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Bishop's Column

Bishop Barbarito Column
February 23, 2024

God’s Justice is His Love

This week, on Feb. 20, we commemorated the World Day of Social Justice. Justice, as it is joined to love, is a good reflection during the season of Lent. As Pope Francis has consistently emphasized, it is the love of God which always takes precedence in His dealing with us, and it is love which should always take precedence in our dealing with others. Love and justice are by no means opposed to each other and are joined in a very intimate manner.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes justice in conjunction with God’s love (1991) and the very essence of God Himself (271). The Catechism emphasizes that God created human nature in an original state of holiness and justice which was intended to share in God’s divine life (375). The Catechism teaches that justice is a cardinal virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give our due to God and neighbor. It states, “Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice towards men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. By its very definition, justice and love are part of the same dynamic which flows from God Himself. In this context, the Lord proclaims in the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’ and ‘Blessed are the merciful’ (cf. Mt 5:3-10).”

St. John Paul II was a great proponent of the importance of the relationship between love and justice. In one of his very first audiences, he explained how justice is fundamental to our coexistence on this earth. However, he stressed that one cannot talk about justice without love. Pope Benedict XVI was also a great teacher in regard to the relationship between love and justice. In his Lenten message of 2010, he expounded that justice can only be understood in the perspective of God’s plan in creation. He stressed that what is “due” to us in justice cannot be guaranteed by the law but only given to us as a gift from God. It is God’s love that is fundamental as the most basic need of all people since God created us in His image and likeness to love. Therefore, love and justice are intrinsically joined.

One of the great Churchmen of the 20th century was John Cardinal O’Connor, who was Archbishop of New York from 1984 until 2000. Cardinal O’Connor, a former Navy admiral, was known for his courageous preaching of the Gospel in the midst of New York City. A good friend of Mother Teresa, he was a well-loved Archbishop who always had the needs of the poor and marginalized before him. An extremely hard worker who found it difficult to sleep, he would sometimes go out at night to assist AIDS patients at local hospitals. His Episcopal motto was “There can be no love without justice.” By this he did not mean that justice came first and that love followed, but that love and justice work hand in hand. Justice is a component of love, which recognizes the dignity and rights of every human person. Love does the same and, in mercy, is always open to those who repent of whatever it is in their lives that causes injustice. Love, by no means, condones injustice but always acts in a manner that makes true justice ever present. How very fitting was the motto of Cardinal O’Connor, who truly lived love in his life and was a proponent of the justice that arises from it.

We just celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Shortly before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln was known to have said, “I have always found that mercy bears greater fruits than strict justice.” His words are significant ones in showing the relationship between love and justice, and justice as an integral part of love. These words also show how easy it is to have a misunderstanding of what justice is all about. Lincoln specifically speaks of “strict justice,” which is simply an observance of the law without any recourse to its consequences and the people it affects. This type of justice is not in keeping with the justice which is of the essence of God’s nature, nor with the virtue of justice. This type of justice is what characterized the scribes and Pharisees, who simply were interested in the appearance of justice, especially in placing themselves over others by denying mercy. It was this “strict justice” which Jesus continually condemned in the Pharisees and to which Jesus was diametrically opposed. It is easy to place burdens on others through the application of “strict justice” by denying the true meaning of justice, which is an essential part of love and mercy.

Last month, we celebrated the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke very inspirational words about the relationship between love and justice in his talk to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Aug. 16, 1967. He said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” To understand the full impact of these words, we must see them in the context of God’s power as described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, referring to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “God’s Almighty power is in no way arbitrary: ‘In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom and justice are all identical. Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be His just will or His wise intellect.’” The essence of God’s power is His love. Again, in God justice and love flow from His nature and always work together. That is why it is so fitting to realize that God’s justice stands for everything that is against love and flows from him in the fullness of mercy.

Pope Francis once stated that “Where there is no mercy — there is no justice.” His words mean exactly the same as the episcopal motto of Cardinal O’Connor, “There can be no love without justice,” and bring light to Abraham Lincoln’s words that “Mercy bears greater fruits than strict justice” as well as the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that “Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” During Lent, it is well for us to reflect upon the reality of justice which goes hand in hand with love. In facing the many challenges of our society today in regard to the dignity of human life, the unborn child in a mother’s womb, the infirm, the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless, the immigrant, and in dealing with many of the difficult situations that face us and our families, it is good to realize that love brings justice and justice brings love!

Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito