the Synod perfectly exemplifies the intended pastoral response for a Christian who wants to practice mercy to the fullest degree. In Mark 10, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the city and as they are walking, a blind man Bartimaeus cries out for Jesus to have mercy on him. Many rebuke him, but he continues to shout. Jesus stops and asks for his disciples to call him. He then proceeds to heal Bartimaeus on account of his faith. Pope Francis connects this story to the theme of the coming year: the year of mercy. Jesus first shows compassion; he is moved by Bartimaeus’ request and becomes involved in his situation. He is then moved to action, or effective mercy. An interesting detail is that Jesus tells his disciples to call the man instead of himself. His disciples do nothing other than repeat Jesus’ encouraging and liberating words, leading him directly to Jesus, without lecturing him. This Gospel is calling Jesus’ disciples to do the same today, “to bring people into contact with compassionate Mercy that saves.” [8] When humanity cries out, there can be no other response than to make Jesus’ words our own and imitate his heart. Pope Francis reveals, “Moments of suffering and conflict are for God occasions of mercy. Today is a time of mercy!” [9]

Of course, there are temptations for those who follow Jesus; the disciples did not stop until Christ did. This can be a danger for Christians, to engage in a “spirituality of illusion,” walking through life without seeing the suffering of a neighbor or a dear friend. [10] To combat this, Pope Francis advocates for the “art of accompaniment,” walking with families in the midst of their struggles. The “pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting a closeness and compassion which, at the same time, heals, liberates, and encourages growth in the

Christian life.” [11] It is the responsibility of the Christian to imitate God’s mercy, to surpass justice. If God was exclusively just, there would be no hope for the sinner. The Church acknowledges that it is made up of sinners, and is here on earth to provide hope to its people. Practically speaking, what this looks like for the present Church is to make annulments more accessible and more timely, learn how to treat those who are divorced and remarried or not remarried, or teach divorced parents how to raise their children in the faith. It is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense fulfills it. God looks at human weakness and transforms an open heart into a beautiful witness to His creation. Merciful love transforms and elevates the soul to imitate its Creator.


[1] Shawn Floyd, “Aquinas and the Obligations of Mercy,” Journal of Religious Ethics 37 (2009): 449.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Synod of Bishops, The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World (Vatican City, 2014). Accessed November 22, 2015.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948), II.30.1.

[5] Dr. Robert Stackpole, “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Virtue of Mercy,” The Divine Mercy, November 4, 2005. Accessed November 22, 2015.

[6] Floyd, “Aquinas and Obligations of Mercy,” 468.

[7] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.30.4.

[8] Pope Francis: Homily at Closing Mass for Synod Assembly,“ (Vatican Radio, October 25, 2015). Accessed November 22, 2015,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]  Synod of Bishops, The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World, 45.