The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 51, No 3, May-June 1998

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Man, by his very nature, is a social being. In living out his life he tends to be in contact with and dependent on other fellow humans. This contact and dependence will involve many relationships with others which necessitate the recognition of rights and obligations that must be protected and regulated, if man is to live in peace and harmony with his fellow men. The virtue that controls and regulates man’s dealing with others in this regard is the virtue of justice. This virtue is as wide in its scope as the extent of human activities, and as varied in its application as human life itself. Adequate treatment of this virtue would fill huge volumes, so this can be but the briefest summary.


St. Thomas Aquinas defines the virtue of justice as a constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his due. (II II, 58,1) From that definition we can see that it is a virtue that resides in the will and regulates those duties which we are strictly bound to discharge towards our neighbor. For this reason the habitual practice of justice - the constant rendering to others their due - is an excellent training of the will, for it brings the will under the guidance of reason enlightened by faith instead of our self-seeking inclinations. And on the contrary, one who is dominated by egoism and self-will will often fail to render to others their due.

Being a virtue of the will, in this justice differs from the other moral virtues, for prudence is a virtue of the intellect, and fortitude and temperance regulate the sense appetites and passions. And while the theological virtue of charity also perfects the will and regulates our dealing with others, it differs from justice in that it bids us to regard others as brothers and sisters in Christ, and inclines us to render them services that are not required by strict justice. Since, however, we are looking at justice from the viewpoint of the Christian life, we will see that without charity and the infused virtue of justice - human nature being what it is - one will fail often to fulfill the obligations of this virtue. Finally, the obligations imposed by this virtue are always directed to somebody else, not toward self. In this it differs from the moral virtues of fortitude and temperance which have to do with the control of our inner life, our emotions, our appetites and desires, our fears.

In the discussion of the virtue of prudence in the previous issue, we pointed out the interdependence of the acquired and infused virtues. All that was said in that regard applies to all the moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance), so we state again that the acquired virtue of justice is at the service of the infused virtue facilitating its exercise by keeping in check our egoism, while the gift of grace and the infused virtues lifts our activity to the supernatural and meritorious level.


Wherever there is a right, there is a corresponding obligation. For example: I have rights which my neighbor has an obligation to respect; and my neighbor has rights which I have an obligation to respect. So rights and obligations go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, however, there are countless persons in today’s society whose rights are being disregarded.

Since the virtue of justice has to do with “rights” and the obligations that flow from them, it is important to know the source of those rights. For our purpose we can distinguish various kinds of rights. There are natural rights which flow from the very nature of man. The ultimate foundation of human right is God, who created man as a spiritual and immortal being with an eternal destiny. The founding fathers of our country were aware of this, for we read in the Declaration of Independence, which is the foundation of our American system:

However, if a person does not admit the existence of God and the spirituality and immortality of the soul, such a one cannot logically admit that there are any real “inalienable rights.” For such a person the source of rights is the state, and what the state grants, it can take away. And that, our beloved (once-Christian) country is gradually doing. Notice the irony of the turn of events. “To secure these rights,” says the Declaration of Independence, “governments are instituted among men.” And yet, it is our very government that has taken away the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life of the unborn.

In addition to natural rights, there are those which spring from mutual consent, as in contracts; and there are rights which public authority can establish in the form of laws which we will briefly consider below.

One major problem in regard to the matter of justice is that so many people seem only concerned about the rights they have in justice, and not the obligations it imposes on them. The true Christian, knowing his innate tendency to self-seeking and wishful thinking, will try to counter these tendencies by trying to be more concerned about his obligations to others. He knows that the more he is just in dealing with others, the more God’s justice will be tempered by His mercy in dealing with him.


Justice, as we saw, has to do with two parties, each rendering the other his due. But several possible combinations can exist between two parties, which gives rise to several kinds of justice.

  1. Commutative justice - which inclines one individual to render to another individual (or group which constitutes a moral person) what is strictly due.
  2. Legal justice - which inclines one to render what is due to society, i.e. the whole community. These obligations are satisfied by observing civil laws.
  3. Distributive justice - inclines society or the whole community to render what is due to individual members of that society or community.

The aim of justice is to establish some kind of equality, or just balance or proportion between the parties involved. This, as we will see, will differ in the different kinds of justice.

A) Commutative Justice: (person to person) The purpose of commutative justice is to preserve equality of rights between individuals, e.g. between the value of an item purchased and the price paid for it, or between the wage paid by the employer and the work done by the employee, etc. A special characteristic of commutative justice is the obligation of making restitution when the rights of one has been violated. That restitution may involved the returning of something stolen (or if not possible, its value), the repair or restoration of something damaged or destroyed, compensation for an injury that has been unjustly inflicted, etc. The following are some examples of infractions against this virtue:

1) By deeds:
Human life is man’s greatest gift in the natural order. To deprive one of that gift without a just cause is truly a grave sin of injustice, for which no adequate restitution can be made.

Besides life itself, another bodily good that can be taken away is bodily integrity, the right to which one can be deprived of by mutilation, wounding, or destruction of bodily functions (e.g. sterilization without medical necessity), all of which would be gravely sinful.

Not only are theft and destruction of property an infraction of one’s right to his own possessions, but also against that right are the culpable non-payment of debts, and the non-returning of borrowed items (or the excessive unnecessary delay in these matters). If one is in debt, some of the money he may have is strictly not his since it is owed to another. Hence, it would be against justice for such a one to spend money on luxuries while keeping another waiting for repayment of what belongs to him.

2) By words:
Some common ways of offending against one’s right to his good name are: revealing one’s hidden faults, speaking ill of another behind his back, spreading falsehoods about another or exaggerating his faults, imputing evil intentions to one’s good deeds, etc. All such actions involve grave matter for they blacken one’s good name. The gravity of such sins depends on the harm done and the intention of the speaker. Although justice demands that restitution be made in such cases in whatever way one can, the damage done in these cases can never be completely repaired; for even retractions, or apologies, or having the accusation “struck from the record” do not completely erase the stain from the memory of some. And yet, how freely and thoughtlessly do some people at times reveal damaging information about another only adding to the misfortune of the one at fault.

3) In business:
Numerous are the ways in which justice can be violated in the business world. To mention a few: fraud in business contracts or in billing, not revealing defects in an item sold, deceiving another as to the quality of an item sold, demanding excessive prices without sufficient reason, etc.

B) LEGAL JUSTICE (Social Justice) aims immediately at the common good of society, and brings about the establishment of just laws and ordinances. It inclines those who govern to establish just laws to promote the common good, and disposes all citizens to observe perfectly the laws and constitutions of the society to which they belong. It disposes members of society to devote themselves generously to the common good, and if necessary, to sacrifice time and personal convenience to that end. We receive much from society, and to it we are indebted. The true Christian is aware of the many ways he benefits from the common good, and does what he can to promote and maintain it. When one’s concern about the common good is motivated by Christian charity, it is a building up of the Mystical Body of Christ.

As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. points out “the equity (Latin - epikeia) that legal justice establishes considers not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, and that not only of civil laws, but of all those that govern Christian conduct. . . . It is attentive not only to the letter of the law, but especially to its spirit, to the intention of the legislator. As it considers chiefly the spirit of laws, it does not interpret them with excessive rigor, in a mechanical or material manner, but with a superior understanding, especially in certain special circumstances in which, according to the intention of the legislator, it would not be advisable to apply the letter of the law. . . .” (Three Ages, II, 91,94; St. Thos. II II,120,2) Such an interpretation, however, of the mind of the legislator applies only to human laws, and never to obligations of divine or natural law - forbidding such actions as the use of contraceptives, divorce, premarital sex, or anything forbidden by the ten commandments.

(NOTE: Moralists point out that the use of epikeia is both useful and dangerous. It is useful if rightly used, for it liberates one from the letter of the law in certain rare situations not foreseen by the legislator; but it is dangerous, for it rests on the judgment of the individual, which is prone to decide in his own favor to the detriment of the common good as well as of self.)

We must be careful of the word “legal” in our day, for there are certain actions which are legal by civil law, but which are condemned by divine law, and are destructive of the common good, such as abortion and divorce. The former deprives the unborn of the right to life, and the latter destroys the family which is the foundation of society. There is abundant proof from history that a general corruption of morals is a form of national suicide.

C) DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE: While legal justice, as we saw, inclines the individual to fulfill his duties to the state or community for the common good, distributive justice inclines those who govern the state or community to distribute public benefits and burdens among its members according to the merit, ability and needs of each citizen or group. Among those burdens the state can impose are taxes and military service. Violations of distributive justice would be the distribution of public benefits or the imposition of public burdens through discrimination or favoritism, that is, not based on merits and true needs, but singling out one less qualified because of friendship, family ties, bribes, in return for favors, etc.

While the fair and just regulation of rights of commutative justice is according to equality, the rule which governs the bestowing of benefits and burdens of distributive justice is proportional. For example, the taxes imposed on a rich man and a poor man are not equal, but in proportion to their income, material possessions, etc. Again, by way of contrast, while legal justice is concerned about the obligations of the individual citizen to the state, distributive justice is concerned about the obligations of the state to the individual citizen. Because the decisions of those who govern affect the welfare of so many individuals and of the state as a whole, we should pray fervently for those in office, that they may faithfully and justly fulfill their important duties.


As we have seen, while justice inclines one to respect the rights of others, charity goes beyond respect for those rights; for example, it inclines one to share through almsgiving, forgiving offenses and other works of mercy. It inclines us to love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God, the result being, says St. Thomas, that “we wish to fulfill our neighbor’s will as though it were our own.” (II II, 29,3)

Thus in the settlement of disputes, while justice may accomplish the restoration of rights, it will not of itself restore peace. In this regard the Angelic Doctor states:

Time and again Pope John Paul II has stressed in his messages to the world that justice, while essential for peace, is not enough.

From the above it is clear that true justice will never be attained in this vale of tears if one is concerned about justice alone. Whereas, “He who pursues justice and mercy will find life, justice and glory.” (Prov. 21:21)

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