Justice and Eternal Life


Habitually, I call justice the most
terrible of the virtues. It is a virtue; we are to render to another what is due. But by itself, even though rendering justice is an honorable act, it is cold and impersonal. This is why Aristotle always held that friendship was more important than justice. Friendship went beyond but it did not deny justice. Christianity saw that sacrificial love — charity — was also necessary if justice were to be achieved in the actual order in which we live. Justice looks only to the relation between people, not to the person to whom we are being just. Justice is an invitation to love, perhaps, but it is not love. As it is often said, we do not have to like those to whom we have to be just. We are even to be just to our enemies. However, the presumption of justice makes possible our many exchanges and relations with myriad people whom we can never know or know well.
The vast network that we call the market is but a way to make justice in exchange freely possible. In our relations of justice we are potentially related to anyone in the world. We want others to be just to us; we want to be just to them. The baseball cap I wore this morning was made in China. This is possible because of the global market and the political decisions that allow it to happen. Once trust in its fairness or justice is undermined, exchange ceases. Since not everyone is in fact just, we need and have mechanisms to deal with violations. One hopes the violators of justice are relatively few and the observers many.
But here I want to talk about a remark of Pope Benedict XVI on justice in his encyclical Spe Salvi. This is a remarkably brilliant encyclical whose scope I do not think is well understood. It is literally a re-presentation of what we call the four last things — death, heaven, hell, and purgatory — over against the way that modern economic and political ideology has sought to replace them by a this-worldly view of man’s purpose, a purpose that rejects God and any criterion of man’s good arising from outside his own definitions and powers, even if that criterion is superior to the human ones.
The passage is presented as a rather paradoxical opinion of the pope about the significance of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the sentence:
I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life (43).
First of all, we must note that Benedict is speaking of precisely “argument.” A case is to be made that “eternal life” — that is, the life of each individual human being, body and soul, after death — itself requires that injustices performed in this world be judged and punished.
Plato understood much of this, of course. He knew that unless violations of justice in this life are properly judged and punished, the world, in effect, is ill-made. At the very depth of things there would be no order or fairness. The immortality of the soul was a Socratic teaching that arose from politics — its inability to resolve the matter of actual justice in actual cities. Great and little crimes and injustices go on in every time and place, in every nation under the sun. Likewise, many great acts of heroism and virtue go unrewarded. This observation is simply a fact of abiding human experience. The only possible way for this situation to be requited such that we could say that the gods were just would be to propose after death a judgment whereby the crimes that were unpunished or unacknowledged would be reckoned with.
The pope knows his Plato. He also knows Scripture, which implies the same thing — namely, as the Creed says, that Christ “will judge the living and the dead.” But lest we think that this reflection is just so much pious myth, we notice that Benedict, a man well aware of modern philosophy, sees that the present argument for eternal life is itself the result of the modern ideologies that tried to replace it with a this-worldly theory of progress or justice that would, somewhere down the this-worldly ages, produce something perfect, a people and an age in which no injustices would exist, something caused by purely human reason and artifice.
The trouble with this thesis is that it sacrifices one generation, one class, one person to another. Once anyone dies, it is impossible to punish him or reward him for what was not done in this life. This failure would mean that most of the evil done among actual men is gotten away with. The central human problem is thus not solved by the ideologies that have tried to replace Christianity as an explanation of human purpose and destiny.
The pope cites two famous Marxist philosophers who, each in his own way, see the logic that requires a resurrection of the body or a requiting of justice. The pope is not arguing here from Christian premises. He is citing logic, philosophy that has thought through the implications of justice in terms of the whole order of the universe. This order includes both the possibility that all disorders will be punished and that all rewards will be given. The driving force of modernity has been justice. Almost all the inner-worldly solutions, however, have ended up producing something worse, since they deny a transcendent order in which judgment and justice occur and are upheld.
Thus, when Benedict states that the best argument for eternal life, for the resurrection of the body and a final judgment, comes from justice, he is not addressing modern man in primarily Christian terms: He is addressing him in his own terms. Basically, Benedict says that the resurrection of the body and a final judgment of our deeds and words that took place among men are required if justice to actual, individual persons, no matter in what time or place, is to be done. This has to take place in the flesh, as the deeds were done in the flesh.
The denial of this logic has its own consequences — namely, that the world is ill made and that protests against violations of justice are in vain. Injustice rules. Do not pretend the world makes sense in terms of justice. The case for Christianity can thus also be made from justice, thanks to the direction of modern ideology. Justice will be done, hence final judgment and the resurrection of the body in which every person as such will be present.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Joe H

    The baseball cap you wear was probably made in a factory where workers toil in abysmal conditions, surrounded by armed guards, and paid next to nothing by some Western conglomerate. This is often rationalized by arguing that life in the countryside was somehow worse than life in the factory; we’re doing these people a “favor” by giving them a job, so why should anyone complain? Many people ease their fears of habitual injustice by simply redefining what justice is in a given case.

    I don’t have trust in the “fairness” of this system – circumstances simply make the cost of only buying fair trade items (known to be produced under humane conditions where there are some semblance of labor laws and workers rights) too high. That is perhaps why it continues to be one of the luxuries of the so-called “liberal elite”, the middle class radical, or whatever you wish to call that socially-conscious, semi-affluent layer. Even most of them cannot avoid the occasional necessity of buying morally tainted goods.

    Consumers who aren’t as conscious or as affluent (or who simply don’t care) seek the lowest price for the greatest benefit, to maximize their utility in other words; the lowest price is often achieved through the cheapest labor.

    For the consumer, the labor that goes into the thing he buys is long gone, the conditions under which it is produced are out of sight and out of mind. But every product is still the embodiment of a human relation.

    Who among us would welcome China’s labor laws, or lack thereof, in the United States? Who would call their arrangements, transferred here, just? Who among us would allow our children to work under these conditions? And who would argue that what is unjust for Americans, is just for the people of China?

    If the answer to that question ever includes Christians or Catholics, then we’ve truly lost our way. Our cheap consumer goods are the result of a process that begins with the denial of a people of their human rights, their human dignity. This is systematic injustice perpetuated by the governments and major businesses of the world. We cannot escape the problem as consumers, but as activists. And our own social teaching provides the guiding light.

  • Sally R.

    Dear Joe,

    I think you are inadvertantly making Fr. Schall’s point.

    If every single action we take in this life, like putting a baseball hat on one’s head (we don’t know if Fr. Schall bought it, found it, or was given it, and we don’t know how much it cost) involves one in some cosmic injustice, then I’m sorry, but there is no way that each of us is going to be able to lead a life that balances out and eradicates all possible evils we may be implicated in. No one has the time or information or energy or money to make each and every necessary decision that will “clear” us of these kinds of injustice.

    Therefore, while we have a duty to do what we can given our situations in life, and yes trying to find some fair trade baseball hat might be something we all have the potential to do, the point is that such actions will not completely correct the cosmic injustices of this life. The resurrection is the final guarantee of such correction, and furthermore, it provides a horizon and a motive to seek to do our utmost to live a just life in the here and now.

    There was a time when I was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps that we thought that if we only bought the right kind of cheap cookies, and didn’t use plastic wrap we’d somehow save the rain forest and end injustice. “I’m living simple that others may simply live.” But my living simply didn’t seem to have any noticeable effect on people in the rainforest, or the kids down the block who were being abused by their parents.

    Such naive approaches to problems can either consume one’s life or turn one into a cynic. Or they can make one humble enough to realize that we need God to direct us, forgive us, and ultimately to bring his kingdom to birth rather than relying on our own puny efforts cut off from him. And ultimately cosmic justice can only be achieved in the resurrected life, so it’s futile to make this our goal. In effect, I think this is what this article is about.

  • Joe H

    Pardon my saying so,

    But I don’t think you got my points at all.

    First of all, I acknowledge that not everyone can do fair trade, that it is a privilege for a minority, not something necessarily accessible to all. I wasn’t being facetious. I really do not expect the average working family to be in a position to juggle their budget and pay close attention to the conditions under which their necessities are produced. Nor do I expect the average American in general to take the time to educate themselves as to the origins of their goods. I myself can’t even afford this luxury. All I can do is feel about it, for now anyway.

    That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. What I was responding to was the author’s contention that “once trust in [the global markets] fairness or justice is undermined, exchange ceases.” That was the point made, and the point I disputed. Perhaps I should have made that more clear. Exchange still takes place, but most people a) don’t know about the injustice, b) may care about injustice but can’t afford to do anything about (me), c) do know about, can afford to do something about it, but don’t care, or worst of all d) do know about it, can afford to do something, but define justice in such a way that it is no longer denied, but abundant in China.

    I also quite clearly and specifically said that we CANNOT escape the problem as consumers. That means that simply buying morally produced goods while shunning morally tainted goods is not going to solve the problem. So I reject this “naive” solution too, as a total solution, though I don’t see any reason why it can’t be a PART of the solution. It’s fine as long as the people doing it don’t delude themselves into thinking that this is all they need to do.

    Frankly I don’t have any issue with the rest of the article. And I think you’re the one who perhaps missed the point at the end of the article:

    “The denial of this logic [the Pope’s logic! JH] has its own consequences — namely, that the world is ill made and that protests against violations of justice are in vain.”

    This is NOT the conclusion we are to draw. It is not, as you say, “futile”. If it were futile then the Church would have no social doctrine, would make no effort to build a culture of life, and would be better off just handing out glasses of cyanide-laced kool-aid to its parishioners rather than preaching the Gospel and distributing the sacraments.

    All I argue is that if we have the knowledge of evil and the means by which to avoid it or fight it, does that not confer upon us a duty to do so? The real sickness is that many of us cannot even recognize evil when we see it – we have theorized it out of existence, whether it pertains to matters of morality, especially sexual morality on the left, or matters of economics and nationalism on the right.

  • Sallr R.

    From the article: –snip–

    Thus, when Benedict states that the best argument for eternal life, for the resurrection of the body and a final judgment, comes from justice, he is not addressing modern man in primarily Christian terms: He is addressing him in his own terms. Basically, Benedict says that the resurrection of the body and a final judgment of our deeds and words that took place among men are required if justice to actual, individual persons, no matter in what time or place, is to be done. This has to take place in the flesh, as the deeds were done in the flesh.

    The denial of this logic has its own consequences — namely, that the world is ill made and that protests against violations of justice are in vain. Injustice rules. Do not pretend the world makes sense in terms of justice. The case for Christianity can thus also be made from justice, thanks to the direction of modern ideology. Justice will be done, hence final judgment and the resurrection of the body in which every person as such will be present.

    — snip —-

    The point he’s making is that ultimately justice will only be accomplished in the resurrection and final judgment. I’m all in favor of trade agreements and protection for those who are oppressed. But I’ve notice a helluva lot of injustice in places where labor organizations negotiate fair agreements and people have all the power they need to protect themselves. Injustice comes in many flavors.

    The “logic” being defended is that our sense of the unfairness of it all points to the necessity of a resurrection and judgment that will set all things right. But we ourselves will also face this judgment, so we better take our actions rather seriously – hence the social doctrines of our church that seek to help us face the ultimate judgment and our duties to love others.

    Regarding the disputed remark about trust in the fairness of markets, it seems to me from the context that the author was making a much more limited point than your reading suggests. I don’t think he meant “if we doubt the goods we are buying were produced in conditions of sufficient justice, we will cease buying them.” I think he meant something much less encompassing – like if we think we are being cheated and we don’t trust the person we’re dealing with, we won’t buy from them. But this minimal kind of “justice” is not an adequate description of what we as Christians are called to, and that’s why he says it only points to the “something more” we as Christians need to pursue.

  • Joe H

    There is still “earthly justice”, otherwise we wouldn’t be called to do anything. It isn’t a call to build a utopia but it is at the least a call to do what is in our power.

    Maybe the author was making a limited point, but as you say it was a “limited” view of justice. I chose to expand it, because I don’t think these are the sort of matters you can invoke casually. I don’t fault the author or anything – he had a point to make, and he made it well. I’m not saying he should have said more, but I do think it needs to be discussed.

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