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The Cardinal Virtues — Justice

September 29, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As has been emphasized over the past two weeks, the cardinal virtue of prudence is the first and most necessary of all the moral virtues. Its primary function, as articulated by Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, “is precisely to point out and command the just mean or measure in regard to any and all human actions” (Spiritual Theology [SpT], pp. 276-277). It is the virtue that “disposes reason to discern in every circumstance our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 380).
Supernaturally infused prudence “operates under reason enlightened by faith and informed with charity” (SpT, p. 276); it assists one in guarding against excess on the one hand and deficiency on the other.
We also saw last week that St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae (STh), identified eight integral parts of prudence. The truly prudent man must possess each for perfection of the virtue; however, depending on the moral act and/or particular circumstances, not all aspects will function each time prudence is exercised.
An excellent list of descriptive labels for the eight parts is provided by Fr. Aumann: memory of the past, understanding of the present, docility, sagacity, reasoning power, foresight, circumspection, and precaution (cf. SpT, pp. 277-278).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) next considers the virtue of justice, which it defines as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give [one’s] due to God and neighbor” (CCC, n. 1807). In more general language, it is that virtue “by which we render to each one his due.”
As noted by Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues (FCV), the concept of justice belongs to a long tradition of philosophical thought, having been handed down from before the time of Plato. In fact, says Dr. Pieper, this notion of justice “became the common possession of the Western tradition through Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Ambrose, Augustine, and, above all, Roman law” (FCV, p. 44).
As stated in an earlier column when the general concept of virtue was examined (see volume 150, n. 50; December 14, 2017), the virtue of justice is seated in the human will. Moreover, it presupposes that one recognizes something as being due to others; in other words, it presupposes “rights” (ius in Latin). Thus, “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. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor” (CCC, n. 1807).
“After prudence,” states Fr. Aumann, “justice is the most excellent of all the moral virtues. . . . Its importance in both personal and social life is evident. It puts things in their right order and thus prepares the way for true peace, which St. Augustine defines as the tranquility of order, and Scripture defines as the work of justice” (SpT, p. 281).
The importance of treating all justly and fairly — both individually and societally — is also apparent in Scripture: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15). Similarly, St. Paul proclaims: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1).
Justice, then, has to do with two parties, each rendering to the other what is due. However, there are multiple combinations that can exist between two parties in society, which admits of the necessity to define and consider multiple species of justice. Three kinds of justice are distinguished by the classical tradition, which correspond to three relationships of persons within a society: commutative, distributive, and legal (or “solicitude for the common good”).
Commutative justice has to do with relationships of equality between individuals in a society. Examples include that a just wage be paid to one who works for another and that a fair price should be paid for goods received from another. Distributive justice has to do with a relationship of governance and is marked by proportionality rather than equality. It applies to obligations of justice due from the head of a society to its members. An example is the head of a household — he has special obligations of justice to care for and provide for his spouse and children.
Another example is that of the head of a society (e.g., government head, king, etc.) who owes special obligations in justice to its members.
An example of the immense consequences due to failure to practice distributive justice is that of Adam — he was given headship of all of humanity and received incalculable gifts to pass along and failed to do so. Christ as the new Head, on the other hand, distributes gifts to all members of His Mystical Body perfectly, infinitely, and absolutely.
Just as there is justice from the head to the members, justice is also due from the members to the whole (i.e., justice is due for the common good). This is what is referred to by St. Thomas as legal justice (see STh II-II, Q. 58, art. 5), but is more easily understandable as “solicitude for the common good.” It is an extremely important virtue, so important that St. Thomas put it at the head (cf. ibid., art. 6). He referred to it as a general virtue because, in order for a person to be virtuous, all his actions ought to be done, at least virtually, for the common welfare of society.
As implied by a first principle of reason (that the whole is greater than the part), the common good is to be preferred over the private good. Even though one may not be directly thinking about it, he can practice this species of justice by having solicitude for the common good as a habitual and abiding intention. This applies on the supernatural level also in that every act one does should be for sake of love of God, who is the Common Good. As such, solicitude for the common good on the natural level corresponds to charity on the supernatural level (cf. ibid.).
What about the cardinal virtue of justice in relation to God? Annexed to justice is the virtue of religion, which is the most important species of justice — it is the virtue by which we give God His due to the extent of our limited ability. As our Creator and Redeemer, He is justly due all honor, adoration, thanksgiving, obedience, love, sacrifice, etc. Although St. Thomas used the word in a different sense, the virtue of religion today might be better understood as piety.
There is both a natural and an infused supernatural virtue of religion. Though many think of religion as exclusively supernatural, it is part of the natural law to give God His due. Archaeological digs show evidence in all prior societies of attempts to give honor to God. Man naturally recognizes that, in himself, he is incomplete and dependent on a Higher Being. Even without grace, man can see that something is due to God.
The principal act of the virtue of religion is prayer: the elevation of our hearts to God so as to speak to Him as the Beloved. By asking for our needs, by expressing our thanksgiving, by offering acts of adoration, we are giving God the honor that is due to Him alone. We are acknowledging that He is our Father and we are His children; that we are willing to do anything He asks out of love.
Perfection of an important aspect of the virtue of religion entails practicing devotion with promptness, docility, and joy — dispositions evident in the lives of saints.
Religion also has a social dimension — God has created not only individuals, but countries and nations. Part of what is due to God by the virtue of religion is to give Him honor in the public square. Every culture in history (except for our modern culture) has offered sacrifice to God and considers it to be a public duty. It is an aspect of what is owed by society to God alone as a sign of His dominion as Creator and Lord.
The social dimension of the virtue of religion is an exterior sign of an interior disposition of contrition. Prior cultures understood that sin needs to be atoned for in some sensible way. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we have been given the most perfect way to offer sacrifice to the Father.
Sad to say, however, is that many take this great gift for granted or even fail to attend. It is unfortunate, indeed, that great numbers of people who identify themselves as Catholics attend Holy Mass only twice per year — on Christmas and Easter.


Two vices are opposed to religion, one by defect and the other by excess. Irreligion corresponds to what was discussed earlier — failure to give honor to God and to not think it’s important to do so. This is dominant in today’s culture of secularism.
The opposing vice is superstition and consists in giving honor to someone or something other than God, or in giving honor in a mode other than what God is asking for. False religions are superstitious in that they give honor without motives of credibility — New Age practices fall into this category.
St. Thomas identifies several other moral virtues to which justice allies itself. We will continue in the next installment by considering some of them.

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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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