The "Justice" That Is Not Due Us | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | March 10, 2010
The "Justice" That Is Not Due Us | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | March 10, 2010
"Above all it is the justice that comes from grace, where
it is not man who makes amends, heals himself and others." -- Benedict XVI,
Lenten Message (Benedict XVI, "Love the Greatest Justice," L'Osservatore
Romano (February 10, 2010.)
When they hear it, most folks know and understand the
simplest definition of justice: "To render to each his due." The Holy Father
points out that this definition comes from the Roman Law Code, from the famous
jurist, Ulpian. It seems straight-forward enough. If we owe something, we pay
it back; if we are owed something, we expect to receive back what is due to us.
Justice is generally the very first moral issue little children encounter:
"This is mine!" "No it's not!" "You took my toy!" "It's not yours; it's mine!"
All these children already know what justice is without the help of Ulpian or a
We can look at justice from a number of angles. It can be
considered to be an invitation to friendship. Someone reveals himself as
willing to render what is due without hassle or regret. Something attractive is
noticed here. But justice, as such, is not friendship, though friendship
includes it, while going beyond it. In justice, we look to what is "due" to the
other under some definable title. Aristotle says that friends do not need to be
prodded to be just to one another. In fact, they are more than just. They are
not concerned with just what is demanded. But we find a coldness in justice. As
such, it does not engage the other person as a person, only as someone to whom
something objective is "owed." We are to be just to everyone, even our enemies
and those we do not know.
With some exaggeration, I have often called justice the
"most terrible of the virtues." Here, I am looking at it in its formality. We
need to be just to everyone in the world, if occasion arises. But we cannot
really know and befriend everyone. The illusion of much modern
ideology—because it thinks it has the solution to the cause of
evil—is that we can call everyone brother in the same way we call our
brother "brother." We can be kind, considerate, wish them well. But when we try
to make friendship a matter of justice, we lose both friendship and probably justice.
It is dangerous to expect something more of anything than it can give, granted
what it is. If I have a "right" to someone's friendship, then I can sue him if
it is not given? Hardly.
The minute this "right" is claimed, friendship becomes
impossible. Friendship is always free and a gift, a mutual or reciprocal gift
of what need not be. Thus, justice is concerned primarily with the relation I
have with someone either because of some commercial relation or to repair some
damage. In the justice exchange, I am not concerned with the other's
personality or well-being except in the most general sense. When something of
friendship is included, as Aristotle said, this is desirable and it softens the
harshness of justice. This softening is what friendships of utility or pleasure
are about. In themselves, they are good things.
Benedict recalls a passage from Paul (Romans 3:21-22): "The
justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ." Does this
mean that we cannot find the justice of God unless we be believers? Is this
"just"? In Deuteronomy 7, we read that Yahweh chose Israel not for any thing
that Israel did or stood for but because He loved it. How is this choice "just"
to the Japanese, or the Incas, or to the Hindus, whom evidently He did not
choose, at least not to provide a place for His coming presence in the world?
Such questions make God seem "unfair," "unjust." Yet if God has to choose
everyone for everything, we can have no variety, no history, no carrying out a
plan through time.
The classical definition of Ulpian, Benedict tells us, does
not actually "spell out" what is "due" to us. That spelling out must always be
due to our perception and judgment of the here and now situation where justice
always exists, not in some abstraction. What man needs cannot be assured to him
"by law." Actual life needs more than law can give. Law must be stated in
general precepts. We need a "gift" in addition. In the end, man can only fully
live by the gift of love that comes to him in response to the love in which any
person was initially created.
Love or friendship is never love if it is "due" in justice.
Neither commutative nor distributive justice can render completely what is due.
The world, as Aquinas said, is not created in "justice." Nor is it redeemed in
"justice." But ultimately it is judged in justice, as it says in the Creed.
Moreover, as Augustine says, man is free to abandon God. If he does, as he
often does, where is justice? Do we ourselves have the power to forgive our own
This inquiry leads us to ask about the cause of injustice.
How is it that we can be unjust? This issue is a very serious concern to
Benedict. He insists elsewhere that the human world and the cosmos are created
also in justice, even if created in mercy. They are not in truth opposed to
each other. This was the teaching of Caritas in veritate. Indeed, Benedict says that understanding justice is
necessary for understanding heaven, hell, and purgatory, and for understanding
the Christian response to why the world is created in mercy but is also judged
in justice. Essential issues like the immortality of the soul and the
resurrection of the body are directly related to such considerations.
Socrates had said that nothing evil can hurt a good man.
Benedict cites a similar passage from Mark to the effect that it is not what
goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. This principle is why, as
Aquinas said, that revelation was necessary. We needed to be sure that our
inner intentions are ordered. For it is here where all disorder arises in our
souls. We are told not to murder or commit adultery, but, more basically, not
even to think about committing them. Only the divine law can give us this
Among human beings, especially, among scholars, we encounter
a "permanent temptation within man to situate the origin of evil in an exterior
cause. Deep down, many modern ideologies have this presupposition. They profess
that injustice comes 'from outside.' In order for justice to reign, it is
sufficient to remove the exterior causes that prevent it being achieved." But
Christ teaches that injustice does not have exclusively exterior causes. These
causes are found within the human heart also. Benedict touches on original sin
here. We turn away from others to ourselves. "This is egoism, the result of
original sin." Instead of receiving our being in confidence as better than what
we could produce, we insist that we can trust only ourselves. Can we avoid this
This effort to deal with the situation is where a different
view of justice arises. Benedict uses the Hebrew word, Sedaqah (Exodus 20:12-17). One meaning is to accept God's
will; the other is related to one's neighbor. When we give to the poor, we are
in fact also returning what is due to God. God hears the cry of poor. He asks
for justice. God first asks to be "listened to." This listening includes
knowing the Commandments. "In order to enter into justice, it is necessary to
leave the illusion of self-sufficiency, the profound state of closure, which is
the very origin of injustice." Something "deeper" is needed than that promised
to Moses through the law. "Does man have any hope of justice then?" Evidently
not, if it depends on his own powers.
Paul tells us that we find the justice of God apart from the
law (Romans 3:21-25). How so? Something of justice surrounds the coming of
Christ. Now the Pope adds the notion that there is a "justice" that comes from
"grace." Logically, this would mean that we cannot be just unless we presuppose
something that is more than justice. Man is not the one who does all this.
Christ died for the guilty. The guilty, as a result, are not in the same
situation as they were before. Divine justice is "profoundly different" from
human justice. "God has paid the price for us of the exchange in His Son, a
price that is truly exorbitant." This passage means that any guilt in justice
that we had to God because of our personal and political claims to
self-sufficiency is, in principle, removed by Christ.
What is not removed is our free will. Even though this power
is the very foundation of the kind of beings we are, we can still rebel before
the Cross. "Before the justice of the Cross, man may rebel for this reveals how
man is not a self-sufficient being, but in need of Another in order to realize
himself fully." God is often blamed for not "forcing" us to be free of sin and
its consequences. But this approach is but another way of saying that, in being
freed this way, we would not be ourselves since our free acts would have no meaning.
God insists that we be ourselves throughout our creation and redemption. If you
will, this puts a certain limit on us. We cannot cease being ourselves in what
we chose to be our destiny before the God who was sent to us, as a gift, the
Man-God, Christ, who was crucified by us and for us.
These considerations bring Benedict back to the new justice.
"Humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from 'what is
mine,' to give me gratuitously 'what is His.'" If I am freed from my own claim
to make my own laws, which is what sin is, I cannot do so by myself. This is
but another way of saying that my sins have vast consequences that reach beyond
me, reach to the source from which others too were created, which was in the
divine goodness and love. Essentially, the Son, the Logos, takes up on the Cross all that is due to the Father
from us. We are thus again free to be what we were intended to be, if we
Through faith, we come to the justice that has manifested
itself amongst us as the One sent by the Father to lead us back to what we were
intended to be before our sins. This means, again, that we never were created
in justice but in the mercy that subsumes it. The only "justice" that remains,
the only justice that is possible, is that rendered at the Last Judgment about
the declaration of self-sufficiency or the declaration of sacrificial love that
we made in the fabric of the lives we lived in this world.
The "justice" that is not "due" to us was "rendered" on the
Cross. We are free from everything but the need to acknowledge our own
self-sufficiency. We did not create the world. We only find ourselves already
in it, seeking for what we were intended to be. The final sadness is that we
can reject it even when we find it freely given to us. The final happiness is
that even when we find it, it is a gift that we could not imagine is "due" to
us. It is beyond anything that we could "give" to ourselves.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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