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Justice and Mercy Meet in Tribunal Ministry

February 22nd, 2016posted by Sean

Mercy & Truth are shown together in a 13th-century representation of Psalms 85 (10)

I am a Sister of Mercy whose primary ministry is working to do Justice for those who come to the Tribunal seeking decisions about their marriage situations. Sometimes friends ask me if that feels like a contradiction. For me it is not.

Twenty years ago Bishop Moeddel and I offered evenings with the Bishop for those separated from the Church over marriage issues. One man told me about his situation which turned out to be a simple case (Catholic married without required canonical form) handled in a few weeks. That man later called sounding very anxious and asking if I thought God were angry with him for the 17 years he went to Mass every Sunday but did not receive Communion because he thought he could not straighten out his remarriage with the Church. I told him that the God I knew was very pleased with his fidelity and with him for doing the best he could with what he knew at the time. He thanked me and said after hearing me he could believe what his Pastor tried to tell him about that. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, and he said, “You really are a Sister of Mercy.”

For some, Justice and Mercy seem incompatible. If Justice only involved dispensing deserved punishment for wrongdoing, and if Mercy only meant pardoning earned punishment, those virtues would be in conflict. However Mercy and Justice are different aspects of God’s love. It was while I was still a teenager beginning college studies during Vatican II that I came across a statement that God’s Justice and Mercy intersect at the cross. I love that integrated image of the virtues of Justice and Mercy.

Christianity teaches that God’s Mercy is shown through God’s Justice. The follower of Jesus does not make a choice to be compassionate and forgiving or to be fair and righteous. There is no putting aside Justice to make room for Mercy. In God, there is perfect balance. For God, virtue stands in the middle, not over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing one virtue or the other. The prophet Micah is often quoted about the way to live a good life: love Mercy, do Justice and walk humbly with your God.

If we relieve the suffering of the poor with a sandwich from a soup kitchen (Mercy) without also working to correct the social systems which caused the hunger (Justice), we merely pour a bucket of the living water of change into an ocean of deadening problems. Perhaps that is why the Bible puts so much emphasis on both Mercy and Justice. Mercy without Justice can lead to dependency and entitlement, increasing the power of the giver over the one in need. Justice without Mercy can lead to hardened hearts and cold, impersonal treatment of others. May all of us who follow Jesus continue to better harmonize Justice and Mercy in our ministries and in our lives.

Sister Victoria Vondenberger, RSM, JCL

Tribunal Director