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Katie van Schaijik

Theological virtues don’t obviate the claims of natural justice

May. 1, 2010, at 6:31pm

John Zmirak has posted a thoughtful article over at Inside Catholic touching on an issue much on my mind in recent years, viz., the relation between justice and mercy.

This is the stuff of many long discussions. For now, just a few summary paragraphs:

There’s one sure test for determining whether an action really lives up to the theological virtue we hope we’re practicing. It’s simple: Does this action violate any natural virtues along the way? For instance, a citizen who listens to clerics pontificate about politics and follows their lead in supporting policies that destroy the sovereignty and civic order of his country may think that by deferring to churchmen he is practicing the virtue of Faith. But if the laws he favors violate Justice, he’s deeply mistaken. A priest who fears that his congregation won’t obey the moral law, so for the sake of their salvation he decides not to preach on controversial topics like contraception—how sound is his Hope for their souls?

Simple Justice is what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt. We cannot violate that Justice in pursuit of Faith, Hope, or Charity. When we contemplate any action that stokes in us the sentiment that we’re being “more radically Christian” and really “living the gospel” by going beyond “merely natural” virtues, every alarm bell in our conscience should start going off. We can no more attain theological virtues by violating the natural ones than we can build the dome on a cathedral by pulling steel from its foundations.

We cannot practice Charity toward the poor through confiscation from the rich; only if something is owed the poor in simple Justice should the state make sure they get it (as Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum). At the height of the high Middle Ages, the Church never furthered the salvation of souls by confiscating non-Christian children, baptizing them, and rearing them in the Faith. At age 18 I wondered why not, till a wise priest explained to me that the natural rights of pagan parents could not be torn away in such a “higher cause.” Likewise, the natural rights of parents, and the state that represents them, to defend their children from rape cannot be sacrificed on the altar of priestly solidarity, compassion for “troubled brother priests,” or the need to avoid bad publicity for the Church

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