Part 2: Justice

The following is the second in a seven-part series on the cardinal and theological virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity:

Before the Roman Empire ruled the West, before Socrates started asking so many questions, before even Moses chiseled the Ten Commandments into stone, man has grappled with the meaning of justice. In order to understand this virtue and what it ought to mean to us, we need to go back to the very beginning.
We all know the story. God provided Adam and Eve everything they could have ever wanted in the Garden of Eden. He gave them just one prohibition: Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, they rebelled against Him, triggering His justice, which according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is "the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor" (1807). Their will having wavered, Adam and Eve failed to give God His due. Rebelling against Him, they incurred for humanity a debt that we could not pay back on our own.
Adam and Eve's rebellion was the most consequential act in human history. That is, until Christ compensated Divine Justice and brought us back into union with Him through His death on the Cross. Humanity's failure gave God an opportunity to reveal His great mercy.

Until the end of time when God will bring His work of redemption to completion, our world will continue to experience the residual effects of the fall. Living in a fallen world, though, gives us an opportunity to make up for our own faults - to recognize the demands of justice and to go beyond them to show mercy. As St. John Paul II says, "[M]ercy ... reveals the perfection of justice" (Dives in Misericordia, 8). As Catholics, we must look at the injustices in the world as an opportunity to practice mercy.
Social Justice
Poverty, tyranny, theft, murder, abortion, sexual abuse: these injustices are an obvious affront to human dignity. Though we live in a fallen world, we are nevertheless made in the image and likeness of God. We therefore have "certain unalienable rights" as the Declaration of Independence famously states. According to the Catechism, "Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation" (1928). Through a just government, we can establish laws to protect our rights and the dignity of all. The most just laws in the world, however, will never completely eliminate injustice on earth. We should, therefore, not rely entirely upon the government to establish peace. Each of us can strive for social justice by practicing works of mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; house the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead. Every act of mercy brings a little harmony back into a world torn apart by sin. 
Individual Justice
Before we can establish peace in society, we must have it in our own lives. In other words, each of us has to give what is due to both our neighbor and God. If we do not strive for justice in our daily actions, we cannot expect to have much of an impact on anyone else. We can start by contemplating how we fall short of living righteously. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests taking time every day to examine our consciences.
We only need to look to the saints to understand how working toward social justice should begin with our own relationship with God. Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, "I don't think there is anyone who needs God's help and grace as much as I do ... my secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer, I become one in love with Christ. " In order to have the fullness of God's grace, we need to obey Him. Only then can we help others as best we can. The thousands of homeless in Calcutta never could pay back Mother Teresa for all she had done for them. But mercy called her to go beyond justice - to give to them more than they could ever repay.

None of us, though, not even Mother Theresa, could ever repay God for the incredible debt that He paid off for us. For God, His justice was only the beginning to revealing His great mercy.

View other parts of the 7 Virtues series.

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