The Catholic Thing
Justice Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Benedict XVI associates justice with judgment. In speaking of justice, we acknowledge injustice’s possibility. We cannot talk of either justice or injustice without talking of judgment. Justice, to recall, “cries out.” Judgment is unpopular today. It implies a standard that we do not make but to which, to be reasonable, we are to adhere.

Concern about justice has Platonic overtones. Was the world created in justice? It doesn’t seem so. If not, the world cannot be coherent. Likewise, in all existing cities, in all times and places, many crimes and violations go unpunished; many noble deeds go unrequited. This situation is difficult to square with a just God or universe. Both in Plato and in revelation, we find a final judgment. This judgment is not an accident.

No human being is simply a product of chance. Each person has origins in the vast creative potential within the Godhead. This fact does not mean that no element of chance is found in our individual lives. But chance itself is the result of the crossing of voluntary or necessary acts. From our viewpoint, what looks like chance looks like purpose within a providential order.

The most significant entities in creation are not stars, planets, comets, black holes, or other sidereal phenomena. They exist from the ages in order that within the universe a creature might exist who is directly intended by God for Himself. The order of cosmic development is anthropic in character. Once the cosmos itself exists, with the sundry orders of living and sentient beings within it, we only begin the drama of what the universe is about.

The human being is the one being in the physical cosmos who belongs both to the world and to what transcends the world. All levels of being are found within each human person – mineral, vegetable, animal, spirit. They exist there in a coherent whole.

Every human being, however, finds that he does not just live in a physical world. He lives in a world of pleasures and pains, of opinions, thought, willings, and searchings. His own good is not simply himself. He exists “for himself” in order that he may act, know, and choose. To be what he is, it is not enough simply to be.

             The Last Judgment (Das Jüngste Gericht) by Hans Memling, c. 1470    

With some experience, we learn that we can make ourselves into what we ought not to be. When we make such wrong turns, we wonder if we can straighten things out. Yet we may not want to change. We do not want to be bothered by any comparison of ourselves with what we ought to be. We can harden our hearts.

Alongside the “empirical” world, we find another world, related to it, but one existing because words and actions have been placed in the world through human beings acting for some end or purpose. This world is the “social” or “moral” world. Within it we find realities such as anger, love, hatred, piety, honor, theft, murder, cheating, gift giving, with all sorts of things that arise from their source in the rational creature.

The human being is itself an order of parts to whole and of whole to end. He has a certain autonomy. This autonomy enables him to become what he ought to be, or, conversely, to reject it. We are responsible for ourselves and for one another. Familial and civil orders are intended to assist us to be what we ought to be, though they can also guide us in the opposite direction. They too are not independent of what-it-is-to-be-human. They do not make man to be man, as Aristotle said, but are designed to assist him in being a good man.

Why would a pope who often speaks of charity and generosity spend time on justice? Here I do not mean the dubious notion of “social justice,” the origins of which imply intellectual efforts to place man’s transcendent end in his own hands to be achieved in this world by his own powers.

The justice that deals with judgment looks soberly at the human condition. We live in a save-everybody-world or, conversely, in a world in which nothing is worth saving. Christianity transcends the polities. It is not unaware of what goes on in them.

Plato warned that the greatest crimes against the human person often came from politicians seeking honor. Hannah Arendt indicated that even insignificant persons can commit great crimes. The combination of justice and judgment arises here. 

Even if we are praised for it, not all we do is right. Justice is present. Our deeds will be judged. We can avail ourselves of punishment, forgiveness, and charity. If we do not, and we need not, what is left is transcendent judgment in justice. The papal reminder reaches the very depths of our contemporary being. We choose not to notice.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are
The Modern Age and The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by K O'Higgins, January 24, 2012
Fr. Schall,

Superb pedagogical piece. I'll be sharing this.

written by Ray Hunkins, January 24, 2012
Superb indeed. Fr. Schall's explanation of the origins of "social justice" is one to be remembered and used.

I pray for you and your pedagogical mission Father.
written by Other Joe, January 24, 2012
A world of perfect justice would lack free will. Villains must have the illusion that they can and will "get away with it". If punishment was certain, the cost of being bad would be prohibitive. Similarly, a program of "social justice" must lack liberty, the political version of free will. Social justice is a largely meaningless construct and should be a subset of justice as implied by the term itself. In practice, social justice as a policy is based on injustice and is therefore a lie. Excellent article. It is a pleasure to see real thought in a public forum. Splashy opinion is more the norm.
written by Grump, January 24, 2012
Quoting Schall...

The most significant entities in creation are not stars, planets, comets, black holes, or other sidereal phenomena. They exist from the ages in order that within the universe a creature might exist who is directly intended by God for Himself. . . . The human being is the one being in the physical cosmos who belongs both to the world and to what transcends the world."

Another example of Man's persistent belief that he alone stands above every other creature of the universe. Man's pride and arrogance is ever on display.

Allow me to quote from "The Sacred Theory of the Earth" by 17th century chaplain/theologian Thomas Burnet:

"How is it possible that it should enter into the thoughts of vain Man to believe himself the principal Part of God's Creation, or that all the rest was ordain'd for him, for his Service or Pleasure? Man, whose follies we laugh at every day, or else complain of them; whose pleasures are vanity, and his passions stronger than his reasons; who sees himself every way weak and impotent, hat no power over external Nature, little over himself; cannot execute so much as his own good resolutions, mutable, irregular, prone to Evil. Surely, if we made the least reflection upon ourselves with impartiality, we should be ashamed of such an arrogant thought. ...
"We have no reason to believe that there are, at least, as many Orders of Beings above us, as there are Ranks of Creatures below us; that there is a greater distance sure betwixt us and the meanest Worm; and yet we should take it very ill, if the Worms of the Earth should pretend that we were made for them."

We are but a speck in the cosmos, a mere afterthought six days later when God, weary from all the splendorous things and creatures He had made, had but one last joke up His sleeve: Man...
And on the 7th Day, he not only rested but had Himself one big horselaugh.
written by senex, January 24, 2012
I have been under the impression that the term ‘social justice’ was first coined by an Italian priest in the mid-19th century as a short hand term for the application of the virtue of justice to evaluate the deplorable working conditions that factory workers were experiencing in the Industrial Revolution: The wages were inadequate, the working conditions unsafe and the hours long. Read Rerum Novarum. Over the last century and a half social justice has been reinvented to mean little more than the emotion of ‘compassion’ , as Michael Novak pointed out. Today it has little or nothing to do with justice. It has become a cliché of the liberal progressives. Today social justice means ‘socialist injustice’.
written by Leonard, February 03, 2012
I didn't see Schall discussing social justice per se as much as many of us wish to comment on it. I think he's trying to tell us that there is always a transcendent truth that is not really in our natural or political universe. It is the touchstone against which we must make a distinction between what is good and what is not. I don't know of any contemporary political leader who even approaches and yet it seems (to me anyway) the central issue of our time: Can man discern truth?

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