Cries for justice ring throughout our nation and world every day, and even more loudly protests against injustice. Justice is not an idle topic for consideration, it is the issue of our day.
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 during the past 100 years. The need for justice is evident even to 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 war 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.”
Today relativism drives our culture, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaving as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. Under the semblance of freedom, it becomes a prison as it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ‘ego.’”
According to moral relativists, justice 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.
Justice and truth are not changeable since their ultimate foundation is found in God. As Psalm 119 declares, “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.”
We 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. 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 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 to an exaggerated egalitarianism that refuses to acknowledge different roles within the society, or to the outright denial of some of the primary rights, and 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.”
Social justice and commutative justice
The pursuit of justice 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.
Weekly Summary: Attitude of Faith
Sunday. Dignity. Heart of the Matter.
Monday. Building Community. Sacred and Social.
Tuesday. Rights and Responsibilities. Be the Change.
Wednesday. God’s Reach. A Moral Test.
Thursday. Solidarity. One Human Family.
Friday. God’s Creation. Living responsibly.