The Moral Virtue of Justice – Part 3 of 7

Father Pegues continues his exposition of the virtue of justice by discussing sins opposed to distributive justice and commutative justice. Distributive justice “safeguards fairness in the relations that exist between the society and the individuals of which the society is composed,” and commutative justice “safeguards fairness in the relations of men with each other in the same society.”

The sin against distributive justice is the sin of respect of persons, which is to distribute justice to a person, not in consideration of his merits or demerits, but solely on account of who he is.

There are many sins against commutative justice. Some touch the person himself; others, his property or reputation. Sins of the first type include homicide, mutilation, flogging, and imprisonment. Homicide is a sin which “affects our neighbour by deed, as regards his greatest good, namely, by taking his life. It is the greatest sin against our neighbour.”

Concerning the application of lethal force for self-defense, Father Pegues states: “An individual never has the right to do this unless there be question of losing his own life or the life of those in his charge, and there be absolutely no defence other than that which entails the death of his assailant; further, in thus defending himself he must in no way whatever intend the death of his assailant, but only intend to defend his life or that of others in his charge.”

Concerning capital punishment, he states that “only the public authority has the right to do this. It derives this right from the duty incumbent upon it of guarding over the common good of the society.” The common good may require this, for example, in those rare instances in which there is “no other efficient way of putting a stop to the crimes committed within the society.” However, it is never permissible to put an innocent person to death, for “the supreme good in a society is always the good of virtue.”

Other sins that touch the person are “mutilation, which attacks the integrity of his person; flogging, which inflicts pain on his body; and imprisonment, which deprives him of the freedom of his person.” These are sinful “whenever they are done by those who have no authority, or who, having authority, exceed the just bounds.”

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

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