The Moral Virtue of Justice – Part 6 of 7

Father Pegues continues his discussion of sins against commutative justice that are committed by words. Here he mentions sins of speech committed in the ordinary course of life.

Invective is that sin which wounds another, in the honour or in the respect due to him, by words.” One is strictly bound in justice to treat others with the reverence due to them, for “the harmony of all living in a society is dependent upon this.” One’s honor is “a thing which men cherish most.” Thus, “even the least among men has a right to be treated with the respect due to his own particular status in life: to be lacking towards him in respect, whether by word or deed, is to wound him in what he holds most dear. One ought then with the greatest care to avoid saying or doing anything whatsoever which may bring disconsolation or humiliation upon our fellow-men.”

Detraction, in its strict sense, implies the intention of attacking the reputation of our neighbour, or of taking away wholly or in part the esteem in which he is held by others, whensoever there is no just cause for so doing.” One commits detraction in four ways: (1) “in imputing to our neighbour things that are false”; (2) “in exaggerating his defects”; (3) “in making known things unknown about him and which prejudice him in the eyes of others”; and (4) “in attributing to him intentions that are of a doubtful and perhaps of an evil character, whereby all that he does with the best intention becomes vitiated.” Detraction indirectly hurts a person in three ways: (1) “by refusing to acknowledge the good in him”; (2) “by keeping silence maliciously concerning his good points”; and (3) “by lessening their worth.”

Whispering is that sin which attacks our neighbour by seeking directly through dishonest and insidious speech, to sow discord and create misunderstanding between those who are united by the bonds of friendship.”

Mockery is a sin of the tongue against justice which consists in reviling our neighbour by bringing to his notice his defects and shortcomings, which fact makes him lose confidence in himself as regards his relations with others.” This sin “implies contempt for the person of our neighbour.”

Irony, which is a form of mockery, “may be only slightly culpable if it touch only the small faults or defects of our neighbour, and it may exist without contempt for our neighbour’s person.” Irony may even be virtuous if employed charitably as a means of fraternal correction. But it must be employed with great discretion, for “if it is good for those who have too good an opinion of themselves to be brought to acknowledge in a truer measure their proper worth, one has to take care lest, by exceeding the bounds of irony, a person become so depressed as wholly to lose confidence in himself; and without this praiseworthy self-confidence all spontaneity of action would be paralyzed.”

The curse attacks our neighbour’s good by wishing him evil.” It is wrong to wish evil to another for evil’s sake.

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

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