The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
What are Works of Mercy?
The seven corporal works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy, also known as acts of mercy, are actions and practices to be fulfilled by faithful Catholics. Though the lists of the works or acts were formalized later (at least by the time St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica), the importance of performing these duties was urged from the earliest days of the Church. They do, in fact, stem from living according to Christ’s declaration of the two highest commandments:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Fulfilling both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy fit hand in hand with loving God and your neighbor.
Of the virtue of mercy, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
“Hence mercy, whereby we supply others’ defects is a sacrifice more acceptable to [God], as conducing more directly to our neighbor's well-being, according to Hebrews 13:16: “Do not forget to do good and to impart, for by such sacrifices God's favor is obtained.”
. . .The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbor. . . Charity likens us to God by uniting us to Him in the bond of love: wherefore it surpasses mercy, which likens us to God as regards similarity of works.” (Secunda Secundæ Partis, Question 30)
What are the Corporal Works of Mercy?
The word “corporal” means “of or belonging to the body,” and so the corporal works of mercy refer to acts of mercy that relate to the physical, to bodily needs. Many of the corporal works of mercy were referenced directly by Christ in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)
The seventh corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, is referenced more than once in Tobit.
The 7 Corporal Works of Mercy
To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To shelter the homeless.
To visit the imprisoned.
To visit the sick.
To bury the dead.
What are the Spiritual Works of Mercy?
Where the corporal works of mercy see to the physical needs, the spiritual works of mercy, naturally, provide for the needs of the spirit. Once again, though the list was formalized sometime later during the first millennium of the Church, the duties, such as forgiving sins and instructing sinners and those who are ignorant, are present throughout Christ’s teachings in the Bible.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “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.'"
The encyclopedia continues to explain that though the parable mentioned above describes only corporal works of mercy directly, “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.”