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The Cardinal Virtue of Justice Is Not about Punishment


Sam Guzman - published on 05/14/15

How it's connected with love

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.

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.

Sam Guzman is the founder and editor of the Catholic Gentleman where this article was originally published. It is reprinted here with permission.

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