Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I’m attending the Summons of Freedom conference this morning at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture . Attending conferences such as this is always a tad bittersweet—too many helpful and interesting papers to attend with not nearly enough time.

But Mary Keys’ paper had me at the title: “Why Justice is Not Enough: Aquinas and Wilberforce on Mercy, Love, and the Common Good.”

Putting the patron saint of Catholic philosophy in dialog with a self-described Protestant evangelical politician? Yes, please.

There is a principle in the Western tradition of political theory that justice is a sufficient virtue for the proper operation of the political order. Keys however, develops Aquinas’ thought that justice is not sufficient, but that mercy and love are essential for political action and behavior. I won’t recount the full argument here, but found it interesting that for Aquinas, justice (in an absolute sense) exists because of a prior sense of mercy.

As contingent creatures, we exist only by virtue of a prior act of goodness. We are not ultimately owed our own being, yet once created, and so the first movement of the universe is one of mercy and caritas. Justice and its pursuit in this context, then, is at least logically dependent upon this prior working.

Keys wants to defend mercy and justice as necessary for the proper functioning of the political order. And occasionally it is recognized as such, as when India gave Mother Theresa a state funeral for her work in Calcutta.

In some ways—and these reflections are my own—the fact that mercy and caritas precede justice protects the transcendent basis of justice, and preserves justice from being “de-natured” and subordinated to the state. Keys, in holding up Wilberforce as an exemplar of someone who pursues justice through mercy and caritas, argues that Wilberforce realized that he needed to pursue cultural change prior to the political change.

In this way, Keys seemed to be an ally against the politicization of every aspect of human life. Mercy and caritas are crucial for the political order because the human is a transcendent creature, created in the image of God—which mercy and caritas point toward.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles