The cardinal virtue of justice is a demand of love that comes into sharper focus in this season of Lent. It is a season to recommit ourselves to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to give alms, and to help the poor. But it is also a time to probe the causes of poverty and have a passion for the justice that eliminates it. Lent is a time for us to develop a sharper social conscience and consider the part that justice plays in our world today. So how can we “act justly,” as the prophet Micah asks us (Micah 6:8)? Here are a few thoughts on the cardinal virtue of justice.
Each of us has an innate sense of what is right and just. C.S. Lewis observed this sense of justice as “an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” He also pointed out that we find ourselves “under a moral law which we did not make and cannot quite forget even when we try and which we know we ought to obey.”
But where does this natural sense of justice come from? The short answer is justice begins with the God who is just, and we are made in his image and likeness. Therefore, justice is written into our nature from our conception.
According to Scripture, the first duty of justice is to give thanks and praise to God. Borrowing from Plato but consistent with God’s Word, St. Thomas Aquinas defined justice as “giving to another what is their due, including God.” Therefore, to worship a false god is not just idolatry but injustice because glory is given to another instead of the living God to whom it is due. That is why in one of the Prefaces for Mass, we pray: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord.” Justice is always linked to faith and right praise.
There is another principle of justice in the Scriptures, which is that of right order. There is an order with which God created the world, and it is visible in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Everything was as it should be, but then sin occurred, and this order was thrown off-kilter. The effects of sin caused an imbalance and introduced injustice into God’s creation. The prophet Amos talks about “tampering the scales” (Amos 8:5), which is the perfect image for the rupture of justice where one group goes up, having too much, and another group goes down, having too little.
For the prophets, injustice is always the fruit of weak faith in God and forgetting what God did for his people. “Do not ill-treat foreigners who are living in your land. . . . Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). Amos cries out: “Let justice flow like water and uprightness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). Isaiah condemns the people in these words: “You who make unjust laws that oppress my people . . . prevent the poor from having their rights” (Isa. 10:1-2). The prophet then urges: “Seek justice and keep in line the abusers; give the fatherless their rights and defend the widow” (Isa. 1:17). Therefore, to believe is to believe in the God who values justice far more than stability for if justice is lacking then real communion among people is impossible. Another key point is that God is on the side of victims of injustice and will not rest until justice is done and right order is restored.
Central to the concept of justice in the Old Testament is the Ten Commandments. They were given by God to Moses to maintain the right order in society that God always intended. Notice how the first three of the Ten Commandments have to do with giving God his due. The remaining seven focus on the right order in social relations (Ex. 20:2-17, Deut. 5:6-21).
In the New Testament, Mary and Zachariah are the early prophets of justice that would be the hallmark of Christ’s kingdom. For Mary, God’s power acts to “pull the mighty from their thrones and raise up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). In the words of Zechariah, Jesus’ coming would raise up an army of his disciples who “would serve him in holiness and in justice all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:75).
For Jesus himself, his ministry of mercy was always linked to justice. His encounters of mercy with sinners always led to the conversion and change in the person. We see this with the call of Matthew, the woman caught in adultery, and Zacchaeus, whose conversion translated into his restoring what he had stolen (Luke 19:1-10). In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the owner is just but also generous and merciful, paying the last worker according to his need and not according to what he deserved (Matt. 20:1-16). In the Beatitudes, Jesus called “blessed” those who “hunger and thirst for the cause of right,” for they will be satisfied (Matt. 5:6). On the cross, we see God’s judgment on the world and the greatest injustice ever committed on full display when the just and sinless one was unjustly condemned and killed. As we gaze on his cross, we see the horror of sin and injustice.
With his Resurrection, God’s plan of restoration and justice burst into life again with Christ. With the Resurrection, everything that Jesus stood for and the truth he told came back to life with him. So, too, did the momentum to serve the cause of justice and to finish the saving work he came to accomplish. He continues to do this through us, his Body, the Church. Together, we are meant to be an instrument of God’s justice in the world today, to be the leaven in our society that serves him in holiness and justice all the days of our life.
In this light, our vocation is to keep before our mind’s eye the special place of the poor in God’s plan and how Christ has identified himself with “the least of my brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:31-46). Christian maturity means developing a sharper social conscience and entering into dialogue with others on how to make our world more just and humane. To be just is to know how society is organized and how wealth, power, privileges, rights, and responsibilities are distributed at every level—locally, nationally, and globally. This is who we are called to become—shapers of a new order marked by justice and creators of a civilization of love. To act justly is to become just, and the more just we become, the more God-like we become. None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.
As we near the end of Lent, may we renew our commitment to be just and pray that all things be ordered “on earth as it is in heaven.” May God raise up an army of Christian citizens—laity, religious, and clergy—to be a leaven for the healing and renewal of our society today.