Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons. It is as they say ad alterum. Its motive is the misery which one discerns in another, particularly in so far as this condition is deemed to be, in some sense at least, involuntary. Obviously the necessity which is to be succoured can be either of body or soul. Hence it is customary to enumerate both corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The traditional enumeration of the corporal works of mercy is as follows:
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbour the harbourless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy are:
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.
It will be seen from these divisions that the works of mercy practically coincide with the various forms of almsgiving. It is thus that St. Thomas regards them. The word alms of course is a corruption of the Greek eleemosyne (mercy). The doing of works of mercy is not merely a matter of exalted counsel; there is as well a strict precept imposed both by the natural and the positive Divine lawenjoining their performance. That the natural law enjoins works of mercy is based upon the principle that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us.
The Divine command is set forth in the most stringent terms by Christ, and the failure to comply with it is visited with the supreme penalty of eternal damnation (Matthew 25:41): “Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, in everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in; naked, and you covered me not; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me”, etc. Here it is true there is mention directly and explicitly of only the corporal works of mercy. As, however, the spiritual works of mercy deal with a distress whose relief is even more imperative as well as more effective for the grand purpose of man’s creation, the injunction must be supposed to extend to them also. Besides there are the plain references of Christ to such works as fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15) as well as the forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 6:14). It has to be remembered however that the precept is an affirmative one, that is, it is of the sort which is always binding but not always operative, for lack of matter or occasion or fitting circumstances. It obliges, as the theologians say, semper sed non pro semper. Thus in general it may be said that the determination of its actual obligatory force in a given case depends largely on the degree of distress to be aided, and the capacity or condition of the one whose duty in the matter is in question. There are easily recognizable limitations which the precept undergoes in practice so far as the performance of the corporal works of mercy are concerned. These are treated in the article on Alms and Almsgiving. Likewise the law imposing spiritual works of mercy is subject in individual instances to important reservations. For example, it may easily happen that an altogether special measure of tact and prudence, or, at any rate, some definite superiority is required for the discharge of the oftentimes difficult task of fraternal correction. Similarly to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and console the sorrowing is not always within the competency of every one. To bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, and to pray for the living and the dead are things from which on due occasion no one may dispense himself on the pleas that he has not some special array of gifts required for their observance. They are evidently within the reach of all. It must not be forgotten that the works of mercy demand more than a humanitarian basis if they are to serve as instruments in bringing about our eternal salvation. The proper motive is indispensable and this must be one drawn from the supernatural order.
Finally it is interesting to note that for the exercise of the sixth among the corporal works of mercy two religious orders have at different times in the history of the Church been instituted. In the year 1198 the Trinitarians were founded by St. John of Matha and St. Felix of Valois, and just twenty years later St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond of Pennafort established the Order of Our Lady of Ransom. Both of these communities had as their chief scope the recovery of Christians who were held captive by the infidels. In the religious body which owes its origin to St. Peter Nolasco, the members took a fourth vow to surrender their own persons in place of those whom they were not otherwise able to redeem from slavery.