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To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Justice is often listed as the first of the four cardinal virtues. It has been called the mother of all virtues by Lactantius and Leo XIII, but that title is also claimed for gratitude (Cicero), humility (Augustine and Cassian), charity (Jerome), prayer (Isaac the Syrian), discretion (Abba Moses and Benedict), obedience (Augustine—yes, again), sobriety (Origen), good will in the soul (Albert the Great), reverence (von Hildebrand), courage (Winston Churchill), patience (Hindu tradition), appreciation (Chinese tradition), jihad-patience-sacrifice (Islamic tradition), and frugality (inscription on the State National Bank Building in Houston, Texas).
Despite this disagreement over which is the greatest of the virtues, it is clear that justice holds civilized societies together. As Augustine said in City of God, “A republic cannot be administered without justice.” Nevertheless, justice is a very elusive thing. Justice is, in every country, more difficult to obtain if one is very poor and weak than if one is very rich and powerful. Presidents, kings, and rich young rulers can get away with scandalous things that peasants and paupers cannot. Hence, although it is our duty to live justly, we recognize that true justice for us will only be obtained in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This view of justice is markedly different from that of contemporary society. However, the church fathers are even more radical than this in their understanding of the meaning of justice. For they contend that real justice cannot even be practiced by one who does not know God. To quote Augustine in City of God, “When a man does not serve God, what justice can we ascribe to him, since in this case his soul cannot exercise a just control over the body, nor his reason over his vices?” The late third to early fourth century church father Lactantius put it perhaps more clearly in his Institutes, “For what is humanity itself, but justice? What is justice, but piety? And piety is nothing else than the recognition of God as a parent.”
Lactantius admitted that a pagan could do good deeds, such as giving alms to the needy, entertaining the poor, and clothing the naked, but he argued that
all those good acts are empty and vain, so that he labored in vain in performing them. All his justice will be like a human body not having a head; for although all the limbs are in it and in their places, and have beauty and shapeliness, because that is lacking which is the principle of all, it lacks both life and sensation. So those limbs have only the shape of limbs, not their use. (Institutes 6:9)
Likewise, he said that having knowledge of God while living unjustly is like having a head without having any limbs. Although a man might manage to live this way, he would be weak and pitiable, like a soul with little virtue.
In his Epitome, Lactantius wrote, “Now the first duty of justice is to acknowledge God as a parent, and to fear him as a master, to love him as a father.” If the Christian story is true, this description of justice makes perfect sense. It is only on this basis that we can begin to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, and fairness from prejudice. Hence, true justice is only practiced by those who carry out the will of God.