The Catholic View of Justice for All

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Like every other social issue before it or concurrent with it, the COVID-19 Crisis calls us to practice justice. Unless we understand justice, we will not render it.

This column will try to summarize the two best primers on justice of which I am aware of: “Justice” in Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues and “Chapter II: The Christian Vision of Economic Life” in the United States Catholic Bishops’ Economic Justice for All. The Catechism of the Catholic Church subsequently confirmed key principles in these sources since they drew on Catholic Doctrine and Catholic philosophy. Pieper was one of the 20th Century’s great Thomists (philosophers who follow St. Thomas Aquinas). 

The Essence of Justice

Justice is the least we must do in order to have moral relationships with others. The essence of justice is “keeping score” on who owes what to whom and then giving what is due. Justice is a relationship between strangers and acquaintances.

We go beyond justice in our relationships when they are based on generosity—giving that neither counts the cost nor expects anything in return. Generosity is the hallmark of close, mutual relationships. We find such relationships in true marriage, family, and friendship. (Strangers and acquaintances can give or receive generosity in acts of kindness and mercy.)

In other words, justice is doing one’s duty; generosity is going above and beyond duty. However, a sense of justice remains in our close relationships as we keep a casual, affable score of the favors we are glad to do for each other (“Let me do it; you did it last time”) in order to avoid taking advantage of each other.

Whether justice is done has nothing to do with intentions. If I owe you money, justice is not rendered until I pay you back. My good intention to pay you back is not good enough for justice to be served. Either justice is rendered, or it is not. You and I may have different opinions about whether we are being fair to each other, but we cannot both be right (although we may both be wrong).

Contract Justice

The basic form of justice, and the easiest form to get right, is contract justice, also known in Catholic tradition as “commutative justice.” “Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible” (Catechism, 2411). Contract justice takes place when there is an exchange of equal value between two equally competent parties who freely agreed to it. Sometimes a legal document is involved, but the vast majority of the contracts we experience are casual or implied. If you and I decide to carpool, for example, we exchange something which we assume to be of equal value—a ride for a ride, money, or something else. Of course, one could consistently give the other a ride out of pure generosity. (Like parents do for kids!)

Contract justice applies to any exchange in a one-on-one relationship—even those relationships that do not involve two persons. An individual person can have a contract with a business or other institution. For example, we make a contract every time we make a purchase. The purchase is fair if we get our money’s worth.

Contract justice only fully makes sense in the context of the rest of Catholic morality. All the elements of contract justice could be present (e.g., an exchange of equal worth), and yet the contract could be immoral because what is exchanged is sinful. Although some people believe anything “between two consenting adults” is okay, God does not; and so Catholic Faith does not. Two consenting adults could easily consent to sin. Prostitution and illegal drug deals are examples of contracts that are immoral regardless of whether the two sides are satisfied with the exchange.

The Common Good

Besides relating to others one-on-one, we relate to others by being in some kind of group with them. What especially makes a group a group—what defines it, gives it an identity, and brings its members together—is some kind of common interest or common good, that is, what is good for the group as a group (and not as a collection of individuals). For example, the common good of a sports team is winning. 

The largest group to which we belong is society—the network of economic, political, and cultural relationships that sustain life. Like any group, society has a common good. Society’s common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow all people to reach their fulfillment and achieve their potential more completely and more easily” (Catechism, 1906). It includes the whole range of human rights, spiritual and material prosperity, and peace and safety (Catechism, 1925).

Society’s common good, therefore, means that, as Vatican Council II put it, “The progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other” (Gaudium et Spes, 25). In general, for society to improve, individual lives must improve; and for individual lives to improve, society must improve. The Three Musketeers actually put it very well: “All for one and one for all.”

In a society or any group, the principles of contract justice are no longer adequate. We need another kind of justice: social justice, the justice of fair organization, and cooperation. There are two sides to social justice: contributive justice and distributive justice.

Contributive Justice

Contributive justice (also known in Catholic tradition as “general justice” or “legal justice”) is what the individual person owes society, what the individual must contribute to the common good. “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good” (Catechism, 1913). Contributive justice obligates us to cooperate with good laws, policies, systems, and regulations and to try to change in a constructive way those that are bad or deficient. Actions not required by human law are still necessary to maintain the common good. Examples of contributive justice are obeying the speed limit, paying taxes, working at a job that helps rather than hurts people, voting, respecting private and public property, donating money to the church and other non-profits, and volunteering.

It can be difficult to figure out what one owes the common good. One principle of contributive justice is that each person is obligated to contribute according to his or her abilities. Another principle of contributive justice is that democratic methods should be used as much as possible to decide who has to give what. There is also a role in contributive justice for those in authority—they must coordinate the efforts of society members to contribute to the common good.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is what society owes the individual person, what each individual should receive as his fair share of the common good. Examples of distributive justice are awarding job promotions, selecting among applicants for school admission, drawing the line on who gets government aid, and picking the first string for a sports team. Some common methods of distribution are identifying the most competent, “first come, first served,” taking turns, auctioning, equal shares, and being random. Often distributive justice is the fair distribution of burdens, as in deciding military conscription.

Distributive justice is practiced by those in positions of authority—those who have to decide “who gets what.” “Those in authority should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each, with a view to harmony and peace” (Catechism, 2236).

Distributive justice requires those in authority to be of service to others. “Those who exercise authority should do so as a service” (Catechism, 2235). Political leaders who do not really serve are opportunists. Business leaders who do not really serve are plunderers.

Distributive justice takes into account each individual’s need (based on a true understanding of human nature), while also considering each individual’s merit and society’s need. The just society is not one in which there are always equal results. For example, “Catholic social teaching does not maintain that flat, arithmetical equality of income and wealth is a demand of justice . . .” (Economic Justice for All, 74).

Social Justice

Notice that social justice, in either contributive justice or distributive justice, is not simply egalitarian. There are ways in which human beings are equal, and there are important ways in which they are not. Nor is social justice utilitarian—simply aiming for the greatest good of the greatest number of people.

So the individual’s role in contributive justice is to give, and his role in distributive justice is to receive. Without contributive justice, distributive justice would be impossible—without a common good that has been created and produced, there would be nothing to share. With rights come responsibilities to the right-holders. We must be leery of any plan to distribute wealth that does not take into consideration whether the production of wealth will be harmed in the process.

Since society is made up of many groups—associations, institutions, and organizations—each group must also practice contributive justice, and each group deserves distributive justice. For example, not only must a doctor personally practice contributive justice by trying to make sure that her own acts help society’s common good, but the American Medical Association must practice contributive justice. Or, not only must Catholic schools contribute to society’s common good, but they should also receive their fair share of government spending on education.

Furthermore, social justice demands that the principle of subsidiarity is respected.

“[G]overnment should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative. Rather it should help them to contribute more effectively to social well-being and supplement their activity when the demands of justice exceed their capacities” (Economic Justice for All, 124).

Social justice rules out the one extreme of rugged individualism or absolute libertarianism which ignores the common good. Individual liberty sometimes hurts the common good because of fallen human nature (human nature weakened by Original Sin).

Social justice rules out the other extreme of collectivism (as epitomized in Communism and Nazism), which squashes liberty, personal property, and creativity. It also stifles personal responsibility to grow in virtue (except for the “virtue” of always obeying the government since collectivism inevitably leads to concentrating all authority in the government). Collectivism violates the principle of subsidiarity and obliterates the many non-governmental associations and institutions that are needed for the common good.

COVID-19 and Justice

It is beyond the scope of this column to apply the principles of social justice to the COVID-19 Crisis. It is within the scope of this column to plea for the Magisterium (the bishops under the leadership of the pope) to provide the philosophical and theological framework, particularly regarding social justice, in which to apply the truths of medical science, economics, and every other field of study necessary for dealing with COVID-19.

Action is based on thought. The best thinking about anything rests on the right philosophy and is perfected in theological truth. For thinking through the COVID-19 Crisis, or any social issue, the greatest gift the Magisterium has to offer is Catholic moral doctrine (which makes complete sense only in the context of all Catholic doctrine). 

The COVID-19 Crisis gives the Magisterium the opportunity to curtail offering social analysis and prudential judgments, which is not its expertise (Catechism, 898-899, 2442) and which, in my opinion, is done too much, is too often mistaken, and becomes a form of clericalism. We need the Magisterium to focus on propounding the depths of the Church’s orthodox intellectual tradition—which, better than any other system of thought, synthesizes Faith and Reason—so that we can know if leaders in government, business, medicine, etc. are really helping us best exercise our rights and responsibilities. Showing the way are Robert C. Koons and others at Public Discourse, C. C. Pecknold and others at First Things, Rev. Robert Sirico, and others at the Acton Institute, the Catholic Medical Association, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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1 thought on “The Catholic View of Justice for All”

  1. I would also note that justice is refraining from receiving to which one is not entitled and third parties, individuals, organizations, governments, engaging in the furtherance of such activities. These actions, usually in a quest for power and authority, are quite egregious and becoming more oppressive as individual rights are being curtailed in the name of justice and the common good.

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