The Virtue of Justice: The Antidote to Corruption

Since the beginning of 2024, Pope Francis has been addressing the theme of vices and virtues at his Wednesday general audiences. Read below his catechesis on the virtue of justice, as delivered on April 3, 2024:

Here we are at the second of the cardinal virtues: today we will talk about justice. It is the quintessential social virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour” (no. 1807). This is justice. Often, when justice is mentioned, the motto that represents it is also quoted: “unicuique suum ” — that is, “to each his own”. It is the virtue of law, that seeks to regulate relations between people equitably.

It is represented allegorically by the scales, because it aims to “even the score” between people, especially when they risk being distorted by some imbalance. Its purpose is that everyone in society be treated in accordance with the dignity proper to them. But the ancient masters had already taught that in order for this to occur, other virtuous attitudes are also necessary, such as benevolence, respect, gratitude, affability, and honesty: virtues that contribute to a good coexistence between people. Justice is a virtue for the good coexistence of people.

We all understand that justice is fundamental for peaceful coexistence in society: a world without laws respecting rights would be a world in which it is impossible to live; it would resemble a jungle. Without justice, there is no peace. Indeed, if justice is not respected, conflicts arise. Without justice, the law of the prevalence of the strong over the weak becomes entrenched, and this is not just.

But justice is a virtue that acts on both a large and small scale. It has to do not only with the courtroom, but also with the ethics that characterize our daily lives. It establishes sincere relations with others: it realizes the precept of the Gospel, according to which Christian speech is “simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mt 5:37). Halftruths, double-talk intended to deceive one’s neighbour, the reticence that conceals true intentions, are not attitudes in keeping with justice. The righteous person is upright, simple and straightforward. He does not wear masks, he presents himself for what he is and he speaks the truth. The words “thank you” are often on his lips. He knows that no matter how generous we strive to be, we always remain indebted to our neighbour. If we love, it is also because we were loved first.

In tradition we can find countless descriptions of the righteous person. Let us look at some of them. The righteous person reveres laws and respects them, knowing that they constitute a barrier protecting the defenceless from the tyranny of the powerful. The righteous person does not only think of his own individual well-being but desires the good of society as a whole. Therefore, he does not give in to the temptation to think only of himself and of taking care of his own affairs, however legitimate they may be, as if they were the only thing that exists in the world. The virtue of justice makes it clear — and places this need in the heart — that there can be no true good for oneself if there is not also the good of all.

Therefore, the righteous person keeps watch over his own behaviour, so that it is not harmful to others. If he makes a mistake, he apologizes. The righteous man always apologizes. In some situations, he goes so far as to sacrifice a personal good to make it available to the community. He desires an orderly society, where people give lustre to the office they hold, and not the office that gives lustre to people. He abhors special treatments and does not trade favours. He loves responsibility and is exemplary in promoting legality. That [legality] indeed, is the path of justice, the antidote to corruption: how important it is to educate people, especially the young, in the culture of legality! It is the way to prevent the cancer of corruption and to eradicate crime, pulling the rug from under its feet.

Furthermore, the righteous person shuns harmful behaviour such as slander, perjury, fraud, usury, mockery and dishonesty. The righteous person keeps his word, returns what he has borrowed, pays fair wages to all labourers: a man who does not pay fair wages to workers is not just; he is unjust. He is careful not to make reckless judgments of his neighbours, and defends the reputation and good name of others.

None of us knows if the righteous people in our world are numerous or if they are as rare as precious pearls. But they are people who draw grace and blessings both upon themselves and upon the world in which they live. They are not losers compared to those who are “cunning and shrewd”, for, as Scripture says, “He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honour” (Pr 21:21). The righteous are not moralists who don the robe of the censor, but upright people who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6), dreamers who yearn in their hearts for universal brotherhood. And, today especially, we are all in great need of this dream. We need to be righteous men and women, and this will make us happy.

Pope Francis