Justice and Law
Every society in history has had some conception of justice and, on the personal level, even from an early age we have an intuitive sense of it. Like wisdom, temperance and fortitude, justice is a personal virtue, but it is also an obligation in our relations with God and others. As Pope Francis notes, “Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law” (Misericordiae Vultus, 20).
While manifested in different ways, “justice” is rendering to others that which is rightly due them and conforming to, or restoring, the right order of things as often symbolized in art with a set of scales. Pope Benedict XVI attests that justice involves giving “the other what is ‘his,’ what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting,” and that “to desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice” (Caritas in Veritate, 6, 7). The Catechism further explains that justice calls us “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” (CCC 1807).
In discerning what is “rightly due” others, people often look to the civil law as if what is stated by legislatures and courts is necessarily acceptable and just. However, while there certainly should be a relationship between justice and man-made law, they are not necessarily synonymous. Some years ago, I was struck when a teenager in trouble was asked why he had so little respect for others, and he responded, “How come you get to draw the line?” The law is a teacher and what he had seen in man’s law itself was an eroding of respect for human life and dignity.
The problem is that the civil law, the legal system, and human conceptions of justice today have less and less room for transcendent justice, for God’s justice. Much of society today proceeds as if God and his divine law did not exist, and holds that justice is something that is invented or even remanufactured to fit the desires of the moment. But without some objective, absolute, eternal reference point that binds all of us, justice is reduced to personal convenience and the tyranny of “might makes right.” This leads to unjust “law,” which is no law at all in the right and proper sense.
A healthy society, however, affirms that there is a higher law and an order grounded in the wisdom of God, who is himself justice. In this true and transcendent justice, what others are rightly due from us – and from society and our legal system – includes respect for their rights, freedom and human dignity as made in the image of God, honesty, fairness, equal treatment, setting things right and restoration of the good to make others whole when we have borrowed from them or injured them, and otherwise being faithful to what is right, good and true, putting and obeying God first.
As with wisdom and so much in life, God is our guide in the way of justice. Only with him can we find true happiness and build a good, just and fruitful society for all.