Law, Justice, Mercy and Forgiveness from a Catholic Perspective

Robert Fastiggi

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

From a Catholic perspective, law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness ultimately converge in God, who is the ultimate source of law and combines justice, mercy, and forgiveness in his dealings with human beings. The classic Catholic definition of law comes from Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) who said that law “is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good promulgated by the one who has care of the community” (Summa theologiae [ST] I-II, q. 90. a. 4). Since God is the creator, he has care for the whole community of creation, especially human beings who are created in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26–27). God’s law can be understood as his ordinance of reason for the common good of the human race. According to Aquinas, God communicates his law in two main ways: the natural law and the revealed law. 

Aquinas defines the natural law as the “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” (ST I-II, q. 91, a. 2). Since human beings are rational creatures, they all share in the natural law because it is the law written in the human heart, as St. Paul teaches in Rom 2:15. This explains why even those from outside the biblical tradition, such as Cicero, recognize the natural as the law of “right reason” (cf. Cicero, Rep. III, 22, 33).

In addition to God making the law known through our innate natural reason, he also communicates his will through divinely revealed laws such as the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:2–17; Deut. 5:6–21) and the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1–7:29). In Catholic thought, although God’s will can be known through the natural law, the divinely revealed laws in the Bible are needed because original sin has darkened the human intellect and inclined the human will to sin in what is known as concupiscence (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] nos. 405 and 1264).

In addition to the natural law and the divinely revealed law there are also human laws, which, according to Aquinas, can be just or unjust (ST I-II, q. 96 a. 4). Human laws are just if they correspond to the natural law and promote the common good. They are unjust if they violate the natural law and injure the common good.

According to the Catholic Church, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh and the supreme revelation of God to the human race. Jesus does not come to do away with the law of the Torah and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17). When Jesus is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, he states that to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind is the greatest commandment, and the second is like it: to love one’s neighbor as oneself (cf. Mt 22: 34–40). In upholding the priority of the love of God and the love of neighbor, Jesus is highlighting the prior teachings of Deut. 6:5 and Lev 19:18.

The Catholic perspective on law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness is that of the Bible, which points to God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness as the defining qualities of his relationship to the human race.

The law of God is a dictate of reason because God is supreme reason (Logos) and Jesus is the incarnation of God’s Word or Logos (Jn 1:14). The Bible, however, not only reveals God’s law to be rational; it also reveals God’s law to be just. This is because God himself is “just and upright” (Deut. 32:4).  He “governs the world with justice” and “judges the people with fairness (Ps 9:9).1 All Scripture references are from the New American Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1991). Catholics are called to love God and neighbor and to follow the other commandments of God as interpreted by the Church’s teaching authority (the Magisterium), which resides in the bishops and the Pope (cf. CCC], 2032–2038). 

The law of God is reasonable and just, but human beings—because of concupiscence—often fail to observe God’s law. In light of human sin and failure, God reveals himself as merciful and forgiving. God’s mercy toward sinners is a constant teaching of the Bible. God, in his justice, inflicts punishments on those who hate him down to the third and fourth generation (Ex 20:5). His mercy, though, far exceeds his punishments because he shows mercy down to the thousandth generation “on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6). The Lord is “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Ex 34: 6–7).  

Even though God is merciful and forgiving, he does not declare the guilty to be guiltless (Ex 34:7). Sin carries with it a need for expiation even after it has been forgiven. After David sins, the prophet Nathan tells him: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die: But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die” (2 Sam 12:13–14). The Catholic Church understands Jesus’ death as expiation for the sins “of the whole world” (1 Jn 2: 2). This, though, does not eliminate the need for expiation of the effects of sin. In the sacrament of confession or reconciliation, the priest assigns a penance to help remedy the disorders caused by sin (CCC 1459). Because sins often harm others, simple justice also requires doing what is possible “to repair the harm” such as returning stolen goods, restoring the reputation of someone slandered, or paying compensation for injuries (cf. CCC 1459). The penances assigned by the priest do not forgive the sins. God is the one who forgives. The penances, though, are meant to be medicinal. They seek to heal the damage that sin inflicts on individuals and communities. Jesus asks his followers to be people of forgiveness: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6: 14–15). St. Paul also instructs the faithful to “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Eph 4:32).

Catholic Law and Forgiveness in Society

How do the Catholic teachings on law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness apply to the social order? Jesus did not leave his followers a civil legal code. He taught a spiritual and moral path that his followers have attempted to apply to the concrete prudential order as much as possible. In its first three centuries, the Catholic Church lived, for the most part, under the rule of the Roman Empire. St. Paul did not want the Romans to see Christians as opponents to the civil order so he tells  Christians to “be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God” (Rom 13:1). Indeed, the civil authority “is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer” (Rom 13:4). The Catholic Church tried to follow this teaching of Paul as much as possible, but there were some demands of the Roman Empire that had to be resisted such as offering incense to the gods. In such cases, the teaching to be followed was: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  

Circumstances changed, though, in the fourth century when Christian rule was established. The Church then needed to discern how to apply the teachings of Christ to the civil order. Before Christian rule, many early Church fathers believed mercy should be shown to criminals. Although punishments may be inflicted, the death penalty should be resisted. Tertullian wrote that “the Creator “puts his interdict on every sort of man-killing by that one summary precept, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (De Spectaculis, 2). St. Cyprian insisted that Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty” (Epistle 60 to Cornelius). Lactantius believed that “there is no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being, whom God willed to be inviolable, is always wrong [occidere hominem sit semper nefas] (Divine Institutions, lib. VI cap. 20). 

When Catholic rule was established, Catholic leaders could no longer enjoy the luxury of developing religious teaching on mercy and forgiveness outside the context of their societal impacts. With political authority came a more pronounced need for Catholics to maintain civil order. In 405, Pope Innocent I was asked by the Bishop of Toulouse whether Catholic magistrates could administer torture (tormenta) or carry out a capital sentence (capitalem … sententiam). Innocent I allowed for such actions because God, in Rom 13:4, had given the State the authority to punish criminals by the sword (Innocent I, Epistola VI, cap. III, 7)

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst 

Innocent I’s approval of torture and the death penalty was later revised by his successor, Pope Nicholas I. In his 866 letter to the Bulgarians, Nicholas I taught that “neither divine nor human law” allows torture. He also told the Bulgarians: “…without hesitation and in every circumstance (omni occasione), save the life of the body and soul of each individual. You should save from death not only the innocent but also criminals, because Christ has saved you from the death of the soul” (Epistula 97, cap. 25).  

During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church taught that clerics (priests and bishops) were forbidden to carry out death sentences, but Pope Innocent III in 1210 taught that the secular power could “exercise a judgment of blood without mortal sin provided that in carrying out the punishment it proceeds, not out of hatred, but judiciously, not in a precipitous manner, but with caution.”2 Heinrich Denzinger and Peter Hünermann, eds. Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012) no. 796. Pope Gregory IX (r.1227–1241) later allowed for the burning of heretics; and Innocent I (1243–1254) gave permission for the use of judicial torture. Capital punishment and torture were justified because they were thought necessary for maintaining the civil order and the Catholic faith as the true religion of the State.

In recent decades, the Catholic Church has rejected both torture and capital punishment. John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, included torture among the acts that are intrinsically evil (no. 80). In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitiae, he limited the use of capital punishment to rare cases of “absolute necessity” when it would not be otherwise possible to defend society (no. 56). Pope Francis in 2018 ordered a change to no. 2267 in the Catechism, which now reads:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

This new formulation of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty does not obscure the Church’s traditional teaching on law and justice, but it applies the principle of mercy to those convicted of very serious crimes. Such convicted criminals are worthy of God’s mercy because they still retain human dignity and public safety can be maintained without definitively depriving such criminals the possibility of redemption. 

In previous centuries, it was believed that those sentenced to death had the hope of redemption in the next life, but they had forfeited their right to continue to live on earth. The Church now believes that punishments should never remove the hope of being reintegrated into society. On November 26, 2019, during his press conference on his return flight back from Japan, Pope Francis not only reaffirmed his belief that the death penalty is immoral, but he also spoke out against life-long prison sentences, saying that “the sentence should always allow for reintegration. A sentence without a ‘ray of hope’ toward a horizon is inhuman, including life sentences. One must think about how a person serving a life sentence can be reintegrated, inside or outside. But the horizon is always necessary, the reintegration.”

The Catholic Church’s perspective on law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness has developed in recent decades with respect to the civil order. The days of accepting torture and the executions of heretics are over. The Church, however, continues to uphold God as the supreme norm of law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness. God’s will, though, is to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6:10). Mercy and forgiveness are not opposed to law and justice. They are integrated into the Catholic vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his 1980 encyclical, Dives in Misericodia, Pope John Paul II highlights the primacy of love, which integrates God’s justice with his mercy: 

Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy (no. 4).

 In the final analysis, the Catholic perspective on law, justice, mercy, and forgiveness is that of the Bible, which points to God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness as the defining qualities of his relationship to the human race. God’s mercy is his justice, and forgiveness is received by God’s mercy.


Dr. Robert Fastiggi is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He teaches and writes on courses in Ecclesiology, Christology, Mariology, church history, sacramental theology, and moral theology.