Which is the better Name for God: Mercy or Love?

In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis was asked: “Why does God never tire of forgiving us?” He answered:

“Because he is God, because he is mercy, and because mercy is the first attribute of God. The name of God is mercy.”

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 735-737). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Certainly, God is mercy, just as God is love. But I mildly disagree with the assertion that “Mercy is the first attribute of God”.

First, all the attributes of God are One. This truth is necessarily implied by the dogma that the Divine Nature is One.

The Compendium of the Catechism teaches: “Since creatures have received everything they are and have from God, only God in himself is the fullness of being and of every perfection.” [n. 39]

And Saints Augustine and Aquinas both taught: “God is truly and absolutely simple.”

[Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 3, A. 7. “On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. iv, 6,7): ‘God is truly and absolutely simple.’ I answer that, the absolute simplicity of God may be shown in many ways.”]

In other words, the Divine Nature is the perfect infinite fullness of all that is truly good, including existence (or being) itself. This fullness exists in only one God, who is not divided into separate attributes.

Since God is truly simple and His nature is One, all his attributes are the same — exactly the same, literally the same, not merely as a figure of speech. In God, Existence is Knowledge is Will is Love is Justice is Mercy. All that can be truly said to be an attribute of the Nature of God is One in God.

Moreover, God is not divided into what He is and what He does. In God, being and doing are exactly the same. All that God is, and all that God does, is truly and absolutely One. His acts are His nature, and his nature is entirely act. In God, there is no potentiality. God is One Divine Eternal Act.

So my first point is that all the attributes of God are so thoroughly One that no attribute is first or last.

Second, I must partially agree with the assertion of Pope Francis. For from our point of view, as fallen sinners, the attribute of existence — the mere fact that God exists — is not as important as His mercy. We would not have Jesus as our Savior, Mary as our mother, and the Church as the Ark of salvation without mercy. So for fallen sinners, mercy is the most important attribute of God. But this is taken from a human point of view, by which the attributes of God seem to be distinct. In truth, they are not.

My agreement is only partial because, from a human perspective, mercy is an expression of love. The three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity love one another, and they love all that they created, especially created persons. Therefore, when we fall into sin, the one God who is three Persons, out of love for us, offers us mercy and the grace to repent and be forgiven. The human perspective is that mercy expresses love, and that mercy depends on a certain fault or inadequacy in created persons before the love of God. And this implies that love is a more important attribute — though that is said from a human perspective.

From an absolute perspective, Love is Mercy is Justice is Knowledge is Will is Existence, in God. All the attributes of God are one attribute: infinite perfect existence, which is the same as infinite perfect acting.

Third, continuing the absolute perspective, God was not required to create the universe, nor to create angels or humans. And if He had chosen not to create anyone, in what way would His Nature be said to be Mercy? The three Persons of the Trinity love one another eternally. But are they merciful to one another? Since mercy is love in God, we must say Yes. But this absolute concept of mercy is distinct from the usual human definition, in which mercy pertains to some fault or failing, just as Pope Francis explains:

“Etymologically, ‘mercy’ derives from misericordis, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness.”
[Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 196-197). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

But if God never created humanity, this definition of mercy (from the human perspective) would not apply. So we can say, in this sense, that Love is the greatest attribute of God, even greater than His mercy. For Love is inherent to the Trinity, but mercy, from the human perspective, is not.

Fourth, the mercy of God is the greatest proof to us fallen sinners of His love. And in this sense, mercy is His greatest attribute, since in no better way is the love of God made manifest to us in this life than in the mercy that He shows toward sinners. Similarly, the love of God and neighbor is most clearly seen when we love our enemies:

{5:44} But I say to you: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. And pray for those who persecute and slander you.
{5:45} In this way, you shall be sons of your Father, who is in heaven. He causes his sun to rise upon the good and the bad, and he causes it to rain upon the just and the unjust.
{5:46} For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Do not even tax collectors behave this way?
{5:47} And if you greet only your brothers, what more have you done? Do not even the pagans behave this way?
{5:48} Therefore, be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In summary, the expression ” Mercy is the greatest attribute of God” is true in one sense, but not in another. The expression “Love is the greatest attribute of God” is absolutely true, without qualification. So we can also say: The Name of God is Love.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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One Response to Which is the better Name for God: Mercy or Love?

  1. Francisco says:

    This needed clarification. Thank you Ron.

    God is Good.

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