When with clever astuteness, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it were lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, He replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s” (Mt 22,21). By this simple reply, Jesus gave us clearly and precisely a description of the virtue of justice: to give to everyone what is his due. “Justice,” says St. Thomas, “is the perpetual, constant will to give to everyone what is due to him” (IIa IIae, q.58, a.1, co.). To God, we give the worship which is due Him as our Creator, Lord, and Father: adoration, honor, glory, gratitude, faithful observance of His laws, and humble, devout service. To our neighbor, we owe respect for his rights, taking into account our various obligations toward him, according to whether He is our superior, equal, or inferior.
Certainly, a soul striving for perfection, cannot be satisfied to remain within the limits of justice; charity will urge it to give and do more. However, justice is always the necessary foundation of charity, without which charity itself could not subsist. Charity toward God can and ought to incite us to do something more than what is strictly prescribed; but this more will not be pleasing to God if it causes us to neglect some duty of obligation. Thus a professional man cannot devote himself to apostolic works to the prejudice of his professional duties, nor can a religious undertake works of supererogation, if they prevent him from observing some point of his rule. In the same way, charity toward our neighbor can and should urge us to give alms, but this will not be pleasing to God if it is done with money which rightfully belongs to someone else, as for instance, money which should be used as wages for workmen, or for the paying of debts. A failure in justice—that is, in what is of obligation—cannot be considered an act of charity, either toward God or toward our neighbor. Only by starting from the solid, indispensable foundation of justice, will charity be able to mount to sure and lofty heights.
“O justice, thou art the precious pearl which makes the soul shine brightly; thou givest peace and light to creatures; thou keepest them in holy fear and dost unite their hearts. If thy light failest, we are immediately plunged into confusion and surrounded by the darkness of injustice” (St. Catherine of Siena).
O God, Thou alone can infuse true justice in me, for Thou alone art infinite Justice, “Thou who art just in all Thy ways and holy in all Thy works” (Ps 144,17).
“Thou art just, O Lord: and all Thy judgments are right. Justice and fidelity are in Thy testimonies. Thy justice is justice forever; Thy law is an eternal law. Give me understanding of Thy commandments, and I will live by them. Teach me to keep Thy law and to observe it with all my heart. Lead me by the paths of Thy laws, for they are my delight. Incline my heart to Thy precepts, and not to the love of money. Teach me to love justice and to hate iniquity, that I may enjoy Thy blessings for all eternity”(cf. Ps 118-44).
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Art: Aquinat [St. Thomas Aquinas], Sandro Botticelli, PD-US; Wikimedia Commons. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, mirror from open source material.