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Virtues Related To Justice

October 6, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As we continued our consideration of the four cardinal virtues in last week’s column, we saw that the second, justice, “consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1836). As articulated by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in volume 3 of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Among all the virtues that prudence [the first cardinal virtue] guides, justice stands in the first place” (p. 35).
Its underlying importance for man’s peaceful personal and social coexistence is apparent. In short, “to be a just person means to refrain from doing any evil to others and to do the good to others that they deserve” (Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, Doctrinal Sermons on the CCC, p. 137).
We also saw last week that philosophers and moral theologians traditionally distinguish justice on three levels.
As restated from definitions provided by Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, in his superb work entitled Spiritual Theology (SpT): commutative justice has to do with the rights and duties of individuals among themselves and its transgression always involves the obligation of restitution; distributive justice requires that the person in charge of a societal entity distribute goods and favors to its members proportionately according to dignity, merits, and/or needs; and legal justice (solicitude for the common good) inclines the members of a society to render to that society what is due in view of the common good or the society’s goal (cf. SpT, p. 282).
It was stated in an earlier column that the four cardinal virtues are preeminent virtues around which all other moral virtues are grounded. And indeed, there are numerous virtues, for as St. Thomas Aquinas states in his Summa Theologiae (STh): “Whenever we find a special aspect of goodness in human acts, it is necessary that man be disposed thereto by a special virtue” (STh II-II, Q. 109, art. 2).
As such, says Fr. Aumann, “there will be as many moral virtues as there are species of good objects that serve as means leading to the supernatural end” (SpT, p. 87). He goes on to affirm that the Angelic Doctor discusses more than fifty moral virtues in his Summa — and that it was perhaps not even his intention to give a complete and exhaustive treatment.
In the latter portion of last week’s column, one of the virtues related to justice, religion, was discussed. The most important of all virtues derived from justice and, in fact, surpassing all the other moral virtues (including justice itself), religion is the moral virtue “that inclines us to give to God the worship due Him as the first principle of all things” (SpT, p. 284), for He “infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way” (STh II-II, Q. 84, art. 4).
It is closely related to the theological virtue of charity, which “leads us to render to God what we as creatures owe him in all justice” (CCC, n. 2095).
As profoundly stated by Fr. Gabriel of Mary Magdalen, OCD, “When it is a question of justice to God, we can never succeed in giving Him all that we owe Him, in making Him a suitable return for all His gifts, in paying Him the worship and homage which are due His infinite majesty” (Divine Intimacy [DInt], p. 841).
Other moral virtues related to justice include filial piety, patriotism, and obedience — each has an inherent characteristic of giving to another what is due. Filial piety is the virtue by which we give honor to our parents. Special honor and respect is due them that is not due others because they have cooperated with God to give us life, educated and provided for us, and done many other things in direct support of our livelihood. It is the virtue of the Fourth Commandment and, like the other virtues, should be governed by prudence and animated by charity.
An example of misplaced filial piety by way of excess, on one extreme, would be for a person to neglect God’s call to a religious vocation because his or her parents oppose it; an example of misplaced filial piety by way of deficiency, on the other extreme, would be for one to neglect to care for his or her parents in their old age or in serious illness.
Patriotism, the virtue by which we give honor and respect to our country, is closely related to filial piety in that, in a sense, our country has engendered us. We owe our country much for all the benefits we have received from it, without which we would be unable to live the life we do.
Patriotism extends to our fellow citizens and also to friends of our country and on a supernatural level, could be said to extend in a greater way to the Church from which we have received the life of grace; due respect for temporal and ecclesial leaders is included. It is closely related to solicitude for the common good.
In today’s society, the more dominant extreme is that people don’t respect their country in any particular way, feel free to criticize both it and its leaders, and take for granted all the benefits they have received from it. The other extreme is to put one’s country first to the extent of violating the common good of other countries (i.e., nationalism).
Obedience is the virtue by which we give what is due to the law and the will of the lawgiver, who is ultimately God. It is an extremely important virtue and is classified as a general one by St. Thomas because, in the final analysis, all of our acts fall under obedience to the will of God. In fact, God values obedience over sacrifice as depicted in the Old Testament account of Saul’s repudiation by the Lord for not destroying the Amalekite’s livestock (see 1 Samuel 15:22-23).
Obedience extends to all who have legitimate authority over us in both the temporal and ecclesial societies of which we are citizens. The only time we are not obligated by obedience to a legitimate authority is if the person commands what is sinful; in that case, we are to obey the higher authority, who is God.
This virtue takes on special significance in consecrated religious life with regard to one’s superior; in fact, a vow of obedience is required in religious communities. It would be against the virtue of obedience to criticize legitimate authority in an irreverent manner even if we think they are not making the best decision — the irreverence does even greater harm to the common good.
After considering obedience, St. Thomas treats gratitude (thankfulness) as a moral virtue closely allied with justice (see STh II-II, Q. 106). It is the virtue by which we habitually honor and pray for benefactors and seek to repay them as we are able. As St. Paul counsels, we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18).
Moreover, the Angelic Doctor teaches that “gratitude always inclines, as far as possible, to pay back something more” (ibid., art. 6).
Regarding sins against gratitude, Dr. Kevin Vost, Psy.D, states, “The height of ingratitude is to forget the favor or ignore the debt through negligence” (Understanding Your Talents, p. 129). At the same time, however, the benefactor is to “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35).
An example of the consequences of ingratitude is shown in the parable of the healing of ten lepers (see Luke 17:11-19) where only one who was cured by our Lord returned to give thanks.
“Blessed is the soul,” St. Bernard comments, “who every time he receives a gift of grace from God, returns to Him, to Him who responds to our gratitude for the favors we have received by giving us new favors. The greatest hindrance to progress in the spiritual life is ingratitude, for God counts as lost the graces we receive without gratitude, and He refrains from giving us new graces” (as cited in DInt, pp. 839-840).
Yet another virtue annexed to justice is truthfulness (also called honesty, sincerity, or veracity). It is a special virtue whereby one’s speech conforms to the truth as it is known and “to show oneself outwardly by outward signs to be such as one is” (STh II-II, Q. 111, art. 1).
Inherent to a proper understanding of this virtue is that one should speak the truth of only what is fitting and when it is fitting. In other words, “when charity, justice, or some other virtue requires that we should not reveal the truth, it will be necessary to find some way of not revealing it (silence, mental reservation), but it is never lawful to directly and positively tell a lie” (SpT, p. 291). Among vices opposed to truthfulness are deception, hypocrisy, boasting, and false modesty.

Letter And Spirit

Another virtue St. Thomas relates to justice is liberality or generosity (see STh II-II, Q. 117) which goes beyond the strict measure that is required by justice in the proper sense — it is the giving of one’s goods beyond what is strictly due. Opposed to generosity are the vices of avarice or covetousness on one extreme and prodigality (excessive giving, wastefulness) on the other.
The Angelic Doctor also connects the virtue of friendliness (amiability, affability) with justice — it entails that one is attentive to being agreeable in word and/or act in interactions with others (see STh II-II, Q. 114).
St. Thomas further includes the virtue of equity (epikeia in Latin) which “inclines us, in special circumstances, to depart from the letter of the law in order to observe better its spirit” (SpT, p. 292; cf. STh II-II, Q. 120).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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