Justice: A Virtue to Ponder on Labor Day

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Justice: A Virtue to Ponder on Labor Day


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


If there were a Book of Virtues compiled by a liberal, it would probably carry no reference to obedience. And when a prominent conservtive like former Secretary of Education William Bennett puts together such a book, one isn't terribly surprised to find no chapter on justice nor even a single mention of the virtue in the index.

If liberals aren't particularly strong on obedience, neither are conservatives especially strong on justice.

To be sure, liberals might want to defend themselves by pointing out that obedience can have a different meaning from the one normally placed on it by conservatives. In an important essay on the subject, the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner defined obedience in relation to the kingdom of God. He reminded us that the virtue of obedience can coexist with a posture of resistance to authority, for the sake of the kingdom.

In their turn, conservatives would insist on their own equal commitment to justice, but for them justice can also have a different meaning from the one normally placed on it by liberals. Thus, abortion, and not just federal programs to assist the poor, is a justice issue.

But I'm not interested here in taking sides in this dispute. Both justice and obedience are virtues and both should be practiced as faithfully as one can.

However, since it is the eve of the Labor Day weekend in the United States, our concern in this week's column is more fittingly with justice than with obedience.

Alongside prudence, fortitude and temperance, justice is a cardinal virtue, one on which many other virtues hinge (the literal meaning of the Latin word, cardo). As such, it is a virtue that every humane person, and certainly every Christian, should honor both in word and deed. In that regard, Bennett's lapse in his Book of Virtues is a serious and telling one.

There are different aspects of the virtue of justice, as those familiar with traditional Catholic theology know. There is commutative justice that governs relationships between individuals, distributive justice that governs relationships between governments and their citizens, and social justice that governs all social, political and economic relationships within society at large.

Justice also has two faces: the one external and the other internal. Societies, institutions and communities that are bound by justice are bound not only to be just toward those beyond their own perimeters but also to practice justice within.

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