Last week we began looking at the cardinal virtues. The practice of the other virtues hinges on the four cardinal virtues. Pre-Christian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle recognized these virtues as the foundation of a good society.
What am I due? What do I owe?
Today, let’s look at the virtue of justice. When you hear the word justice, you might think of it in turns of punishment. But this is only looking at one aspect of justice. The Catechism tells us that justice is “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor” (CCC 1807). It governs how we relate to God and the world.
Everyone has certain rights. Justice calls us to safeguard these rights. Some of these rights are due to our nature, and some are due to our relationships with each other. So what is our duty? What is due others?
The first duty we have is towards God. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Perhaps you don’t think of worship of God in those terms, but if justice is giving someone their due, God is justly due honor, adoration, thanksgiving, obedience, love… the list could go on. Many times we think about what we get out of Mass. As we can see, this is actually a very backwards way of looking at the liturgical public worship of God.
Our next duty is to our neighbor. We all have an inherent dignity, given to us by God. So your neighbor has a right to not be hurt by you, to be treated as a son and daughter of God, created in his image and likeness. But it is not enough to abstain from treating our neighbor badly. We have to do what is good for our neighbor.
Justice also dictates how a community relates to individuals and how individuals relates to the community. We have a duty to work for the common good, to help the poor and vulnerable, and to obey the laws and submit to legitimate authority.
What it isn’t
Justice has become synonymous with punishment to the extent that we can misunderstand what true justice is. For someone who is gravely wronged by another, the search for revenge can be cloaked in the false costume of justice. For those striving to fight the culture wars and stop the tidal of wave of relativism, the pursuit of truth and justice can neglect love and mercy.
Since there is not space here for a full discussion of the relationship between mercy and justice, I highly recommend John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in misericordia, where he writes about the Parable of the Prodigal Son: “It becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice–precise and often too narrow.”
Mercy is not opposed to justice. If justice is giving someone what they’re owed, can we give someone more than what they’re owed? After all, God does it for us every time we breathe a breath.
We cannot, John Paul II reminds us, live by only justice. What if every relationship was founded on mere obligation and the question “what do I owe you”? Not only would we live a very sad existence, we would also fail in the Christian life. We are called to something greater. We are called to love.
“It is impossible to establish [brotherhood] between people, if they wish to regulate their mutual relationships solely according to the measure of justice. In every sphere of interpersonal relationships justice must, so to speak, be ‘corrected’ to a considerable extent by that love which, as St. Paul proclaims, ‘is patient and kind’ or, in other words, possesses the characteristics of that merciful love which is so much of the essence of the Gospel and Christianity” (John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 14).
In the Workplace
When we really take a moment to think what our neighbor is owed, we realize that there are many ways to commit sins against justice. My neighbor is owed the truth. Lying is a sin against justice. My neighbor is owed her good name. Gossip is a sin against justice.
When I’m on the clock, my employer has a right to my attention and my skills. Wasting time at work is easy, but it is also unjust towards my employer. When I work for a nonprofit organization, it is unjust towards donors. And when I work for the Church, it is unjust towards parishioners and the people of God.
While working, we should be spending our time well, seeing tasks to completion, and not dropping balls. While everyone needs a chat with a coworker at the coffee pot occasionally, we must be honest with ourselves: am I squandering my time or skills? When we fail to use our time well or do our work sloppily, we are not acting with justice.
How can we cultivate the virtue of justice? By practicing it. Step back and look at how you relate to those around you. Do you treat them as people with dignity? Do you obey just authorities? At work, do you work hard for your employer? Do you respect those subordinate to you? Do we put God first in our lives?
Pray for an increase of the virtue of justice, and then strive to exercise it. It is only with the grace of God and then with the repeated exercise of the virtue that we will become virtuous people.
Photo: Justice, detail from Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican