Justice Print
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 J├╝ngste 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.

© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

 

Other Articles By This Author