A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 9 : The Different Forms of Justice and the Education of the Will

"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice."
Matt. 5:6

Among the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, there is one, namely justice, which pious people do not consider sufficiently. They are attentive to the different forms of temperance, to prudence to be observed in the general conduct of life; they try to practice charity toward their neighbor, but they sometimes neglect certain duties of justice and consideration for the rights of others. Those, for example, who persecuted St. John of the Cross called themselves men of prayer and austerity, yet they were most unjust toward the reformer of Carmel.

If man practiced the different forms of justice more perfectly, he would make great progress in training his will. Justice, in fact, is in that faculty to make it leave egoism or self-love,(1) as prudence is in the intellect to oppose lack of consideration, and as fortitude and temperance are in the sensible appetites to strengthen them against fear and inordinate concupiscences.(2) For this reason these four virtues are called cardinal virtues. They are like hinges on which the doors turn that give access to the moral life. (3) Some souls, while given to anger, are so cowardly that they seem to have lost all will; indeed this faculty seems to have disappeared, leaving only self-love or egoism. The reason is that the will is considerably weakened when it is deprived of the acquired and infused virtues which should be in it. On the other hand, a will enriched by these virtues is increased more than tenfold.

We should remember that the four forms of justice, which we are going to discuss, should be in the will and, above them, the virtues of religion, hope, and charity. Thus the training or Christian education of the will and character should be made. Character should be the authentic imprint of reason illumined by faith and of moral energy, a mark stamped on the physical temperament, whether nervous, irascible, lymphatic, or sanguine, hyperthyroid or hypothyroid, in order that this temperament may cease to dominate, and that the Christian may truly appear as a rational being and still more as a child of God.

Consequently, for this Christian education of the will, we shall discuss the different forms of justice, to which correspond several precepts of the Decalogue. After our duties toward God, they determine those we should practice toward our parents and toward all persons with whom we have relations: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods. Thou shalt not bear false witness," and so on. We may transgress these precepts in many different ways when we forget in practice that we should not do to others what we do not wish them to do to us.

People often think of justice only in the inferior form known as commutative justice, which governs exchanges and forbids theft, fraud, calumny, and so forth. They do not sufficiently consider distributive justice,(5) which presides over the distribution by authority of the advantages and duties of social life among the different members of society. In view of the common good, it distributes to each as it should goods, work, duties, obligations, rewards, and penalties; this distribution should be made in proportion to merit, real needs, and the importance of the different members of society. Even more do people forget a higher form of justice, which aims immediately at the common good of society and brings about the establishment and observance of just laws and ordinances; this form of justice is called legal justice.(6) Above it there is equity, which considers not only the letter but the spirit of laws, and that not only of civil laws, but of all those that govern Christian conduct.(7)

The interior life should watch over the exercise of these virtues. Here also the acquired virtue of justice is at the service of the infused virtue of the same name, somewhat as the imagination is at the service of reason. (8)


The duties of justice appear in a living and concrete fashion when we think of faults against it which should be avoided, for the sorrow that injustice causes us reveals to us the value of justice. The faults and acts contrary to commutative justice are not only homicide, theft, fraud, usury, false accusations and false witness in a lawsuit; they are also insults given in anger, affronts, unjust blame or reproaches against inferiors, equals, and superiors. Also included are defamation, slander, or speaking ill of another without a proportionate motive; also secret insinuation by whispering, mockery which lessens the esteem due to our neighbor,(9) forgetfulness of the truth that our neighbor has a right to his reputation and that he needs it to do good, to such an extent, says St. Thomas, that the perfect should, not for their own sakes, but for the good to be done to others, resist their detractors.(10)

When commutative justice has been violated in one or another of these ways, restitution or reparation becomes a duty. Thus we must repair the wrong that we have done our neighbor by slander or insinuations or mockery which show we do not regard him as he deserves. (11) Besides it is cowardly to ridicule someone who cannot defend himself, or the absent who cannot reply.

The defect opposed to distributive justice is undue respect of persons. We may indeed prefer one person to another and gratuitously give more to one than to another. But the sin of undue respect of persons consists in unjustly preferring one person to another, taking from the latter something that is due him. This sin is more grave in the spiritual order than in the temporal order: for example, if we are more attentive to the exterior condition of persons, to their wealth, than to their merits, and if we refuse them the respect which is due them or the spiritual helps which they need.(12)

Interior souls should be particularly watchful on this point and on guard not to slight the friends of God, the saints whom the Lord has chosen for Himself from the humblest stations in life. Injustice is at times the portion of very patient servants of God because everyone knows that they will not complain and will put up with everything. This was often the lot of St. Benedict Joseph Labre because people failed to see the heart of a great saint under the rags of a beggar. On the contrary, clear-sighted souls should sense or divine sanctity in their neighbor, even though it be under the most humble exterior. Moreover, it is a great reward and a great joy to discover sanctity. It must have been a great consolation to verify the sanctity of Benedict Joseph Labre by seeing how he bore insults and blows, when, for example, he kissed the stone which had been thrown at him and had drawn his blood.


Above commutative justice and distributive justice is legal or social justice, which should have a lofty form in the Christian and in interior souls. This virtue is concerned, not directly with the rights of individuals, but with the common good of society, and not only of civil society but of that spiritual society, the Church, and the different groups in it. Legal justice leads a man to observe perfectly the laws or constitutions of the society to which he belongs. This virtue inclines the Christian to learn about the laws to be observed and the instructions of the Supreme Pastor, about his encyclicals on present-day questions. The reading and study of these encyclicals are often neglected to the detriment of all. Social justice should give us an understanding of the common good; it combats individualism, which is one form of egoism.

Social justice disposes us to devote ourselves in generous self-forgetfulness to the general good, and, if necessary, to sacrifice our time, comfort, or personal satisfaction to it. Were we to act otherwise, we would live on the common good like parasites, instead of contributing to promote and maintain it. We receive much from society and to it we are indebted. If we fail in our obligation, we are like mistletoe, which lives on the oak tree at the tree's expense, sometimes causing its death. Society in general, indeed every social group, has its parasites. To react against this vice (into which a man might fall by trying to live like a hermit and being indifferent to the common good), we must perform the duties of legal justice and devote ourselves to the general good, mindful of its superiority. From this point of view, love of our rule, of the holy laws established in the Church, is a great virtue which protects the soul against many disorders.(13)

Lastly, above legal or social justice there is equity.(14) This form of justice is attentive not only to the letter of the law, but especially to its spirit, to the intention of the legislator. As it considers chiefly the spirit of laws, it does not interpret them with excessive rigor, in a mechanical and material manner, but with a superior understanding, especially in certain special circumstances in which, according to the intention of the legislator, it would not be advisable to apply the letter of the law, for then the adage would be verified: "Summum jus est summa injuria." The strict law in all its rigor would then be an injustice and an injury, because the particularly difficult and distressing exceptional circumstances in which the person involved might be placed would not be taken into account.(15)

Equity, which preserves us from Pharisaism and from the juridical formalism of many jurists, is thus the highest form of justice; it is more conformable to wisdom and to great common sense than to the written law.(16) It has in view, over and above the text of the laws, the real exigencies of the general good and inclines one to treat men with the respect due to human dignity. This is a capital point; its importance is grasped only as one grows older. Equity is a great virtue, whence the expression: It is just and equitable to do this, for example, to practice benevolence toward a dying enemy, toward wounded prisoners of war who need help. Equity has thus some resemblance to charity, which is superior to it.

If we were attentive to these four kinds of justice that should be practiced, we would obviate many conflicts between persons, between classes, between the different groups that ought to labor at one work under the direction of God. These virtues, which are subordinated to charity, would also considerably increase the strength of our will; by withdrawing it from egoism and rectifying it, they would increase its energies more than tenfold. This point should be considered in connection with the Christian education of character, which should succeed in dominating our physical temperament and which should stamp it in the image of reason illumined by faith. As a matter of fact, the acquired virtues cause the rectitude of right reason to descend into the very depths of the will, and the infused virtues bring to it the rectitude of faith and the very life of grace, a participation in the inner life of God.


With a better knowledge of the loftiness of justice under its different forms, we see more clearly the relations to charity which should vivify it from above.

These two virtues have in common the fact that they regulate good relations with others. But they differ from each other: justice prescribes that we give to each man his due and allow him to use it according to his right. Charity is the virtue by which we love God above all else, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Therefore it goes far beyond respect for the right of others, in order to make us treat other human beings like brothers in Christ, whom we love like other selves in the love of God.(17)

In brief, as St. Thomas well shows, justice considers our neighbor another person, in that he is a distinct person; charity considers him as another self. Justice respects the rights of another, charity gives over and above these rights for the love of God and of the child of God. To pardon means to give over and beyond.

We can thus see why, as St. Thomas says, "Peace (which is the tranquillity of order in the union of wills) is the work of justice indirectly, in so far as justice removes the obstacles to peace (such as wrongs, injuries); but it is the work of charity directly, since charity, according to its very nature, causes peace. For love is a unitive force. . . ; and peace is the union of the appetites' inclinations." (18)


Justice, thus vivified by charity, is accompanied by several other virtues that resemble it. Among them, there is one superior to justice, the virtue of religion, which renders to God the worship due Him, interior and exterior worship, devotion (or promptness of the will in the service of God), prayer, sacrifice of adoration, of reparation, of supplication, of thanksgiving. This virtue is opposed to irreligion, or impiety, and also to superstition. It reminds us at the same time of the worship of dulia due to the saints and that of hyperdulia due to the Mother of God. Thus religion is inferior to the theological virtues. To religion penance should be united to make reparation for offenses against God.

To justice are also attached filial piety toward parents and one's country, the respect due to merit, to age, to the dignity of persons, obedience to superiors, gratitude for favors received, vigilance in punishing justly when necessary at the same time using clemency, lastly veracity in speech and in one's manner of living and acting. Veracity, which is a virtue, differs from frankness, a simple inclination of temperament, which sometimes borders on insolence and which forgets that not every truth is to be told.

Justice reminds us that besides strict justice there are the rights and duties of friendship (jus amicabile), in regard to those who are more closely united to us. In respect to people in general, there are also the duties of amiability, which is opposed to adulation and to litigation or useless dispute. Lastly, there are the duties of liberality, which avoids both avarice and prodigality.

All these different forms of justice are of great importance in the conduct of life. At times pious people do not think sufficiently about them; they put on the airs of a hermit more egoistically than virtuously. Under the pretext of charity and the prompting of bitter zeal, they may even fail in charity and justice through rash judgment, slander, insinuation against their neighbor.

If, on the contrary, a man practiced generously the virtues we have just spoken of, his will would be greatly rectified and fortified, better disposed to live by the still higher virtues of hope and charity, which should unite him to God and preserve this union with God in the midst of the varied circumstances of life, even of the most painful and unforeseen. To show oneself a Christian, even in the smallest acts of life, is the true happiness of him who follows Christ.

St. Thomas described the eminent degree of the infused cardinal virtues when he wrote: "Prudence by contemplating the things of God, counts as nothing all things of the world, and directs all the thoughts of the soul toward God alone. Temperance, as far as nature allows, neglects the needs of the body; fortitude prevents the soul from being afraid of neglecting the body and rising to heavenly things; and justice consists in the soul giving a whole-hearted consent to follow the way thus proposed." (19) These are the perfecting virtues; higher still, according to St. Thomas,(20) are the virtues of the fully purified soul, "the perfect virtues. . . . Such are the virtues attributed to the blessed, or, in this life, to some who are at the summit of perfection."

Thereby we see the grandeur of the virtue of justice, which is the second cardinal virtue. It is superior to fortitude, to temperance, and even to virginity. Justice is often no more than an empty word for some souls; then injustice which must at times be borne reminds them of the real value of justice. This great reality appears especially in the evangelical beatitude: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill." The justice mentioned here is the highest degree of justice, containing eminently all that we have just said.



1. Cf. Ia IIae, q.56, a.6, c. and ad 3um.

2. Ibid., a.4.

3. Ibid., q.61, a. 1-3.

4. Cf. Deut. S:20 f.

5. Cf. IIa IIae, q.61, a.If.

6. Ibid., q.58, a.6.; q.60, a. I ad 4um; q.81, a.8 ad 1um.

7. Ibid., q.80, a. I ad 3um, ad 5um; q. 120, a. I f., Of "Epikeia" or Equity.

8. Cf. Ia IIae, q. 100, a.12: "Justice, like the other virtues, may denote either the acquired or the infused virtue, as is clear from what has been stated (q. 63, a.4). The acquired virtue is caused by works; but the infused virtue is caused by God Himself through His grace." Acquired justice and its different kinds which we have just named were admirably defined by Aristotle, who even determined in regard to the happy mean the difference between the medium rationis and the medium rei which is determined according to equality in commutative justice and according to proportionality in distributive justice (cf. Ethica, Bk. V, chap. 3; St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.61, a.2). But evidently Aristotle did not speak of infused justice, which is illumined by the supernatural light of faith and of infused prudence.

9. Cf. IIa IIae, q.73-75: Of backbiting, tale-bearing, derision.

10. Ibid., q.72, a.3.

11. Ibid., q.62.

12. Ibid., q.63, a. I f.; Ia IIae, q.97, a.4; q.98, a.4.

13. When in religious orders dedicated to the apostolate, has been preserved the love of the rule which the saints had, then the spirit of prayer has been kept, studies have flourished and have been made with the spirit of faith, and preaching has been fruitful. We see this in the thirteenth century during the age of St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great. When, in the fourteenth century, the rule was neglected, the spirit of prayer and study declined, and the ministry was fruitless. The Lord had to send saints anew to restore the first fervor. The reason is that moral and spiritual life is an ensemble and a harmony of either acquired or infused qualities, and when man begins to seek himself through egoism, his thought is not slow in descending to the level of his life, and his apostolic zeal disappears.

14. Cf. IIa IIae, q.120, a. I f. Equity is also called in Latin epikeia, from the Greek epi dikaion, a virtue above simple justice.

16. The lawmaker considers what happens in the majority of cases; thus he formulates the law, which in a given case, however, could not be applied, says St. Thomas (ibid.). For example, every deposit should be returned to its owner; it is not advisable, however, to return to a furious man his sword or any weapon, even if he demands it, for it is easy to foresee that he will make bad use of it. The same holds true, should a man reclaim a deposit of money in order to use it against the common good of his country. In these and in similar cases, it would be wrong to follow the written law; common sense tells us that. In these cases a higher justice surpasses the written law. Then one does not judge the law, but only one of its particular applications. Cf. ibid., a. I, c. and ad 2um. For example, if someone should ask you to take a letter to another party which could only pervert him, you can and must avoid giving it to him, and you may even be obliged to prevent the continuation of the evil which might thus be done.

16. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 120, a.2: "Epikeia is a subjective part of justice; and justice is predicated of it with priority to being predicated of legal justice, since legal justice is subject to the direction of epikeia. Hence epikeia is by way of being a higher rule of human actions."

Cf. D. Lallement, Principes catholiques d'action civique (Paris, 1935), pp. 54f.

17. Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Graves, VI, 214 (ed. of La Bonne Presse), and D. Lallement, op. cit., p. 54.

18. Cf. IIa IIae, q.29, a.3 ad 3um. Likewise Pius XI, Encyclical Ubi arcano, I, 156.

19. Cf. Ia IIae, q.61, a.5.

20. Ibid.