Truth and Justice

A further moral commitment, once again a commitment of Catholic Christianity which is distinctive but not unique, concerns truth and justice. Two documents that open a window on the moral teaching of Christians around the end of the first century concur in advocating the telling of truth and the practice of justice. Those who follow 'the way of death' are 'haters of the truth, lovers of lies'; 'robbery' figures among the vices that 'destroy their 'soul' (Epistle of Barnabas, 20. 1-2; see Didache, 5. 1-2).

1. Their convictions about Christ being the divine 'Truth' or the true 'Word of God' underwrote the emphasis many church writers put on speaking the truth and not lying (or making intentionally false statements). St Augustine, in particular, gave the highest importance to truth-telling and condemned lying as something that could not be changed from a bad to a good act by an added good intention. The unqualified obligation of confessors to maintain 'the seal' (see Ch. 7) and never reveal a sin confessed to them by penitents and the very serious obligation of 'professional secrecy', which concerns private and confidential matters communicated to doctors, lawyers, and others in the course of their professional work, have proved a testing-ground for grappling with the nature of truth-telling and lying. The seal of confession, the obligation to maintain professional secrecy, and other challenges have led many Catholic teachers to distinguish between real lying and false speaking. Lies or telling intentional falsehoods when others have a right to hear the truth, disrupt the ordinary trust necessary to maintain healthy human communication. But there can be occasions when other persons, whether they know it or not, do not have the right to hear the truth. Priests, doctors, lawyers, and others have a strict duty to keep secrets, and in the circumstances simply remaining silent or using merely equivocal language may not be enough to safeguard such secrets.

The modern world has often suffered from institutionalized sins against truth—in the systematic distortion or deprivation of information given to the public through press, radio, television, and textbooks produced for wide use in schools. George Orwell's prophetic 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, indicts not only totalitarian states that have misrepresented reality through their 'ministries of truth' but also modern democracies, where the media controls and twists public opinion. After a tragedy, caused perhaps by a terrorist attack, interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, and the relatives of victims perform a good service by personalizing the tragedy. But the impact becomes very slanted when the media has little or nothing to say about thousands of tragedies that happen outside the Western world. A very partial coverage of human life, suffering, and needs—not to mention the advantageous lies deliberately propagated by governments—sins against a general right to know what is happening. The media selectivity allows the public quickly to forget thousands, even millions, of refugees and other victims of conflicts, supposing that the public heard about such suffering in the first place. Regrettably many Catholics fail to share any sense of outrage against the structural perversion of truth. Courageous journalists have proved a refreshing exception; because of their tenacious pursuit of the truth, some have been eliminated by criminals and criminal politicians. Among the institutions that champion the truth, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa deserves to be praised and imitated. Probably one cannot make a firm judgement on its long-term effects. Nevertheless, provided the perpetrators repent and the victims are ready to forgive, the Commission's core principle, that the discovery of truth will help to heal social wounds caused by years of ruthless trampling on human rights, seems to be better based morally and more effective politically than what has so often happened elsewhere. A general amnesty for past crimes stops the truth from ever being heard publicly and may well provide impunity for future horrors to happen. Augustine's passion for the truth has today a national and international importance that he never imagined.

2. One of Jesus' parables pictured an 'unjust' judge who initially was too lazy to hear the case of a widow whom an anonymous person has treated badly over some issue. She is not getting her rights and lacks the support of a husband and family, but her persistent appeals eventually win the day. Her case is heard and she is granted 'justice' or what is due to her. The Christian tradition came to call justice, along with prudence, temperance, and fortitude, one of the four cardinal ('hinge') virtues, because right human conduct pivots upon them. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas described justice as 'the strong and firm will to give each his due' (ST II-II q. 58 a. 1). Citing Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (5. 1), Aquinas recognized general justice and and two kinds of particular justice, commutative and distributive (ST II-II q. 61 a. 1). In modern times Catholic thought has elaborated what is 'due' on the basis of 'social' justice. Let us look in turn at commutative, distributive, and social justice.

Commutative justice calls for fairness in agreements and transactions between individual persons or groups. It requires, for instance, that employers pay employees a just wage and provide safe and decent working conditions. On their side, employees owe their employers serious and productive work. Commutative justice supports such recent practices as the adequate labelling of food; buyers have the right to know what they are purchasing and where the products come from.

Distributive justice, as this came to be understood in modern times, deals with the ways in which societies allocate their wealth, resources, and power. But how should equalities and differences determine the distribution of resources? Should allocation be structured merely according to what people contribute, or according to what they are deemed to merit, or according to some pattern of equality? From Pope Leo XIII's ground-breaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum ('Of New Things'), Catholic teaching has emphasized the needs of people. As Leo XIII put it, 'justice demands that the interests of the poorer populations be carefully watched over by the administration' (no. 27).

A developing stress on need and a more egalitarian view of society led to the inclusion of 'social justice' as a key term in Catholic teaching from Pius XI's 1931 encyclicalQuadragesimo Anno ('In the Fortieth Year': i.e. since Rerum Novarum). Such social justice obliges individuals to participate in and contribute to society, but at the same time society should facilitate such participation. Social justice aims to remove various ways in which individuals or groups are excluded from such participation or even condemned to live on the margins of society. Pope John Paul II emphasized the virtue of solidarity as complementary to justice: it is an awareness that can bring about community relationships in human society.230

In the aftermath of Vatican II various documents issued by Paul VI, John Paul II, national conferences of bishops, and some offices of the Roman Curia continued to develop the Catholic Church's social doctrine and, in particular, to champion the rights of those millions who are victims of injustice. A synod of bishops in Rome (1971) summed up the commitment to social justice in all its forms: 'Action on behalf of justice

230 For a summary of and selection from documents on the Catholic Church's social doctrine from Leo XIII, see ch. 21 of ND, 899—972.

Fig. 13. Dorothy Day, peace campaigner and social activist, testifying in the USA before an official Catholic hearing on liberty and justice in preparation for the 1976 bicentennial celebration. (Catholic News Service.)

Fig. 13. Dorothy Day, peace campaigner and social activist, testifying in the USA before an official Catholic hearing on liberty and justice in preparation for the 1976 bicentennial celebration. (Catholic News Service.)

Fig. 14. On 3 February 1986 Pope John Paul II holds the hands of Mother Teresa of Calcutta after visiting one of her homes for the destitute and showing once again his deep regard for her holiness. (Popperfoto.)

and participation in the transformation of the world' are 'a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation' (De lustitia in Mundo, 6; ND 2159). Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928), Jon Sobrino (b. 1938), and other leaders of Latin-American liberation theology endorsed this call for a worldwide justice that should deliver the great masses of poor people.

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