The Works of Mercy or Acts of Mercy are actions and practices which the Roman Catholic Church considers expectations to be fulfilled by believers, and which are also recognized as spiritual aids amongst members of other denominations of Christianity. These works, it is believed, express mercy, and are thus expected to be performed by believers insofar as they are able in accordance with the Beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). These acts are to keep the two greatest commandments:

  • "I am the Lord your God and you shall not have strange gods before me.' This is the greatest and the first commandment.
  • And, the second is also like the first one, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as yourself.'"

Like many theological principles in Catholicism, they are expressed in organized, numbered form. There are two sets of these works, the Corporal Works (or Acts) of Mercy, relating to material needs of others, and Spiritual Works (or Acts) of Mercy. Although not so legally defined, these concepts exist in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well.

Corporal works of mercy

Corporal Works of Mercy are those that tend to bodily needs. The The Judgement of Nations (Matthew 25:31-46) enumerates such acts—though not this precise list—as the reason for the salvation of the saved, and the omission of them as the reason for damnation. The last work of mercy, burying the dead, comes from the Book of Tobit.

  1. Feed the hungry
  2. Give drink to the thirsty
  3. Clothe the naked
  4. Shelter the homeless
  5. Visit the sick
  6. Visit the imprisoned
  7. Bury the dead

Spiritual works of mercy

Not everyone is considered capable or obigated to perform the first three spiritual works of mercy if they do not have proper tact, knowledge or training to do so. The last four are considered to be the obligation of all people without condition.[1]

  1. Instruct the ignorant;
  2. Counsel the doubtful;
  3. Admonish sinners;
  4. Bear wrongs patiently;
  5. Forgive offences willingly;
  6. Comfort the afflicted;
  7. Pray for the living and the dead.
Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)

Works of Mercy, by the Master of Alkmaar in 1504, for the St. Lawrence church in Alkmaar. The panels show the works of mercy in this order: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and free the imprisoned.

Nature of the obligation

The actual obligation in a given case depends largely on the degree of distress to be aided, and the capacity or condition of the one whose duty in the matter is in question. There are easily recognizable limits as the performance of the corporal works of mercy are concerned.

Likewise the law imposing spiritual works of mercy is subject in individual instances to important reservations.


  • Ralf van Bühren: Die Werke der Barmherzigkeit in der Kunst des 12.–18. Jahrhunderts. Zum Wandel eines Bildmotivs vor dem Hintergrund neuzeitlicher Rhetorikrezeption (Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, vol. 115), Hildesheim / Zürich / New York: Verlag Georg Olms 1998. ISBN 3-487-10319-2


  1. Delany, Joseph (1911). "Catholic Encyclopedia". Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 22 November 2009. 

External links

This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public Kasih

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