Mercy and Its Counterfeit Counterpart

COMMENTARY: This virtue is both ‘affective,’ involving the emotions, as well as ‘effective,’ involving practical assistance.

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In the world of amateur baseball there is something called “the mercy rule.” It is applied when a losing team is trailing by as many as 15 runs. The purpose of the rule is to end the suffering and humiliation of the players on a team that no longer has any hope of winning. The rule is unobjectionable when it is applied to baseball. In fact, it might even be regarded as admirable and humane. 

But it is quite another thing when it is applied to life. For many people, especially those who promote euthanasia, mercy means ending the suffering and humiliation of a person by ending his life. The well-known phrase “mercy killing” is a rationalization that attempts to make killing another person appear to be a virtuous act.

Mercy, properly speaking, is a virtue. However, “mercy killing” has the pretense of a virtue without possessing its essence. At the close of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope St. John Paul II invokes Mary to intercede for “the elderly and the sick killed by indifference or out of misguided mercy.” For every genuine virtue, there is a counterfeit counterpart. This is particularly evident with respect to compassion, which is commonly employed as a justification for abortion.

True mercy is always on the side of life. St. Thomas Aquinas defines mercy as “the compassion in our hearts (misericordia) for another person’s misery.” Had he concluded his definition at that point, he would have been sorely remiss and would have given encouragement to advocates of mercy killing. But the second part of his definition is crucial. The “Angelic Doctor,” citing St. Augustine, states that mercy is “a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 30, 1). Mercy, therefore, is both “affective,” involving the emotions, as well as “effective,” involving practical assistance. Putting a person to death is not a way of helping him.

Mercy may be shown to those who suffer through no fault of their own. Nonetheless, in the Year of Mercy, a special emphasis is given to those who suffer as a consequence of sin. Pope Francis stressed this aspect of mercy when he accepted the papacy: “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff. I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Pope Francis’ declaration is remarkably similar to that of another visionary, Christopher Columbus: “I am a most noteworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy, and they have covered me completely.  I have found the sweetest consolation since I made my whole purpose to enjoy his marvelous Presence.” Novelist Herman Melville made the same point, though far more dramatically. “Heaven have mercy on us all …” he wrote, “for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Another celebrated novelist, Charles Dickens, confessed that, “but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a vagabond.” “The wonderful news,” declares evangelist Billy Graham, “is that Our Lord is a God of mercy, and he responds to repentance.”

Mercy should not be misguided. It should be beneficial. But it should not be doled out irresponsibly. Mercy is a mutual affair. The recipient must have the right disposition in order to receive and benefit from mercy.

The celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie understood well that when mercy is dispensed recklessly, irrespective of justice, it can prove to be counterproductive. “Too much mercy,” she remarked, “often resulted in further crimes, which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.” It belongs to wisdom to place things in their proper order.

The sinner is not eligible for mercy unless he is willing to accept justice. Mercy, therefore, does not stand alone. Justice alone can be cold legalism, whereas mercy alone can be meaningless. In Shakespeare’s famous panegyric to mercy that appears in The Merchant of Venice, he points out that mercy is “the throned monarch better than his crown.” The “crown” is a symbol of justice and temporal power. But mercy is personal and “is enthroned in the hearts of kings.”  When he states that “mercy seasons justice,” he is affirming the validity of both virtues, while putting them in their proper order. 

The anatomy of mercy reveals an interesting variety of twists and turns, curves and contours. It should be, at the same time, both passionate and practical. It should be in the interest of life, not death. It can restore sinners to a life of grace.  It is available to all who suffer, whether their suffering is deserved or undeserved. It is higher than justice, but nonetheless presupposes it. It is dispensed with a generous heart. It blesses both the giver as well as the receiver. It is virtuous only when it is whole, when all its composing parts are properly integrated. It can easily become a vice when it is fragmented for convenience.  May this Year of Mercy, let us hope, result in a life of grace.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at

St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.