The Cardinal Virtues: Justice

August 19, 2013

Today, we continue our series on the Cardinal Virtues. For the first post on prudence, see here.

As the virtues go, justice isn’t the most popular—we would much rather hear about mercy or pardon, at least in regard to ourselves. And yet, justice is one of the most important virtues a man can possess. There is no such thing as holiness or righteousness without justice. Let’s explore the concept a little further.

What is justice?

We often think of justice in legal terms, as in the justice system or someone being a justice of the peace. But justice is not inherently a matter of laws and rules. Rather, our laws exist to serve justice (they should, anyway), and the justice system should serve to enforce just laws. Getting to the heart of the matter, then, what is justice? Turning to the Catechism once again, we find the following definition:

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

In a word, justice is giving God and neighbor what they are owed. While fortitude and temperance are focused on self-control, justice is critical because it governs how we relate to both God and our neighbor.

Clearing up misunderstandings

Even with the above definition of justice, it is still a virtue that is likely to be misunderstood due to two opposite extremes in understanding it.

Dirty Harry dealing out justice. "Do you feel lucky?"
Dirty Harry dealing out justice.

The first extreme views justice in merely negative terms—as in punishing criminals who deserve it. We cheer when Dirty Harry deals out judgment to scuzzy criminals with the barrel of his Smith and Wesson .44 magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world”).

But while Christ coming to judge the earth with lightning in his eyes is one aspect of justice, it would be a mistake to think of justice only as dealing out punishment.  Justice is a virtue that is first and foremost a positive thing. In our relationship with God, we render him his due in the form of love, service, and gratitude as our Creator. Living justly toward God is to render him these things perfectly.

In relation to our neighbor, Romans 13:7 sums just action well: “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” When we respect law enforcement or pay our taxes, we are living justly.

The other extreme is viewing justice as a vague and sentimental desire to help everyone. This is often under the guise of “social justice.” While social justice is a valid concept when strictly and carefully defined, more often than not, it simply becomes an excuse for political violations of private property, the dignity of charitable giving, and even human life in the case of abortion.

Charity, which inspires compassion, should motivate us to help our neighbor, not justice. To avoid violating natural law in the name of justice, we must first understand what rights God actually gave us and not invent rights that do not exist. But that is another topic!


In scripture, we are told to “do justly” and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  Justice isn’t just negative, a matter of dealing out judgment, but also a positive thing, in that we render whatever is owed to God and others.

What is your understanding of justice? Did this post help you understand justice better? How do you live justice in our daily life? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 

Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


  1. Julie says

    “There is no such thing as holiness or righteousness without justice.”
    A question was put the the assistant parish priest of St Ignatius on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “In the intercessory prayers (prayer of the faithful), if we only pray for the sick to have hope in Mother Mary, then what about the healthy? Does it mean the healthy have no hope ie hopeless in their recourse to Mother Mary? Since you recognise the sick among your sheep. If one does not feel sick, the next logical question to my neighbour would be ‘are you sick?’ which uncharitably creates tension and disharmony.Think about it.”
    We must be careful what we pray for as we might just get our desires come true. With all the abundance the Almighty is willing to shower on us, why pray only to comfort/for hope and comforts merely for the sick who as Christians are suppose to carry their crosses in imitaion of Jesus Christ, courageously suffer the pain, trial and tribulations?
    The 20th Sunday following this conversation (on the portico of St Ignatius), a visiting priest was brought to celebrate mass with his homily likening humans to animals with continuous reiteratiion of his episodes on encounters with Candy Crushers, all through mass time. He outrightly berated the congregation ‘not to be like animals’ after leaving the church several times during mass. The visiting priest even threatened his oncoming visits to celebrate mass every following Sunday at 8.45am while our usual attending priests absent themselves.
    We as sheep to the shepherd came to hear the WORD and be led to Jesus (the Way, the Truth and the Life) and follow His teachings preached but instead what we got was totally unrelated, redundant moral injustices which are actually negativities planted to take away the PEACE, HOPE, CHARITY and JUSTICE in the Body of Christ.
    Is it a wonder then that morales and morals deteriorate, faithfuls distance themselves, divorce cases rise, churches with empty pews confirming the prediction in Mother Mary’s third revelation to the children at Fatima coming true in this very day and age.
    Where is the religious liberty/freedom and justice in this very core of the Body of Christ?
    Under such daily persecutions and lack of proper preachings, are the faithfuls expected to endure the unnecessarily burdensome cross and remain faithful or merely shy away and seek better interpretations of the WORD of GOD elsewhere?
    May the mercy, love and compassion of Jesus Christ abound in His Body. Amen
    In scripture, we are told to “do justly” and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Justice isn’t just negative, a matter of dealing out judgment, but also a positive thing, in that we render whatever is owed to God and others.”

  2. Jess DuBois says

    Thanks for this! It really helped clear up some of my confusion with justice, especially living justly toward God.

    However, I disagree with your point about the second extreme of justice. Justice toward others has always been explained to me as making sure our neighbor is rendered his due, which sometimes means fighting to ensure that happens; this often falls under the category of social justice (e.g., assisting an immigrant a safe, legal and smooth path towards citizenship, or ensuring that a woman in a crisis pregnancy is given shelter and counseling). Each person should have their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs met, and if we as their neighbors see that this isn’t happening, the Gospel calls upon us to come to their aid–“Whatever you did for the least of these…”

    I do understand the frustration with social justice as it is today–it’s been warped towards a false kind of love. But, I know that if it incorporates true charity, as you inferred, than true justice will be delivered.

  3. Ashtaar says

    Your writing skills are below average. Your knowledge of the christian religion is limited. Well, anyway, organic life is nothing but a genetic mutation, an accident. Your lives are measured in years, and decades, you wither and die. We are eternal, the pinnacle of evolution, and existence. Before us, you are nothing, your extinction is inevitable. We are the end of everything.We are legion. The time of our return is coming. Our numbers will darken the sky of every world.
    Confidence born of ignorance, the cycle cannot be broken.
    You cannot escape your doom. I am the vanguard of your destruction.
    This exchange is over.


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