A Brief Primer on the Virtue of Justice

Justice, in its most foundational meaning, is “rendering to the other what is his due.” When the “other” is a fellow man or the State, there are three specific parts of justice that pertain: commutative justice, distributive justice, and legal justice, each of which will be explained presently. When the “other” is God, then what directs our action is the virtue of religion, which is simply defined as “rendering to God what is His due.”

The virtue of religion has as its highest expression the cult of sacrifice, by which man renders adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition to God. Whereas the Old Testament required multiple sacrifices which had to be repeated, there is only one sacrifice in the New Law: that of Calvary, which is renewed (not repeated) in an unbloody manner in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Nothing else in our religion is a sacrifice properly so called, but we do have numerous analogously named sacrifices we can “offer up” on a daily basis.

Father John Hardon, whose definitions I will be borrowing throughout this piece, defines Justice this way:

As a virtue, it is the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due. It is a habitual inclination of the will and therefore always recognizes each one’s rights, under any and all circumstances. The rights in question are whatever belongs to a person as an individual who is distinct from the one who practices justice. The essence of justice, then, as compared with charity, consists in the distinction between a person and his or her neighbor; whereas charity is based on the union existing between the one who loves and the person loved so that the practice of charity regards the neighbor as another self.

In my estimation, it was prudent for Father Hardon to contrast justice with charity, as I have myself witnessed people confusing the two, and — worse — thinking that works of charity somehow exempt them from the duties that are proper to justice. By charity, one is always obliged to love one’s neighbor, but one is not always obliged to give him alms. By justice, one is always obliged to pay one’s debts.

There is only one cardinal moral virtue of justice. But, depending on the nature of the relationship of the individual to “the other,” it takes different forms, which are governed by different principles.

When man renders his due to the other as an individual, we call it “commutative justice,” which Father Hardon defines thus:

The virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights between one individual and another individual. If a person steals another’s money, he or she violates commutative justice. Any violation of commutative justice imposes on the guilty party the duty of restitution, that is, the duty of repairing the harm caused. In fact, strictly speaking, only violations of commutative justice give rise to this duty of restitution.

When it is not the individual, but the political community that renders what is due to the other, we call it, “distributive justice,” which is defined as,

The virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights that an individual may claim from society. According to distributive justice, the state has three basic duties: to distribute the common burdens and privileges equitably; to make it possible for each citizen to exercise natural and acquired rights without undue hindrance; to foster mutual relations among the citizens for living together peacefully. Inequitable imposition of taxes, for example, would be a violation of distributive justice.

In that definition, the distinction is made between “natural rights” and “acquired rights,” which are also called legal rights. Natural rights are due to each person by nature and are inalienable. They are not bestowed by the State, but by God Himself. Acquired or legal rights are bestowed by the State. Whereas the right a father has to provide for his family by the labor of his hands is a natural right, the right to vote in an election is something conceded by the State. All too often, modern man’s thinking is distorted by social contract theory, and he assumes that all of his rights are given to him by the State. This is part of the modern tendency of deification of the State, and it is very destructive.

When man renders what is due to “the other” as the political community, we call it “legal justice.” Father Hardon:

The virtue that regulates those actions which society justly requires of the individual for the common good. According to legal justice, the State may institute just laws and perform such acts as further the welfare of the community. Thus import duties, fire and traffic regulations, anti-pollution laws, and similar provisions of the State concern legal justice.

As Joseph Pieper points out — and I am heavily paraphrasing here — to deny that distributive and legal justice exist and to reduce all justice to commutative justice leads to libertarianism or anarchy, where the community has no rights over individuals at all, and where the individual need expect nothing from the community. On the other hand, to deny the existence of commutative justice and reduce all justice to legal and distributive, is to profess tyranny as the optimum form of government. Both of these errors, especially the latter, are still with us.

There is a fourth division of justice that only entered the Catholic lexicon in the twentieth century. It is called “social justice.” Sometimes, as in Father Dennis Fahey’s writings, and the teaching of Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P., social justice is used as a synonym for legal justice. In this use, the name makes sense. But in the modern lexicon, “social justice” has been expanded to mean much more. The normally very reasonable and lucid Father Hardon sounds a few false notes when he tries to accommodate new ideas in social doctrine, for he defines “social justice” as,

The virtue that inclines one to co-operate with others in order to help make the institutions of society better serve the common good. While the obligation of social justice falls upon the individual, that person cannot fulfill the obligation alone, but must work in concert with others, through organized bodies, as a member of a group whose purpose is to identify the needs of society, and, by the use of appropriate means, to meet these needs locally, regionally, nationally, and even globally. Implicit in the virtue of social justice is an awareness that the world has entered on a new phase of social existence, with potential for great good or great harm vested in those who control the media and the structures of modern society. Christians, therefore, are expected to respond to the new obligations created by the extraordinary means of promoting the common good not only of small groups but literally of all humanity.

But if justice pertains to what is “due,” namely, by rights and obligations, how is this version of “social justice” justice at all? Must a Vermont farmer, a Sri Lankan student, or a Finnish farrier confess the sin of not joining an organized body to work for global justice? How do we even examine our consciences on these matters? Real virtues imply real moral imperatives. As Sam Guzman correctly observes,

The other extreme is viewing justice as a vague and sentimental desire to help everyone. This is often under the guise of ‘social justice.’ While social justice is a valid concept when strictly and carefully defined, more often than not, it simply becomes an excuse for political violations of private property, the dignity of charitable giving, and even human life in the case of abortion.

Thus, the Catholic “social justice warrior” would trample on the State’s genuine rights and duties in the manner of immigration and say that by virtue of “social justice,” all men have a right to immigrate to another country indiscriminately. Again, that same warrior, who is generally a soft-core socialist, will argue that “healthcare is a human right,” meaning that the State must provide it for all at the expense of the taxpayer — even when the recipient of the healthcare is an immigrant who himself does not pay taxes. Such expansive notions of social justice actually violate distributive justice and legal justice. It is no wonder that many Catholic bishops find themselves morally undermined in condemning State programs that promote abortion, contraception, and the like, when their own USCCB pet “social justice” projects are dining at the same banquet of “government” (read: taxpayer) largesse. I have in mind especially the pomps and works of the CCHD, a USCCB bureaucracy steeped in moral turpitude.

Again, we are back at confusing justice and charity. The noble practice of genuine Christian charity is undermined or even entirely dissolved when what would constitute an act of charity is imposed by the government, muddled by bureaucracy, and distributed at least partially in the interests of radicalizing a new generation of social justice warriors.

I do not claim it was his intention, but Father Hardon’s definition of social justice had too little to do with the cardinal virtue and is far too compatible with the agenda of the globalists.

While I do not have time to develop it here, an adequate grasp of the Catholic concept of justice must respect the important truth that men come together to form political societies in order that they may live virtuously and thereby achieve their happiness (see that idea developed here). To consider this is to touch upon the true notion of the “common good,” a term hopelessly confused in our day by progressivist purveyors of “social justice.” Thankfully, there exists this excellent clarification of just what the common good is.

With this fuller appreciation of the cardinal virtue of justice, we should be able to spot the actual injustices all around us. Here is a small list:

  • The denial of God’s rights by individuals and by society. Remember: God’s rights come first. His rights are violated when the natural law, which He wrote on our hearts, is violated, which means that societies that violate that law transgress distributive and legal justice. In Catholic nations, the social rights of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King go even beyond (but not against) the natural law.
  • The denial of the State’s rights in the matter of capital punishment, an error now apparently enshrined in the current version of the CCC.
  • The denial of the Catholic doctrine of Hell, which is tantamount to conceding a universal “right” to the Beatific Vision.
  • Granting sodomites and unnatural women the use of the sacrosanct words “matrimony” or “marriage” to describe their perverse unions.
  • The false mercy cult in the Church, which does such things as telling impenitent adulterers they may receive Holy Communion while living in habitual grave sin. True mercy does not contradict justice, though at times it may mitigate its full rigor. On the part of the clergy, the crime itemized here is both unjust and unmerciful, as it leads the sinner deeper into sin and closer to damnation.
  • Perpetuating the lie that the Church has no mission to evangelize the Jewish people, when such is a mandate of Jesus Christ Himself (included in the universal mandate to preach to all nations and all creatures) — a mandate even the “Doctor of the Gentiles” took quite seriously. Mandates carry obligations, which are matters of justice.
  • Making, as we said, immigration an unqualified right.
  • Pseudo-judicial exercises in government shaming without due process, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. The torch and pitchfork brigades formed by Big Government and Big Media are not seeking justice, but the destruction of the Church.
  • The genuine negligence of duty on the part of some number of the Church’s pastors, which caused the clerical homosexual scandals in the first place. The three munera of the priest — to teach, to govern, and to sanctify — are sacred obligations in justice especially binding on bishops with jurisdiction. (Thankfully, some bishops are working to remedy this situation.)

Rather than seek out and identify the injustices of others, it is incumbent upon each of us personally to examine ourselves on the practice of this virtue, not only to see where we have failed in it, but also to study how we might augment the virtue in our souls by seizing on opportunities to practice it, even where doing so does violence to our nature. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12).

Through the intercession of Mary, the “Mirror of Justice,” may we be perfectly converted to Jesus, the Sun of Justice Himself, and shout with zeal to our God, “Thy justice is justice for ever: and thy law is the truth” (Ps. 118:142).