The Moral Virtue of Justice – Part 1 of 7

Father Pegues continues his exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on the Cardinal Moral Virtues (Summa Theologica II-II, 47-170) by discussing the multi-faceted virtue of justice.

He writes: “After the virtue of prudence, which occupies a place apart in the order of the moral virtues and without which no one single virtue can exist, the most important among the other virtues is the virtue of justice. . . . The object of justice is to make respected among men those relations which are founded upon the respect due to existence and possession, which are legitimately the privilege of every human being.” Such legitimacy is determined in two ways: (1) by what natural reason tells us to do, and (2) by common consent according to the dictates of reason. The type of law pertaining to the first way is the natural law, which is “founded upon what the natural reason dictates.” The type of law pertaining to the second way is positive law, which is “determined by the common accord of different men, or that which is determined by those in authority whose duty it is to make regulations concerning the relations between men.”

Some positive laws are private, others are public. Some public laws are national, others are international, “according as there is question of private conventions or of the laws of a country, or of the laws agreed upon and established between different nations.” There are civil laws and ecclesiastical laws: the former pertain to “the relations between men in so far as they are determined by the civil authority,” whereas the latter “are determined by the ecclesiastical authority.”

The two acts proper to justice are to do good and to avoid evil. “In the virtue of justice, to do good consists in so acting that fairness in the relations between us and our neighbour be maintained; and not to do evil consists in avoiding anything which upsets the justness of these relations.” The sin contrary to doing good is omission, and the sin contrary to avoiding evil is transgression. “Considered in itself the graver sin is that of transgression; although a particular kind of omission may be more grave than a particular kind of transgression.”

In short, the virtue of justice is “that perfection of man’s will which inclines him to desire in all things, spontaneously and unceasingly, the good of the society of which he is a part; and also to desire that each should have what is his due.”

The gift of piety, a gift of the Holy Spirit, corresponds to justice, inclining one to treat God “as a Father tenderly and filially revered, served, and obeyed; and to treat all men in the way the divine and supernatural good demands which unites all to God as to the Father of one great divine family.”

The sin opposed to justice is injustice, which is “in opposition to legal justice, spurning the common good which legal justice seeks to promote,” and “in opposition to particular justice which seeks to maintain what is right and just among individuals.” Injustice consists in this: “that with full knowledge one attacks the right of another; that is to say, that one acts contrary to what a rational will should naturally desire.”

Quotations from Thomas Pegues, Catechism of the “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Aelred Whitacre (New York: Benziger, 1922).

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