"Grace" and "mercy" are words that most people are familiar with in a general sense. Through literature, movies and popular culture, we have formed vaguely religious ideas in our minds about the meanings of these words. When considering the religious significance of words, however, it's important to be careful and precise. The meaning of a word in a particular religion may be very different from its meaning in popular culture, and definitions of words can even vary among different religious traditions.

Divine Grace

The Catholic Church teaches that grace is a gift given by God to humans that allows them to be forgiven of their sins and achieve eternal life. Catholics believe that the power of God's grace allows baptism, the act that washes away one's sins and allows one to become a child of God, to occur. Without this gift of grace, a person can never achieve the eternal bliss that is true knowledge of God. In essence, grace is divine favor.

Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace

The Catholic Church identifies two types of grace: sanctifying grace and actual grace. Sanctifying grace arises from being in a constant state of holiness. Through baptism, for example, the soul is cleansed and imbued with sanctifying grace. Actual grace is help that God gives to a person for acts of faith, charity or benevolence. This type of grace is not constant, but appears only when meritorious acts take place. It's also important to differentiate actual grace from natural graces, such as good health or good fortune.

Works of Mercy

People often see mercy as an act of giving by which the person receiving the mercy is put in the giver's debt. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that Christians should look at mercy in a much different light. If a person lacks the basic necessities of life, that which is given to him rightfully belongs to him, not to the giver. Fulfilling someone's basic needs, the church says, is "paying a debt of justice." The seventh of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not steal," compels believers to show mercy to those in want. Not doing so is tantamount to theft in the eyes of the church.

Corporal Mercy and Spiritual Mercy

The Catholic Church differentiates between acts of corporal mercy and acts of spiritual mercy. Both are necessary, and if a person in need receives one and not the other, it will do them no good. Corporal mercy involves bodily needs, such as food, clothing, shelter and healing for the sick. Spiritual mercy involves showing kindness, giving counsel and comfort, forgiving wrongs and praying for someone. The Catholic Church sees the poor and suffering as particularly favored by God, and the catechism of the Catholic Church states that "the church's love for the poor ... is part of her constant tradition."