Lesson 7b: Love and Justice

Since Jesus taught that Christian Love sums up the Law and the prophets it sums up the Ten Commandments which are the center of the Old Covenant that is fulfilled in the Great Commandment of Love and Neighbor. But as I have said already, one cannot really love unless one is first just to others and, in a sense, to oneself, since we cannot honestly love others unless we love the self that God meant us to be. This justice requires us first of all to keep the first three of the Ten Commandments. (1) To belief and honor only the one true God and not to substitute for this true God a false god or idol. (2) To show respect for God's Name, i.e., to give Him priority in all that we think, do or say. (3) To strive that his Kingdom come, i.e., that his will be done by all. This form of Justice is called the Virtue of Religion, or the consistent ability to show reverence and obedience to God.

In the Fourth Commandment (Protestant and Jews number the commands somewhat differently), we are told to "honor your father and mother" and this kind of virtue is called the Virtue of Obedience. It also applies to obedience to the laws of our government (the Virtue of Patriotism), and to others having authority for us. In all these cases we must obey legitimate authority as long as it remains within its proper limits, but we must always "obey God rather than man" if authorities exceed their proper limits.

The Fifth to Eighth Commandments express our respect for the rights of others. The Fifth Command against killing the innocent protects our fundamental right to life and security. The Sixth Commandment demands that we not commit adultery or make wrong uses of sex other than its proper use in marriage for which God designed it. Adultery also destroys the fundamental love and trust of the couple on which family life depends. Thus it injures the community of the family that is the basis of all human society and without which children cannot be properly educated. By the Seventh Command we must not steal, because people have a right to such private property as is necessary for them to carry on their own life and work. Without such private property the continuity of family life is imperiled. By the Eighth Command we must not lie, because this destroys the trust necessary for social life not only of the family but of the larger community and deprives others of their rights to the information they need and that is one of the chief benefits of community.

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments make clear what Jesus was to emphasize in the Sermon on the Mount, that external obedience to others' rights will fail if we do not realize that injustice begins in the interior of the heart. Thus these Commandments forbid us to deliberately consent to wrong desires, for example, desires to get wrong sexual pleasure (Ninth Command) or envy of another's goods (Tenth Command).

Justice in the strict sense has three aspects. First we must pay our debts to others (Exchange Justice), since all social trust is based on this kind of fairness. Second, as citizens or officials we must seek fairness in the distribution of the common good of the community (Distributive Justice), so that the needs of all are met. Third, we must obey the legitimate laws of the community without which the rights of all cannot be preserved (Legal Justice). Today when we talk of "social justice" we mean the last two of these, namely obedience to laws that distribute the goods and services of the community to all members according to their needs. This does not require exact equality, but rather that each contribute to the community what they can above what they need and that each receive what they need but cannot supply for themselves. Auxiliary Virtues associated with Justice are Patriotism in relation to our country, Truthfulness on which all fairness to others is based, Gratitude to others for what they do for us, and Leniency that makes us less harsh on those who may have infringed our rights. The Gift of the Holy Spirit that strengthens Justice is the Gift of Piety that makes us respectful of others and reverent to those in authority.

Especially important in the Social Doctrine of the church is the Principle of Subsidiarity. This Principle is based on the fact that people usually know their own needs and circumstances better than anyone else does. Hence in any community in the hierarchy of authority (a) those most immediately affected should make the practical decisions. At the same time (b) those in authority at higher levels who have responsibility for the unified action and common good of that wider community also have the duty to supervise decisions made at a lower level. If it becomes evident that these lower level decisions are unjust or inadequate for the common good the higher authority must intervene to supply this defect. Finally (c) this higher level has the duty not to retain decision in such matters that require correction but to help those at lower levels improve their decision making, then return it to that level. This is summed up in the term "participation" in a community, whether secular or ecclesial. Any community is healthiest when it has a high level of cooperation in its life and mission by its members at every level. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, explains this by comparing the Christian community to the body of Christ, which has many members, each contributing its special gifts to the whole, but within a certain order of authority, and all respecting the contribution and needs of the others.


  1. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, Chapter 7 and 8

  2. John Paul II, On the Centenary of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (Centesimus Annus), 1991.


  1. What is "subsidiarity"?

  2. What is "social justice?"

  3. Why can there be no true love without true justice?

  4. How can mercy be greater than justice?

  5. Explain 1 Peter 3:13-17 urging Christians to respect the Roman Government when the Book of Revelation portrays the Roman Government as "the whore of Bayblon." (Rev 17-18)?


    Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top