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Justice: the most terrible virtue

In an old Peanuts comic strip, it is near Christmas. Lucy is watching Linus mailing his Christmas lists to Santa. She asks him, “Are you sending those greedy letters to Santa Claus again?” Without looking at her, Linus replies, “I’m not greedy.” He then turns around to confront her grim stare. Loudly, he protests, “All I want is what I have coming to me! All I want is my fair share.” Lucy throws up her hands, and shouts, “Santa does not owe you anything!” Linus responds defiantly, “He does if I’ve been good! That’s the agreement.” In the last scene, Linus walks in one direction, Lucy in the other. He mutters to her, “Any tenth grade student of commercial law could tell you that.” All Lucy can say is, “Oh, good grief!”

Actually, all the problems of justice and charity are in this charming scene. The terribleness of justice is to claim that Santa owes us something because we have agreed to be virtuous. There are no gifts possible in this view of the world. I suppose, in the end, that is the thought that I want to emphasize. Justice is a virtue, but a terrible one that will, when taken to its extreme, deprive us even of Christmas. Perhaps this is why, at bottom, we are no longer allowed to show images of Christmas on our streets or to say “Merry Christmas” to each other. We live in a world that claims justice is the only virtue. “Summum jus, summa injustitia.” “‘Are the gods not just?’ ‘Oh, no, child, what would become of us if they were?’”

The last words on the most terrible virtue can safely be left with Aquinas: “Opus autem divinae justitiae semper praesupponit opus misericordiae, et in eo fundatur.” “The work of divine justice always presupposed the work of mercy, and is founded in it.” “Deus misericorditer agit, non quidem contra justitiam suam faciendo, sed aliquid supra justitiam operando.” “God always acts mercifully, not by going against justice, but by effecting something beyond it.”