JUSTICE IS THE THIRD fundamental value of the Church's social doctrine. As a virtue, justice is classically defined, by the likes of Cicero and Justinian, as the firm resolve to render each his due: suum cuique. It is considered one of the four cardinal virtues, the others being temperance, fortitude, and prudence. In calling justice one of the values of the Church's social doctrine, the Church draws from that cardinal virtue of justice.
In discussing the value of justice, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church does not forget that there is a justice due God as well as a justice due man. Pope Leo XIII's exasperation is evident in the words of his encyclical Tametsi: "The world has heard enough of the so-called 'rights of man.' Let it hear something of the rights of God." We might paraphrase this good pope and say that the world has heard enough of the justice due man, let it hear something about the justice due God.
On second thought, however, it would be more accurate to say that modern man has neither heard enough about the justice due God nor the justice due man, especially regarding the objective component of justice due God or man. Justice, the Compendium reminds us, has both a subjective and an objective component, both of which must be present for real justice to exist.
"From a subjective point of view, justice is translated into behavior that is based on the will to recognize the other as a person." This is an internal attitude.
On the other hand, "from an objective view," justice "constitutes the decisive criteria of morality in the intersubjective and social sphere." (Compendium, No. 201) What this means is that there are objective absolute or exceptionless norms as well as prudential norms that must govern interactions between two people, a person and society, and society as a whole. Both this internal other-regarding attitude and the external conformity to objective morality must co-exist for real justice to exist.
Sincerity is not enough. Legalistic justice is not enough. There must be a joinder of internal attitude and external objectiveness. As Pope Innocent III (ca. 1160-1216) said in his On the Misery of the Human Condition [II.3]: "[S]ome seek justice with justice, others injustice with injustice; and some seek justice by unjust means, while others seek injustice by just means." We are to seek justice with justice.
There is also that sort of justice that is broadly called "social justice." The "social justice" that the Church calls for is not the adoption of some leftist agenda, as if the Church asks us to become rabble rousing followers of the Gracchi, Che Guevara, or Saul Alinsky. Neither does the Church ask us to advocate some partisan plan, left or right or in between. We are, in each and every instance, to be followers of Jesus. Christians march to the beat of a different drummer.
So the "social justice" called for by the Church is not something based upon a worldly philosophy; rather, it is "the most classical form of justice," which in today's age may actually be more rigorously revolutionary than anything dreamed of in the philosophy of Guevara and Alinsky. This classical form of justice includes those kinds of justice classified as commutative (between two persons), distributive (between the community and the individual), and legal justice (between the community and the one who has care of the community), but it goes beyond them.
Social justice is a general term which comprehends commutative, distributive, and legal justice. The notion of "social justice"--the term, by the way, coined by the Jesuit mentor of Pope Leo XIII, Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862), and based upon the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas--is "the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law." (Compendium, No. 201) Lawless justice is not justice.
There is some urgency in getting back to the classical notions of justice built upon an authentic Christian anthropology because of the modern mindset of reducing or restricting justice by basing it on other criteria such as utility, autonomy, ownership, or egalitarianism.
Particularly prevalent in our relativist, materialist and secular society is the notion that justice is not an objective reality, but a conventional reality. For conventionalists, justice is something determined by social agreement, by social contract. They mimic the teachings of the ancient philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) who stated that "absolute justice does not exist. There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm." But Epicurus and his ilk are to be rejected. "Justice, in fact, is not merely a simple human convention, because it is not first determined by the law but by the profound identity of the human being."(Compendium, No. 202)
Of itself, the virtue of justice is not sufficient to structure communal life. The virtue of justice can be merciless, cold-blooded, even cruel. It tends to separate, cause rifts, and it is not adept at reconciliation. It is susceptible to capture, to corruption, to hypocrisy, resulting in many complaints such as the one the French writer Anatole France who in his book Crainquebille cynically stated through his character President Bourriche that "justice is the sanction of established injustice."**
It is this susceptibility to failure, self-interest, and blindness in a justice whose quality is--in Shakespeare's words in the Merchant of Venice--"strain'd" or restrained to justice and no other external source that can make justice "even betray itself." (Compendium, No. 174). Justice must therefore be open to, informed by, tempered through, and supplemented with such things as solidarity, love, mercy, and forgiveness, all of whose qualities are "not strain'd."
*See wiki.epicurus.info/Principle Doctrine 33. (Οὐκ ἦν τι καθ’ ἑαυτὸ δικαιοσύνη, ἀλλ’ ἐν ταῖς μετ’ ἀλλήλων συστροφαῖς καθ’ ὁπηλίκους δή ποτε ἀεὶ τόπους συνθήκη τις ὑπὲρ τοῦ μὴ βλάπτειν μηδὲ βλάπτεσθαι.)
**Anatole France, Crainquebille (Wildside Press, 2008), 29.