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(From a 2012 Lent and Easter series of sermons on the Catholic Virtues.)
When John the Baptist was arrested Jesus began his preaching. He said, “Repent and believe in the gospel”. That is, look back on your sins with sorrow and contrition, and believe the good news that God will forgive you and make a new life possible, a new life that involves living a certain way. And so I am talking this Lent about the virtues, beginning with the human moral virtues, cardinal among them prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. I’ve done prudence, which discerns the true good and the right means to achieve it. Today, let’s think about justice.
Justice is a good thing, and everybody wants it, especially for themselves. To each his due. Each should get what he or she deserves. Human rights demand respect. When I was a child I pledged allegiance to the flag and to the republic, one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. Then, we all sat down to our studies, and if someone was copying off of my test paper, or broke the rules of the game on the playground, I knew justice had been violated. “Not fair!” comes naturally to our lips. It’s less obvious what we owe others, perhaps because of self-interest, but what others are due is often obvious enough if we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes.
For example, you crunch somebody’s fender in the parking lot, and nobody saw it. Do you leave your name and phone number? The virtue of justice says – yes! They didn’t deserve that, my own negligence caused it, I owe them compensation. Or, you are remodeling someone’s kitchen and it turns out to cost less than your originally estimated. Do you stick with your original estimate? Justice says, no! if I had known then what I know now I would have estimated less, so that’s the fair price to charge, otherwise I’d be taking advantage of their ignorance. I owe my customer the truth, and a fair price for a good job.
These are examples of what they call commutative justice, having to do with the exchange of goods and services. Distributive justice has to do with the relations between individuals and groups. Like paying taxes. In justice I should be willing to support the system from which I benefit. Freeloaders are unjust because they are getting something for nothing, forcing others to support them when they could be supporting themselves. So, do you cheat on your taxes by hiding income or claiming deductions that don’t apply to you? Or do you write tax laws to benefit your cronies? These are matters of justice.
A subcategory of distributive justice is social justice, which directs attention to situations where customary ways, or perhaps even the law, deny people what they are due. Racism can do that, even if it is trying to remedy past racism. And there can be established patterns of property ownership, educational opportunities, or cultural expectations that keep people trapped in poverty. Some years ago Archbishop Helder Camara in Brazil said something like “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.” These days, if you inquire into the causes of poverty you might as likely be called a right wing extremist, blaming the poor for their drug addictions and poor work ethic. But exploiting the welfare system to escape work and responsibility is indeed unjust, and doing nothing to change a system that keeps people dependent is also unjust.
Justice is the virtue that respects the right of others and gives them what they are due. This is obviously important, but it is not enough, because although we all seem to have an innate sense of justice, we have big arguments about what people are entitled to. For example, consider this quote:
It’s a little high-flying, but it sounds pretty obvious. I wouldn’t want to tell somebody that they don’t have a right to their own ideas about the meaning of life. Recognize the quote? It’s from a Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992, which struck down restrictions on abortion passed by the Pennsylvania legislature.
The logic here is that if, in your personal concept of the mystery of human life you decide that a the little human being living in the womb is not due the right to keep living, then he or she is not due the right to keep living. Pretty amazing logic. It implies that there is no objective basis for determining matters of justice, of right, of what people are due. It’s all a matter of my personal concept of meaning of the universe, And it implies that if you are strong enough to impose your concept of meaning on someone else, it’s no injustice to impose it. Might makes rights.
Now some say, “so what?” This has always been the case. No human society has ever been anything more than some imposing their concept on others. The rich write the laws, and the winners write the history. There’s a little truth to this. The police and the military are evidence that human society sometimes requires force to maintain itself, history is full of tyrants keeping order by coercion – but we are speaking of justice, of what is right, of what one is due, not merely of what one may happen to want and can force on others.
Is it possible, is there an objective basis for knowing what is right and just? I think so. Frankly, I think the Supreme Court was just blowing smoke. But discerning justice requires a high degree of objectivity. One must be able to step back from one’s own desires and recognize them for what they are – fickle, limited, personal, not necessarily grounded in reality or binding on other people. To be that objective isn’t easy, because it requires a concept of existence that doesn’t put oneself at the center of the universe. Which is why I would submit that it is extremely difficult, maybe well-nigh impossible, to give others their due unless I give God His due; what we mean when, in response to “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God”, we say “it is right and just.”
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