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Justice in a world of inequality

October 17, 2020
By Shelly Fellin

“Justice” has become a hot-button word in the media this year. But what does justice really mean? Does the media and the protestors give it an accurate definition based on their actions? How does our Catholic understanding of “justice” compare to the media-driven culture’s understanding of justice?

The Catechism defines justice as the moral virtue that “consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.” [CCC 1836] So what does that mean exactly? It means that “justice” towards our neighbor is reflected in our relationships with others that promotes equity for all people and the common good of society. In Sacred Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, justice (or righteousness) is often used to describe an individual’s character—“The plans of the just are right; the designs of the wicked are deceit.” Proverb 12:5 “The just act as guides to their neighbors, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” Proverb 12:26 “But if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surly live. He shall not die!” Ezekiel 18:21 Justice as a virtue is what we need to embody to live a moral and upright life in the eyes of God.

I once heard Fr. Richard Simon on Relevant Radio say that God is Just, not fair. Don’t we often feel that way? We might think “Why does so-and-so always get the good (insert whatever object or situation that seems to evade you here)?” Or we’ve heard the saying “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (That’s another one of those mysteries of life that tests our faith.) This is what it looks like for God to be just but not fair. God gives us our due according to what we need to become the person He created us to be. God doesn’t treat everyone “equally” because we are all precious in His eyes, and He gives us what we need…not what we want.

 So how do we apply the virtue of Justice into our own lives? How do we live out Justice? The seventh commandment “Thou shall not steal” give us some guidance for how to live as a just man or women. When we respect the property and rights of others, when we respect the time we give our employer and consider the needs of those struggling around us we have lived this commandment as best we can. This commandment leads us to live in a way that provides for the common good for all people. By doing so we give our neighbor their due and with this we also give God what He expects from us (what we owe God) that being love for our neighbor.

We often see in the media that “justice” is an action that is demanded from others on behalf of someone who is seen as being oppressed by societal inequalities. While we never want to condone violence toward or oppression on another person, it’s not our place to “demand” anything. The violent protests taking place that “demand justice” are not being just when they vandalize communities, small businesses and such. This action does not provide for the common good of all but only terrorizes and creates more victims. In reality, being a “just” person is one who possesses the character of integrity and humility and the virtue (or habit) of living out justice in his or her own family and neighborhood. Justice cannot be forced on anyone, it must come from within. God wants us to love each other in a just way so that we help each other become the person God created us to be.

“… If one loves justice, the fruit of her works are virtues; For she teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these.” Wisdom 8:7