The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 63, No 3, May-June 2010

Theology for the Laity

The Moral Virtues: II

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

A Question of Rights

       The second moral virtue to consider is the virtue of Justice. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus we encounter what often seems like a startling admonition. "You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor" (Lev. 19:15). Refusing to be intimidated by anotherís wealth or status makes a great deal of sense - Americans are particularly proud of their political institutions which deny a system of social classes - but surely, we imagine, the poor must have a greater claim on our attention.

       While this is certainly the case when we are considering charitable gift-giving, the matter is quite different when we consider the rights of individuals, and the behavior such rights demand of us. These rights govern our relations with one another, and they arise from the inherent equality that exists among individuals in society. Justice is the virtue that concerns itself with this equality, and it is defined as "the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right" (ST II-II:58.1). These words deserve some study, to enable us to understand fully what Justice is, and what it demands of us. Let us first consider the will.

Giving What Each Deserves

       We have seen that freedom is an essential component to virtue. For an act to be virtuous, we must freely choose - or will - it. The "perpetual and constant" qualities contained in the definition remind us that virtues are habitual dispositions, strengthened by repetition. Any virtue, acquired by practice and perfected by grace, becomes a firm and unyielding choice, what we often call a "second nature." Justice is our choice to give each person whatever is his or her due.

Justice and "the Other"

       Justice is only concerned with our dealings with others, and in this way it differs from the other virtues, which perfect the individual person in relation to himself. Our practice of the other virtues certainly affects the way we approach one another in the world, but this virtuous behavior is the result of a habit we have first incorporated into our way of thinking and acting.

       Justice, by contrast, is concerned absolutely with our relations to others. To be sure, Justice is a habit, so our personal practice of justice becomes easier and more graceful with experience and time, but the very definition of Justice specifies that this virtue governs our relations to others, directing us always to give them their due.

       In art, Justice is often portrayed as blind-folded. This is to underscore the equality that Justice seeks always to achieve. The command from Leviticus to avoid partiality is a command to embrace equality. Whether a person is poor or rich is unimportant in Justice; what matters is that each receives whatever is due him.

A Matter of Equality

       In our everyday life, Justice sheds its blindfold - not in the sense that we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by othersí poverty, wealth, appearance or any other external quality, but in the sense that we look about and freely choose to treat others as our equals. Justice demands that this be our constant disposition, so we may occasionally find Justice difficult to practice, especially if granting another person his due means giving up something of our own. But that in no way relieves us of the responsibility to behave justly. Indeed, our society would collapse if we were to forget the place and importance of Justice.

       Thus far, we have considered Justice as the dealings between individuals, in the interest of the common good. But we must also acknowledge that Justice governs the individualís dealings with society itself, and a societyís dealings with the individuals who make it up.

An Example from Economics

       A good example of the Justice that governs dealings between individuals is that of a market, in which one person offers another a sum of money equal to the value of the object he purchases. The relations between individuals and society are slightly different, because the equality between the society and the individual depends on the degree to which an individual participates in the society. Someone who earns a great deal of money, whether from investments, manufacturing some necessary goods, or providing a service plays a greater role in society than a retiree dependent on Social Security.

       One is not necessarily a better person than the other, but the materially poorer of the two plays a smaller role in society and therefore deserves to be taxed a proportionately smaller share of the societyís expenses. Each person, however, is required by Justice to support the society in which he lives.

       In return, Justice demands that society offer individuals whatever they need to participate fully in civil life. Individuals congregate together because life is easier when lived in common. A just society takes nothing away from its citizens, and supports the individualís efforts to achieve his full potential as a virtuous human being.

The Relation of Justice to God

       Justice allies to itself a number of noble activities, which we call "parts of Justice". Among these are religion, devotion, piety, prayer, gratitude, and truth. The names of these actions appropriately suggest relations with God, and while these acts are meritorious, they cannot share the full perfection of Justice, which concerns itself with the quality between individuals, and giving each person what she or he is due. Obviously, we can never render God everything due Him, nor can we even consider the possibility of equality with God. Therefore, we may act virtuously in our relations with God, but our actions will, necessarily, always fall short of the perfection of Justice.

       Nevertheless, the acts by which we seek to unite ourselves with God are extremely important. Religion is the honor we pay God. It is distinct from the other parts of Justice because it is an act we offer solely to God. Devotion is the willingness with which we offer ourselves to Godís service.

Piety and Prayer

       Piety is the respect and honor subjects pay to superiors. We offer this respect primarily to God, who rules over all things, but we also demonstrate piety in the regard we pay family members, especially parents, and in the respect we show toward our nation and its symbols. Prayer reminds us that we must turn to God for our necessities. Since God knows what we need before do, prayer does nothing for God. On the other hand, it does a great deal for us, preparing us and making us worthy to receive Godís blessings. Roman Catholics are sometimes accused of idolatry, because they turn to the saints in prayer. To answer this charge, we must distinguish between a prayer that is offered to a person, a petition to be fulfilled by him, and prayer which seeks something through a person.

       Only God can grant the salvation we need, of course, so we appropriately pray to God alone. However, our faith assures us that the angels and saints continually beseech God on our behalf, so we may reasonably ask to unite our prayers with theirs. We may offer one further remark on prayer, by observing the maxim that teaches, "the Church believes as it prays." When we offer prayer to one person of the Trinity, or to the Trinity itself, we appropriately ask, "Have mercy on us." When we approach the Blessed Virgin or another of the saints, we say, "Pray for us."


       Gratitude is nothing more than the thanks we express for a favor we have received. It differs from the worship we offer God, and the honor we show our parents, because those actions recognize the on-going relation we enjoy with the individuals we honor. Gratitude is thanks for a specific gift, and the extent of our gratitude is measured in proportion to the gift we have received. When we sin and are reconciled to God through the Sacrament of Penance, our gratitude is objectively greater than the thanks we offer when Godís grace enables us to avoid some temptation. The reason is that sacramental reconciliation is a greater gift.


       Truth is related to Justice because it is one of the virtuous ways in which we deal with others. Like the other virtues, truth makes us good and renders our action good. We have an obligation to make certain that our words and actions accurately - and appropriately - express what we believe, and who we truly are. This accuracy does justice to us, by presenting a true picture of us, and honors those with whom we interact, by giving them what they have a right to expect. Nevertheless, we must not underestimate or ignore the element of propriety when we consider truth. Truth is the mean between revealing too much and too little, between speaking rashly and speaking at the right time.

Vices Opposed to Justice

       When we consider the various parts of Justice, and how they make us and our actions good, we can easily see how sacrilege, superstition, lying, hypocrisy, boasting, irony (which is belittling ourselves or others) and ingratitude sin against the virtue of Justice. These actions either deny God or another individual the honor we owe, or they exceed (or fail to reach) the middle course which is the mean of Justice.

The Value of Friendship

       By contrast, the affability or friendliness we bring to our dealings with others is a reflection of Justice because it urges us to behave toward others in a fitting or becoming manner. This is different from the love commanded by the virtue of Charity, which is an interior disposition. Affability concerns itself with externals, "getting along with" others, and contributing to the pleasure we derive from social events. Like the other virtues, this friendliness must observe a happy medium, avoiding mere flattery and the temptation to seek peace at any cost, even at the cost of truth.

Some Modifying Factors

       We began this reflection by observing that Justice demands strict equality in our dealings with others. We shall bring our thoughts to a close by considering the one instance in which this demand may be set aside. The purpose of law is to preserve the common good of those who live under it. By necessity, then, laws must be broad or general enough to govern the largest possible number of human actions. If law is ignored, individuals - and the society they form - will suffer.

       Justice seeks to guarantee that each individual receives her or his due in a particular instance. But what will happen if a person demands a right at an improper time, or for an improper reason? Individuals certainly have a right to buy poisons to kill household pests, but if someone exercises this right because he wishes to kill himself or another person, we may reasonably lay aside the letter of the law, and, for the sake of the common good, deny the individual his right.

Mary, the Model of Justice

       The Mother of God is our model in all things. In the legends that grew up to describe her birth and childhood, we find Maryís parents promising to consecrate "her to the Lord from her infancy." Such a promise, made to God, carries immense significance, and the legend continues that when Mary was three years old, her parents fulfilled their promise and brought her to the Temple, where she was to be reared and educated.

       From her earliest days, then, Mary was aware of the magnitude of Justice, and when she reached maturity - and ran to share the good news of the Incarnation with Elizabeth - Justice is the theme of her great Magnificat, praising the God whose scrutiny of hearts results in overthrowing tyrants and granting equity to the disenfranchised.

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