Monday, November 2, 2015

Justice and Rights

Thirty-Sixth in a Series on Catholic Morality

 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.


  1. I wonder about how we regard the reputation of others, in justice, when we pass along the evil deeds of prelates in these dark days.

    There is a line that must be respected between warning people about an evil they may fall into, and telling the faults of others…isn't there?

    As this piece makes clear justice requires the restitution of that stollen. How do you repair a reputation? There are answers to this, and I know in theory what they are. However, I sometimes wonder about detraction and gossip in what I read on the internet in Catholic blogs.

    RC, you are very careful, I've noted, to keep your comments charitable - in fact you are one of the only ones who doesn't cross the line. Any thoughts on this? How does any of this square with Our Lord's words on loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate you?

  2. Dear Barbara,

    You've hit upon the moral dilemma faced by every faithful Catholic blogger, and one I struggle with on an almost daily basis. I am fond of an apostolic saying contained in the Didache (2:7):

    "You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, some you shall pray for, and some you shall love more than the breath of life that is in you."

    In my own experience, that is the key: never let your words or actions be motivated by hatred of another person. There is, as you mention, a fine but nonetheless sharp line between hating erroneous ideas, false beliefs and evil practices on the one hand and hating those who engage in or support them on the other. Keeping one's eye fixed on that line is not always easy, and requires continual self-examination and a good deal of prayer. I am not always entirely successful, either.

    In his Spiritual Exercises (22), St. Ignatius of Loyola writes:

    "Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved."

    If I can find a favorable interpretation to the words or actions of a priest, bishop or pope, I usually do not comment upon them. Given that Modernists thrive on ambiguity, this means that a lot slips through the net. But those things that slip through are normally such that they can only do damage to those who are intent on evil; the faithful usually don't even notice them, and to draw their attention to them would often only do more damage.

    If, however, I can find no way to interpret them favorably, i.e. if I find them to be clearly and unambiguously contrary to a truth of the Faith, then I first try to understand the matter from that person's perspective. More often than not, I find that the person in question is seeking something he views as a good. As Fr. Gerrard noted in The Catholic Family: "Even sin is only disordered love, the love of something contrary to the Divine Will." This does not excuse the evil, but it does make it understandable, which goes a long way in helping to overcome the temptation to hate the person rather than his error.

    It is with this understanding that I try to go about commenting on the dangers posed by the words and/or actions of others - dangers which, if the comment is justified, pose a real threat to the faith, and thus the salvation, of others. I, for one, avoid commenting on speculation as to whether a given prelate is, say, a homosexual, but I have and will continue to comment where there is clear evidence that a given prelate is pushing to normalize homosexuality as acceptable behavior among the faithful.

    That is, at least, what I try to do. As I said, I'm not always entirely successful.

    I'm sorry for what might be on overlong reply, but I thank you for the very thoughtful comment. It's a very important issue which requires constant consideration, particularly in these times in which we live.

    God bless,


  3. RC, I really appreciate your comment. I, too, struggle with this daily. Do I cruise the blogs looking for more horror? Do I ignore the whole mess and leave it to Him? Do I pick and choose what I read carefully and hope to learn rather than be titillated?

    Personally I think I will read your blog, because it features so much more than comment (a treasure chest!) and Rorate Caeli because that site features real news, and not much opinion. But the rest I will leave as most of it disturbs my peace. I am beginning a noviciate as an Oblate of St. Benedict. The commentary by Canon G.A. Simon gives clear instruction on how we are to 'come away' from the world within our state in life. It's all too tempting to want to be in the know!

    You are a light in the darkness because of your Catholic self-censorship and I appreciate your blog.

  4. Dear Barbara,

    Thank you for your kind words. And congratulations on your novitiate! I've been contemplating a third order for some time now, but have not yet heard the call.

    There are days where I wonder if it would be better for me to close up shop. Am I helping to spread the faith, or am I adding to the confusion and scandal? And if I'm helping, is it worth more than the extra prayers I could be offering up in reparation to His Most Sacred Heart? Or would that just be me fleeing the battlefield, thus abandoning those I could, with God's good grace, be able to help?

    Then I remember faithful readers like you, and I find new courage to carry on.

    Now that the Synod is over, however, I will be focusing less on current events and more on edifying reading material. As you mention, there are other blogs and news services which do a better job of covering current events than I could ever hope to do. I will probably still write the occasional editorial, should the need arise, but not nearly at the same rate. Besides, we have another child on the way, and preparing our little nest for the welcome of that new soul (what a miracle!) will be my top priority for the foreseeable future.

    God bless you and yours,



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