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The Virtue of Justice

by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted

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In his weekly column Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted takes up the virtue of justice. He says that justice is and always will be a cutting edge issue for our consideration. He discusses the dangers of relativism, what constitutes a "right" and social and commutative justice. This is part one of a three part series.

Larger Work

The Catholic Sun

Publisher & Date

Diocese of Phoenix, June 21, 2007

Part One

Cries for justice ring out throughout our nation and world every day, and even more loudly protests against injustice. This clamor for a just society and these demands for “rights” of various kinds tell us that justice is no idle topic for consideration. In fact, it is a “cutting edge” issue of our day. In a world wounded by original sin, it will always be a cutting edge issue.

What is justice?

Justice is the cardinal virtue most frequently praised in the Sacred Scriptures. All the Ten Commandments are concerned with justice. Jesus is the Just One who died for the sake of the unjust, that He might lead people back to God (Cf. 1 Pet 3:18).

The Church, down through the centuries, has expounded principles of justice, applied them to difficult issues, and promoted the virtue of justice. The teaching of the Church on justice has been especially robust in the past 116 years beginning in 1891 with the famous social encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, continuing with Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), promulgated by the bishops at Vatican II (1962-1965), and reaching a high point in the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II: Centessimus Annus in 1991, Veritatis Splendor in 1993, and Evangelium Vitae in 1995.

The need for justice is evident even to small children who know that they should play fair with their friends, and that there is such a thing as right and wrong. But what exactly constitutes justice is a hotly contested question, not only in regard to specific issues like the death penalty, women’s rights, and the war in Iraq but even in regard to the principles on which justice in society is founded.

So, then, what is justice? Justice is the virtue that enables us to assume our responsibilities and to give others their due. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (#1807), “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.”

‘Feet firmly planted in mid-air’

A book by Dr. Francis Beckwith cuts to the heart of the problem of speaking about justice today; it is titled “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air!” Beckwith’s concerns about the dangers of relativism are not unparalleled. On the vigil of his election as pope in April 2005, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) warned that the very future of our contemporary society was threatened by a “dictatorship of relativism.” Expanding on this topic a few months later, our Holy Father said, on June 6, 2005, “Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ‘ego.’”

According to moral relativists, justice (or any truth claim, for that matter) is established by the individual. In this view, objective moral truths would not exist. Morality, then, would be created by human beings and be subject to them alone. This is directly opposed to the Christian tradition which holds that morality is something objective and fixed. According to the theory of relativism, what is right today may be wrong tomorrow; all things are subject of change, even truth and justice.

But, in fact, justice and truth are not changeable since their ultimate foundation is found in God. As Psalm 119 declares (vs. 137ff), “You are just, O Lord, and your ordinance is right. You have pronounced your decrees in justice and in perfect faithfulness… Your justice is everlasting justice, and your law is permanent.”

Men and women are creatures of a loving Creator, who not only made us because of love but also teaches us how to live in His love. By listening to His voice, and obeying His commands, we can build our individual lives and our society on a just foundation and can confidently follow the path that leads to eternal life. We can also be sure that what is just today will not change and become wrong tomorrow.

Can wrongs be ‘rights’?

Any discussion of justice must include a discussion of rights, because justice is only possible when each person’s rights are secured. Concern for justice and rights is found throughout the Sacred Scriptures. For example, in the Old Testament, God says (Dt 24:17), “You shall not violate the rights of the alien or of the orphan, nor take the clothing of a widow as a pledge.” And Jesus, when teaching about the necessity of persevering prayer, tells a humorous parable about a poor but feisty widow who will not stop seeking her rights just because her only hope for restitution is a crooked judge. At the end of the parable, Jesus draws this conclusion (Lk 18:6-7): “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of His chosen ones who call out to Him day and night?”

All rights are not the same, of course. Some rights are primary in that they are founded on the basic needs of human persons; examples would include the right to life and the right to truth. These primary rights belong to every human person from the moment of conception; they cannot be arbitrarily taken away.

There are also secondary rights that may differ from one person to another depending on each one’s vocation and responsibility. These would include the rights of parents as distinct from those of their children, the rights of civic leaders as distinct from those of the citizens they serve, the rights of the teachers as distinct from those of their pupils. While secondary rights are genuine, they are subject to change as circumstances in the family and society occur. On the other hand, primary rights can never change nor can they be discarded.

Confusion between primary and secondary rights is commonplace in society today, due at times to an exaggerated egalitarianism that refuses to acknowledge different roles within the society, due at other times to the outright denial of some of the primary rights, and due at still other times to rights’ claims that are not rooted in objective truth. When confusions like these occur, we end up with “wrongs” being proclaimed as “rights.” For example, the so-called “right to choose abortion” may trump the right to life. But no person ever has the right to commit actions that are evil.

Social justice and commutative justice

The pursuit of justice necessarily entails both rights and responsibilities. These are correlative: my rights place an obligation on others; conversely, my responsibilities arise from others’ rights. In every case, what we are dealing with are the duties human beings owe to each other, individually and as a community.

In the coming issues of The Catholic Sun, we shall look more closely at the virtue of justice, especially at two kinds of justice: social justice and commutative justice. Social justice (which includes both legal and distributive justice) concerns itself with the rights and responsibilities of the community to its members and of the members to the community. On the other hand, commutative justice deals with the rights and duties of individuals towards one another. As I continue to address the virtue of justice next time, we shall look more closely at commutative justice.

For further reading:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1807
Joseph Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” pp. 43-75
Benedict Ashley, OP, “Living the Truth in Love,” pp. 271-293
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 57-122

See also:

Part 2 The Virtue of Justice: Commutative Justice

Part 3 The Virtue of Justice: Social Justice

Copyright 2007 The Catholic Sun

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