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Justice and Mercy: An Enigmatic Yet Crucial Relationship for the Application of Canon Law

  • Thomas Schüller (a1)


Not a single day goes by without Pope Francis making charity and mercy – central characteristic traits of any Christian – the pivot of his sermons, exhortations and proclamations, formal and informal alike. The last holy year, concluding in November 2016, which explicitly featured the motto of mercy, offers a welcome opportunity for the canonist to contemplate the relationship between mercy and justice. Certainly, there is no lack of warning speeches and auguries against the oversimplification of the canonical norms through invoking a false understanding of an imperative of indefinite mercy. To do so would be to neglect the crucial and central commandment of justice, which ensures both legal certainty and an equal treatment of similar cases. The papal address given to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota in 2009 may serve as an eloquent example. In his address Benedict XVI emphasised the interrelation of love (caritas) and justice (iustitia), but at the same time explicitly cautioned against over-pastorally motivated charity as far as the application of the law is concerned:

Charity without justice is not charity, but a counterfeit, because charity itself requires that objectivity which is typical of justice and which must not be confused with inhuman coldness. In this regard, as my Predecessor, Venerable Pope John Paul II, said in his Address on the relationship between pastoral care and the law: ‘The judge … must always guard against the risk of misplaced compassion, which could degenerate into sentimentality, itself pastoral only in appearance.’

There is sufficient reason, therefore, to consider once more how mercy and justice relate to one another.



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2 Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 11 April 2015, available at <>, accessed 21 June 2016.

3 Benedict XVI, ‘Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota given 29.01.2010’, officially published in (2010) 102 Acta Apostolicae Sedis 110–114; English translation available at <>, accessed 21 June 2016.

4 Ibid.

5 See Schüller, Barmherzigkeit, pp 349–358.

6 Canons 19 and 221 §2 (1752 CIC).

7 Kuper, J-L, ‘Alger von Luettich’ in Haering, S and Schmitz, H (eds), Lexikon des Kirchenrechts (Freiburg im Breisgau, 2004), p 1038 .

8 Kretzschmar, R, Alger von Luettichs Traktat ‘De misericordia et iustitia’. Text mit kritischem Apparat und Sachkommentar (Sigmaringen, 1985), p 31 , my translation.

9 H Zapp, ‘Heinrich von Segusio’ in Haering and Schmitz, Lexikon des Kirchenrechts, p 1089.

10 Hostiensis, Summa aurea, Lib. V, de dispensationibus (Lyon, 1537; reprinted Aalen, 1962), p 289 .

11 Huber, C, Papst Paul VI. und das Kirchenrecht (Essen, 1999).

12 Paul VI, ‘Allocutio die 19.2.1977’, (1977) 69 Acta Apostolicae Sedis 208–212 at 210.

13 Kasper, W, Barmherzigkeit. Grundbegriff des Evangeliums – Schlüssel christlichen Lebens, fourth edition (Freiburg im Breisgau, 2014), p 83 , my translation.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q 21, a 3 ad 2.

17 Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium Matthaei lectura, cap 5, lc 2.

18 Francis, Misericordiae vultus.

19 For more on this, see Schüller, Barmherzigkeit, pp 8–160.

20 Ibid, pp 268–280.

21 See also Communicationes 12 (1980), p 440 : ‘Verum est caritatem supremam esse virtutem, at ut vera caritas habeatur, oportet iustitia servertur. Si non servatur iustitia, quae hov nomine digna sit, nec caritas habetur. Aliquando caritas et misericordia videntur adhiberi; et tamen iniuria fit alteri parti, iniuria fit filiis, iniuria fit iis qui aliquod ius habent. Ergo oportet iustitiam servare cum aequitate … quae aequitas multoties non est nisi illa charitas [sic]’.

22 ‘If a custom or an express prescript of universal or particular law is lacking in a certain matter, a case, unless it is penal, must be resolved in light of laws issued in similar matters, general principles of law applied with canonical equity, the jurisprudence and practice of the Roman Curia, and the common and constant opinion of learned persons.’ There is also reference in Canon 17 to rules for interpretation when in doubt.

23 Lefebvre, C, ‘Ėquité’, in DDC Tom 3 (Paris, 1953), pp 394410 at p 408. Lefebvre distinguishes between aequitas canonica and aequitas cerebrina (an arbitrary equity). He defines the former as informata a iure, ie ‘conforming to the conception and applications made by canon law’.

24 Francis, ‘Es gibt keine Sakramente auf Bezahlung’, in Osservatore Romano (German edition), no 21, 27 May 2016, p 8 .

25 See (1969) 1 Communicationes 79.

26 See eg the distinguished canonist and emeritus Bishop of Aix-la-Chapelle, Mussinghoff, H, ‘Nobile est munus ius dicere iustitiam adhibens aequitate coniunctam’ in Reinhardt, H (ed), Theologia et Ius Canonicum. Festgabe fuer Heribert Heinemann zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres (Essen 1995), pp 2137 ; see also Kasper, W, ‘Gerechtigkeit und Barmherzigkeit: Überlegungen zu einer Applikationstheorie kirchlicher Normen’ in Puza, R and Weiß, A (eds), Iustitia in Caritate (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), pp 5966 .

27 See T Schüller, Barmherzigkeit, pp 408–432.

28 W Kasper, Barmherzigkeit, p 176, my translation.

29 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II/II, q 47, a 2, sc.

30 Georg Bier (Freiburg im Breisgau) and Norbert Luedecke (Bonn) might serve as examples for the German-speaking countries.

31 Libero Gerosa (Lugano) might be regarded as a distinguished representative.

32 Paul VI, ‘Allocutio die 19.2.1977’, p 210: ‘Ius enim non est impedimentum, sed adminiculum pastorale; non occidit, sed vivificat.’

33 Ephesians 4:15.

1 See also T Schüller, Die Barmherzigkeit als Prinzip der Rechtsapplikation in der Kirche im Dienst der salus animarum. Ein kanonistischer Beitrag zu Methodenproblemen der Kirchenrechtstheorie (Würzburg, 1993); W Kasper, ‘Gerechtigkeit und Barmherzigkeit: Überlegungen zu einer Applikationstheorie kirchenrechtlicher Normen’ in Theologie und Kirche (Mainz, 1999), pp 183–191; M Nelles, Summum Ius Summa Iniuria? Eine kanonistische Untersuchung zum Verhaeltnis von Einzelfallgerechtigkeit und Rechtssicherheit im Recht der Kirche (St Ottilien, 2004).


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Justice and Mercy: An Enigmatic Yet Crucial Relationship for the Application of Canon Law

  • Thomas Schüller (a1)


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