The "Justice" That Is Not Due Us | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | March 10, 2010The "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 definition.

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 offenses?

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 command.

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 situation?


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 choose.

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 website.

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