JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


It is impossible to exaggerate the importance to the animal body of the bony framework called the skeleton. Nevertheless a mere skeleton neither lives nor moves. To scientific thought our usual emblem of Death as a walking skeleton is a ludicrous absurdity. However shall bones double one upon the other otherwise than by the contraction of muscles? Justice is the solid skeleton of human society. No society can work without justice. But again, no society can work on principles of justice alone. The muscle, the covering flesh of human society, is charity. But charity, it will be said, is a theological virtue, supernatural and infused; and we are not treating of such virtues at present, only of natural virtues acquired by frequent acts, exercise and practice. Still we can not wholly ignore the supernatural. The supernatural is given us to be the guide of the natural, grace the motive power of nature; nature should not be destroyed, but should be subordinate to and commanded by grace, and execute the behests of the spirit. We are not ignoring the supernatural; nevertheless, for the present, we prescind from it. And that we do in this instance the more readily because there is such a thing as natural charity, friendship and friendliness between man and man, mutual good feeling and good will, sympathy, benevolence and kindness. Aristotle, the panegyrist of justice, was so alive to this fact that he wrote: "Where justice is, there is further need of friendship; but where friendship is, there is no need of justice." A man needs no justice in his dealing with himself; he is tender enough of himself and his own. But a friend is a sort of second self. "Yes," you will say, "but I like my first self best." Not in all things, if you are a true friend. A man will give his very life for his friend. By "charity" I mean here, not exactly friendship, for friends must be few, but friendliness, as it were friend-like-ness, some approach to friendship, extending in a greater or less degree to all the men you have dealings with. Friendship and friendliness, or natural charity, grow from a common stock, love. Man is happily prone, under favourable conditions, to make man his fellow and love him. An English philosopher has said that the natural instinct of man meeting man for the first time would be to regard him as a rival, and either kill him or make a slave of him. So it might be, if man grew up to man's estate in perfect solitude, like pearls in separate shells, as the said philosopher (Hobbes) was apt tacitly to assume and argue accordingly. But man is born of man and woman, and grows up among brothers and sisters and playmates; he springs of love, and is reared in love -- not without admixture of hatred and jealousy, for there is no pure good in this world. The consequence of friendliness is that men are apt at times to give, and not always to bargain; sometimes to act on charity, and not insist upon justice. A friend sends a present of a haunch of venison for your wedding day. What an oddity you would take him for if he served you with a butcher's bill next week! But, it may be contended, he expects similar presents himself from you in season. Not if he is rich, and you are poor. But at least he expects gratitude, that is, some sort of return. But not a specific return. Justice is always specific, keeps books, sends in accounts and bills, this for that, the two being taken as equivalents in money value. Gratitude goes not into bills. Nevertheless, because friendship is returned, and in a manner repaid by friendship, St. Thomas puts down liberality, and gratitude, and "the friendliness that is called affability," as so many "potential" parts of justice; that is, they rank under justice, not strictly so called, but in a loose and wide sense of the term, as having certain affinities with justice. My own! my own! one thing that is my own is my heart to give away. Life would not be worth living without love. As the heart is given, other gifts will follow. Every gift is an abatement of strict justice. Such is charity.

Three points our Saviour urges in the Gospel with especial insistence -- faith in His person and mission, watchfulness for His second coming, and charity, or love, for one another. And this charity He would have to take the shape of abatement of the rights which in strict justice we have against one another. Shylock, clamouring for his pound of flesh, is an eminently anti-Christian character. Christ has put this lesson into the Lord's Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, is, more literally, Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matt. vi. 12). And if any man will go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also (Matt. v, 40). In St. Matthew (xviii, 21-35) is the parable of the servant who owed his lord ten thousand talents, or something like eight million dollars, an impossible sum to pay, was released of the debt, and therefrom proceeded to throttle his fellow-servant for a twenty-dollar debt; for which insistence on his right -- for the twenty dollars were really due in strict justice -- his lord handed the implacable creditor over to the torturers till he paid the last farthing of his own huge liabilities, which he never could meet for all eternity. Certainly it is well at times to insist upon one's just rights, but it is also well at times -- oftener, perhaps, than we think -- to abate them. The parable is the condemnation of the hard man, who will never upon any consideration abate one jot or tittle of what his neighbour in strict justice owes him. And this applies not only to money, but to honour, precedence, deference, and all things that men prize.

A hard bargain may be not merely uncharitable, but positively unjust. Such a bargain is that between employer and employee, when the former engrosses all the working strength of the latter, and pays him in return not enough to live upon "in frugal comfort," as Leo XIII teaches in his Encyclical of May, 1891, on the "Condition of Labour." On the other hand, the employer has a right to all that labour, care, attention, diligence and accuracy of work for which he pays a just wage -- a debt of justice often ignored by workmen. Justice suffers, and has its edges knocked off, where it is not covered by charity. In charity the employer will do more than he is legally bound for his employees. In charity they will on occasion do more than they are legally bound for him. When this notion of charity is spurned, and capital and labour behave as two independent, unfriendly powers, each jealous of the other, each striving to wring the utmost concession that the law will allow from the other, there must be acts of injustice done on both sides. The Lord's Prayer has much to tell us if we will think it over in remedy of the ills of life.

It should be understood that charity is not always optional, not always mere matter of counsel, but, like justice, charity also sometimes imposes an obligation under sin. You are bound under sin to help your neighbour when he is in distress and is unable to help himself out of it, while you being close at hand can help him without yourself falling into the like distress. Thus you would be bound under sin to take into your house, or otherwise provide for a beggar whom you found frozen at your door. You are bound to rescue a drowning man, if you can get him out without notable risk to your own life. Charity binds us in our neighbour's need in the absence of any special contract to stand by him. Where there is such special contract the obligation is no longer of charity, but of justice. The soldier has contracted, and is bound in justice, to venture his life at the word of command in battle. The parish priest is bound in justice, even at the risk of infection, to administer the last Sacraments to a dying sinner in his parish; whereas a stranger priest passing that way would at most be bound only in charity. I am fain to add, he is not much of a priest if he stands on his points in such an occasion. You are also bound in justice to prevent your neighbour taking harm directly in consequence of your action. Thus, if you have even accidentally pushed a child into deep water, you are bound to get him out if you can; much more if you have done it on purpose. The difference between an obligation in justice and an obligation in charity is of great practical import in casuistry, inasmuch as a neglected obligation in justice involves reparation and restitution, where the matter admits of restitution, but no restitution is due for neglect of what you were bound to do in charity. Therefore, a sin against justice is called a peccatum caudatum, a sin with a tail, the tail being the burden of having to restore. As we have seen, restitution is the second half of the involuntary contract. How many sins, tail and all, how many deeds of wrong with the wrong never made good, must come under the final cognizance of the Sovereign Judge!

It is no rare experience to encounter pious people who are strangely neglectful of their obligations in justice -- leave their tradesmen's bills unpaid, with the result that other customers, who do pay, pay for them also in the increased price -- fail to discharge duties which they are salaried to perform -- have young children under their wardship and custody, and take no pains even to know how they are going on. These omissions proceed from no deliberate contempt of justice; they may involve no grievous sin; thoughtlessness may be pleaded in palliation of them, but thoughtlessness is a fool's excuse. A healthy conscience is extremely sensitive to claims of neighbours, claims in decency and courtesy, claims in charity, and above all, claims in justice. Of one of the greatest of the saints, Scripture is satisfied with informing us truly that he was a just man. Justice is the backbone of charity. If you are in superiority, and find it not in your nature to be a very loving father to those under you, be at least just to them. The saying is well known in England of the schoolboy who in boyish language described his headmaster as "a beast," then added on reflection, "but he is a just beast." The "just beast" became Archbishop of Canterbury, and in that high station well maintained his character for justice.

As a man has a right to life, limb, and property, the violation of which right is a sin against justice and calls for restitution, so equally has he right to honour and respect and deferential treatment according to his rank from those about him, be they his equals or even his superiors. To browbeat a man, to address him in abusive or scornful language, and generally to insult him, is not merely uncharitable, it is downright injustice, and calls for restitution in the shape of an apology, howbeit the injured person, following our Lord's counsel, will often do well to waive his claim and forgive freely. Every individual man, likewise every corporate body, has a right also to character and reputation. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour is a commandment often forgotten when corporate bodies or societies come under discussion. Yet the members of such societies are more jealous of the reputation of the body than of their own individual good name. A man who does evil in public flings away his reputation; he has no character left to lose. A man who has done evil to his neighbour in secret, and is in a way to do more, also forfeits his reputation to the extent of such denunciation as is necessary for the prevention of his further injury or harming others. Under this exception a man has a right to a good character so long as he behaves well in public. To take such character away is a sin against justice. If the defamation be false, it is called "calumny"; where it is true it is "detraction." Both calumny and detraction call for restitution of good name; but where the story is true, obviously such restitution is hardly possible. You can not mend broken glass. You must not lie to undo a wrong. Still less must you do a wrong by spreading lying reports detrimental to the character of another; those you are bound to contradict if you yourself are the author of them, in justice; if you are not the author, in charity. Altogether it may save much subsequent distress of mind to be always wary of one's words in speaking of the absent, particularly if they be persons whom you dislike.

Concerning vengeance, or revenge, I find that natural temperaments differ curiously on this point. Some are more prone to revenge an insult, others rather cry for vengeance on cruelty. The Christian is taught not to seek vengeance for a private wrong, as such. We may seek restitution, or compensation, but that is not vengeance. It is not vengeance, it is only the exaction of the fulfilment of (an involuntary) contract, if I compel him who has robbed me of property to the extent of five hundred dollars to pay me in a note to that amount. It would be vengeance were I to horsewhip him for it. That the law will not allow. In civilized countries the law has gradually by slow degrees assumed to itself the function of avenging wrong done by one private citizen to another. The law punishes wrong-doers on public grounds, by way of public example, as a deterrent. In that light I do well to bring the man who has injured me to public justice, not exactly because he has injured me (I forgive him that), but reipublicae causa, that he may not go on injuring others. This is the sense of the text, Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord (Deut. xxii, 35; Rom. xii, 19). The retribution meted out by the criminal law of the State is the vengeance of the Lord, whose minister the civil magistrate is. He beareth not the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, doing justice unto anger upon him that doth ill (Rom. xiii, 4).

An old writer has said: "It is praiseworthy to be patient under one's own wrongs, but the height of impiety to dissemble injuries done to God." We feel a righteous indignation at injuries done to the Church, but commonly we must forego vengeance; for in these days no public authority is concerned to avenge such wrongs, and we must not take the business into private hands. Even under injuries done to Himself Our Lord teaches us patience. His Apostles were to be as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. x, 16). When James and John would have called down fire from heaven upon the Samaritan town that shut its gates to their Master, He restrained them with the words, Ye know not of what spirit ye are (Luke ix, 55).

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