Fr. John H. Stapleton
Justice is a virtue by which we render unto every man that which to him is due. Among equals, it is called commutative justice, the which alone is here in question. It protects us in the enjoyment of our own rights, and imposes upon us the obligation of respecting the rights of our fellow-men. This, of course, supposes that we have certain rights and that we know what a right is. But what is a right?
The word itself may be clearer in the minds of many than its definition; few ignore what a right is, and fewer still perhaps could say clearly and correctly what they mean by the word. A right is not something that you can see and feel and smell: it is a moral faculty, that is, a recognized, inviolable power or liberty to do something, to hold or obtain possession of something. Where the right of property is concerned, it supposes a certain relation or connection between a person and an object; this may be a relation of natural possession, as in the case of life or reputation, a relation of lawful acquisition, as that of the goods of life, etc. Out of this relation springs a title, just and proper, by which I may call that object "mine," or you, "yours;" ownership is thereby established of the object and conceded to the party in question. This party is therefore said to have a right to the object; and the right is good, whether he is in possession or not thereof. Justice respects this right, respects the just claims and titles of the owner, and forbids every act injurious thereto.
All this presupposes the idea of God, and without that idea, there can be no justice and no rights, properly so-called. Justice is based on the conformity of all things with the will of God. The will of God is that we attain to everlasting happiness in the next world through the means of an established order of things in this life. This world is so ruled and our nature is such that certain means are either absolutely or relatively necessary for the attaining of that end; for example, life, reputation, liberty, the pursuit of happiness in the measure of our lawful capacity. The obligation, therefore, to reach that end gives us the right to use these means; and God places in every soul the virtue of justice so that this right may be respected.
But it must be understood that the rights of God towards us transcend all other rights that we may have towards our fellow men; ours we enjoy under the high dominion of Him who grants all rights. Consequently, in the pursuit of justice for ourselves, our rights cease the moment they come into antagonism with the superior rights of God as found in His Law. No man has a right to do what is evil, not even to preserve that most inalienable and sacred of all rights: his right to life. To deny this is to destroy the very notion of justice; the restrictions of our rights are more sacred than those rights themselves.
Violation of rights among equals is called injustice. This sin has a triple malice; it attacks the liberty of fellow-men and destroys it; it attacks the order of the world and the basis of society; it attacks the decree and mandate of the Almighty who wills that this world shall be run on the plan of justice. Injustice is therefore directly a sin against man, and indirectly a crime against God.
So jealous is God of the rights of His creatures that He never remains satisfied until full justice is done for every act of injustice. Charity may be wounded, and the fault condoned; but only reparation in kind will satisfy justice. Whatever is mine is mine, and mine it will ever remain, wherever in this world another may have betaken himself with it. As long as it exists it will appeal to me as to its master and owner; if justice is not done in this world, then it will appeal to the justice of Heaven for vengeance.
The six last commandments treat of the rights of man and condemn injustice. We are told to respect the life, the virtue, the goods and the reputation of our fellow-men; we are commanded to do so not only in act, but also in thought and desire. Life is protected by the fifth, virtue by the sixth and ninth, property by the seventh and tenth, and reputation by the eighth. To sin against any of these commandments is to sin against justice in one form or another.
The claims, however, of violated justice are not such as to exact the impossible in order to repair an injury done. A dead man cannot be brought back to life, a penniless thief cannot make restitution unless he steals from somebody else, etc., etc. But he who finds himself thus physically incapable of undoing the wrongs committed must have at least the will and intention of so doing: to revoke such intention would be to commit a fresh sin of injustice. The alternative is to do penance, either willingly in this life, or forcibly in the purging flames of the suffering Church in the next. In that way, some time or other, justice, according to the plan of God, will be done; but He will never be satisfied until it is done.