Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Justice

Cormac Burke FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2013

Mgr Burke continues his series of reflections on the cardinal virtues and their place in recovering an authentic understanding of womanhood. The article that follows was originally delivered as a lecture at Strathmore University, Nairobi.


Justice is the virtue by which we habitually give to each his due: what is owed to him or her. Justice also applies to our relations with the governing authority, or the government with us: what is owed in one direction or another. Most questions of justice arise between individuals; then we have what is termed commutative justice.
A just society is one where each gets his or her due. I have a right to what is due to me. And by the same token I have a duty to respect or give what is due to others. The upsetting factor here is the tendency, deeply rooted in all of us, to think much more of "my rights" than of "my duties". That self-centred tendency is the main obstacle to a just and harmonious society and to the personal, human fulfilment of each one.

Pope John Paul II points out that "if the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another... society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds" (Evangelium Vitae, 20).

We live in an aggrieved world. An ever-growing number of people feel exploited, victimised, and entitled to compensation. There is a real temptation for people to take themselves too seriously and lose their sense of humour. They can no longer laugh at adversity and still less at themselves. They tend to sink into self-pity, which is the most miserable type of selfishness, as well as perhaps the most potent factor for loneliness and self-isolation. These tendencies need to be borne in mind because they can powerfully inhibit a proper understanding of justice.

One must not take as one's own what is not one's own. If one does, one must give it back. This of course applies also to gifts. I can give what is my own; then it becomes another's possession, not mine. I cannot take that back, without injustice.

It is against justice to violate the rights of another by taking or damaging what is his or hers, and not just in relation to material goods. A person has a right to their good name. Gossip (undermining the good name of another, even if the faults spoken of are true) is one of the most common and most mean-spirited faults against justice: mean-spirited because one takes away from another without any gain to oneself - except the sad satisfaction of giving vent to envy or dislike.

Issues of justice arise when there is a contract or a mutual agreement between two people by which one does
something for the other and the other agrees to give something equivalent in return; this equivalence is what is termed the quid pro quo. For instance, one agrees to build a house for another and the other agrees to pay for the finished house. Or two people may enter a partnership to achieve something together, with or perhaps without a clear agreement as to a specific division of responsibilities and payments or returns.

Justice and Marriage

Matters of justice might seem to have little to do with whether one is a man or a woman. A thief is a thief whether a he or a she. And it is fraud whether one defrauds a man or a woman. Yet it is true that sex and justice may on occasions have a particular relationship. This certainly arises in that very special area of human life which is marriage.

It is too often said today that marriage is a matter of love, and hence if love dies, marriage dies with it. This reflects a false idea of marriage and a poor idea of marital love. Marriage is more than an emotion; marriage changes love into a lifelong commitment to be mutually faithful and to accept and care for the children that may be born of this commitment.

We can speak of marriage in different ways. It is a sacrament. It is a covenant. It is a contract. These last two terms mean basically the same thing: that to marry creates a real legal relationship, with specific rights and obligations between a woman and a man: in relation to each other, to society, and to God.

What is the object of marital consent? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives an appealing but also a very self-committing description, saying that consent is the act "by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another" (no. 1639). So the marriage contract or covenant means that each spouse undertakes to give his or her own self, and each undertakes to accept the self-gift of the other, as she or he actually is.

But what exactly does this mean? Does "giving oneself" actually mean that each spouse becomes the possession of the other, losing all rights over himself or herself? No, that is not possible. There are certain personal rights and duties that are untransferable; for instance, the right and duty to work for one's own salvation; or, for that matter, the right to vote in an election according to one's personal convictions. Nevertheless, the phrase "mutually give and accept each other" has a real and profound meaning that corresponds precisely to the nature of true spousal love.

Two people in love marry because they want to be united, to be one. He wants to feel that she is his, and she that he is hers. Now, for a man and a woman to become truly one is not possible. What they can become, in the biblical phrase, is "one flesh", which occurs through the conjugal act carried out in all its human fullness, meaning and dignity. There the spouses achieve conjugal oneness as they in effect say to each another: I share with you what I will not share with anyone else. I give to you what I give to no one else, and that is my seed, my procreative power, which, united to your seed, can incarnate our love, take on flesh that will be the living fruit of our love, the proof also that we want our love to be a gift to God and to the future.1

I have expanded on this at length elsewhere.2 Holding to our present topic, let us look a bit more closely at those issues of justice involved in this divine plan of the union of man and woman in marriage.

It should be obvious that the greatest infringement of justice in this matter is when husband or wife, by having sex with a third party, violates the exclusive right to intercourse which they have solemnly pledged to their spouse. The crime of adultery is not only a grave sin against chastity but equally a grave violation of justice towards the other spouse and towards the children there may be. Given the close association of the sexes in modern working life, men or women need to observe delicate respect for the commitments of married colleagues; carelessness here could make them responsible for the collapse of a marriage and the destruction of a family.

The "Marriage Debt"

Now let us examine what is due in justice between husband and wife themselves. Moral theologians would probably single out the debitum or "marriage debt", that is, the right to conjugal intercourse which each spouse has and owes in regard to the other. It is a matter of justice that binds whenever reasonably requested by the other. The husband should know when it is not reasonable to make that request: for instance, when his wife is ill or at periods late in pregnancy or just after childbirth.

The debt is of course equally owed by the wife. One particular case might be referred to in this regard, and that's where a wife denies the conjugal act to the husband because she is annoyed with him for some real or imagined fault. This form of vengeance, taking advantage of male weakness, is unwise as well as usually unjust. It solves nothing and tends to make relations worse.

Married life cannot be lived on the basis of tit-for-tat. When justice becomes an issue between husband and wife, the marriage is entering serious difficulties. After all, where there is love and above all committed love, matters of justice, of rights and wrongs, claims and debts, should be easily solved. Love does not stand on its rights; it forgives. Love does not think of its rights or measure its wrongs. To do so is to fall into calculation. And love does not calculate. It does not centre on its own "rights", but thinks of the rights, or the simple likes, of the other.

A wife might say that in that case her husband will always win. A husband, equally, might say that in that case his wife will always win. Yet it is not a question of winning but of loving. If one were to try to base a marriage on a strict quid pro quo, on well-measured calculations, giving as much as the other gives, it would not work. But then he will take advantage of me, the wife might say. He might, but a husband certainly won't learn to love his wife more if he sees that she is a calculator. After all, Jesus himself said that it is happier to give than to receive. But our modern world seems far from understanding or heeding that divine pointer to happiness.

The individualist who marries just out of interest in his or her personal happiness, no more, is not really in love, except with himself or herself. Even if we take the frequent case of a slightly toned-down individualism - I'll make some effort to make you happy, provided you make as much of an effort to keep me happy - that is not married love either. It may indeed be the approach of both spouses; but it is still the meeting of two selfishnesses, of two fundamentally inward-looking persons, who are simply not up to forging a happy marriage.

In most cases this is the result of a lack of real marital commitment from the very beginning. In the words of Pope John Paul II: "The fear of making a permanent commitment can change the mutual love of husband and wife into two loves of self - two loves existing side by side until they end in separation."3

The problem that John Paul warns against is not inevitable. Self-love remains in all of us as an obstacle to growth in true oblative love. A true commitment to marriage gives the grace and strength to gradually overcome individual self-love, to learn to understand the other in depth, to learn to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, to be tolerant with the defects of the other and intolerant with one's own defects.

In short, married love, to be true, must be more determined to make the other person happy than to be made happy by that other person. Otherwise it is not true married love and will be too weak to make either happy. That is one side of the story.

However, there are further aspects to marriage where important issues of justice enter. Justice towards the children. Justice towards the world. Justice towards God. Let us take a brief look at these, bearing two important points in mind. First, nothing that follows will have any impact on those for whom marriage is simply a self-satisfying venture and who are incapable of seeing it as a calling, a mission, and a commitment of service and love. And secondly, in principle, the themes of justice and mission in marriage apply equally to both husband and wife. Yet the bringing of children into the world asks more of the woman than of the man. To regard this as an unfair burden is the modern feminist tendency. It takes prudence and wisdom, as well as fortitude, on a woman's part to see it as adistinctive feminine privilege.

Justice Towards the Children

Children are not an optional extra to marriage. To choose to marry is to choose to found a family; that is the only natural approach, and the only one likely to give happiness.4 So, the other side of the story is that couples have a mission to form a family, open to the natural fruit of their love.

This is a God-given mission. Most married people are strangely unaware of what this implies, in terms of both privilege and responsibility. They think that the number of children, along with how spaced out they are in age, is their choice and no one else should have a say in the matter.

Well, first of all the children should have a say. The spouses are called to be parents, to form a family; but not a family most convenient to their calculated way of thinking, but one most generously conducive to the children making it up. That generally means a family of four or five children (or more), who are close enough in age to be able to fight together, to learn to make up, to realise that one cannot always have one's own way, to be loyal to each other. And all of that under the dedicated and impartial refereeing of the parents, who too are kept together by their shared resolve to teach humanity to the unruly brood God has given them.

Couples marrying are called not just to be a good husband and wife to each other, but to be good parents together towards their children. There are fewer greater missions: to form a real family where children find the atmosphere that helps mature them as honest, generous and responsible citizens.

Justice Towards Society

Modern western society is beset with problems. Humanly speaking it can be said to be sick.5 The problem is not poverty; most people in the West have plenty to live on. There is indeed a population problem, but it is not one of over-population but of an ageing population (more and more old people, fewer and fewer young) and a people divided against itself, the old fearing the young and the young despising the old. One of the reasons the young have lost respect for the old is that the old perhaps never showed them much respect or love. What or who today inspires a natural respect? Loss of respect for everyone and everything is a hallmark of a civilisation in ultimate decline.

Nothing today is held as sacred, least of all sex and marriage. Chastity, before marriage or in marriage, is ridiculed; only fools would try to hold by it. The family means nothing. Why build a home when a mall or a disco is much more fun? Having children? Well, perhaps just one or two, outside or inside marriage, may give some satisfaction to me, but a child is such a burden! With an approach like that it is no wonder that Western society has been summed up as "The Lonely Crowd".

In the developing societies the problem is not overpopulation but corruption and mis-government. The solution will only come from the children of generous parents who have devoted themselves to creating a family with a distinctive and cheerful personality, where the atmosphere is one of generosity, mutual respect, honesty, loyalty and pride in one's human ideals.

Here in Nairobi we are not strangers to the western consumerist and hedonistic mentality; far from it. We can surrender to it, and lapse each one into a selfish, pointless and lonely life. Or we can fight to give to our children and to the future what we owe them. And so, whatever else happens, we won't die spiritually bankrupt.

Justice Before God

Marriage is not a human invention. It was instituted by God as a privileged gift to man and woman. People can misuse or despise that gift as they are doing today. The great task is to restore its dignity. That will only be done through couples who see marriage as a God-given gift, rejoice in its challenge and beauty, and respect the nature God gave it. Then it will come to life again.

God is the creator of marriage, and a party to each marriage covenant. He blesses the spouses and gives freely to them. Through the Church he teaches them their mutual rights and duties. But he also has his rights in regard to married couples - which means that, in marrying, a man and a woman also take on special duties towards God: duties to marry so as to create a home, duties to accept generously the children God wishes to give them,6 duties to maintain a united marriage and a united home that will both keep the spouses engaged in the task of learning to love, and help the children grow in the reflection of their parents' and of God's love.

God does not want children to be born outside wedlock, or to grow up in a broken home. Nevertheless, he loves all children. What he wants is that all be born and brought up in families where the parents, however poorly, reflect his fatherly love. God's clear right in this, as well as the clear duty of couples, stems from the very institution of marriage.

How easily we ignore or try to explain away the very first command God gave to Adam and Eve and to all married people: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:38).

Are there unwanted children in the world? Not for God! Although, sadly, it would seem that there are for world planners, and, more sadly still, for many parents. In a real sense they are violating God's will in depriving him of children he wanted and that they themselves in time would have learned to love and treasure.

Spouses need to sense the pride as well as the challenge of this God-given mission and duty. Facing up to it is the only way for persevering and growing in married love; the only way to that relative personal and family happiness that God wishes for married people here on earth, and for the absolute happiness that he wishes for all in heaven.


Our topic is justice. So, as we conclude, we must emphasise that those who marry are in debt towards God. They owe him what he has entrusted to them. Recalling the parable of the talents, we can say that the special talent entrusted to the married couple is the generous formation of a family, and the determination to create a bright and cheerful home. Those who, at the end, can render a positive account of how they have administered that talent, will be assured of a quick entry to the joy of the Lord.

Finally, apart from being a matter of justice, it is also of course a question of faith and trust in God - always tests of the Christian life. As the prophet Isaiah says: "The Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. At the sound of your cry, when he hears it, he will answer you. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it', when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left" (Is 30:19-21).

God indicates the way. The question is whether we trust and love him enough to walk in it.


1'In the measure in which one grasps this, one will be closer to understanding how a
contraceptive marital act does not unite the spouses, but tends rather to separate
2Covenanted Happiness, Scepter Press, Chapter 8.
3Homily, 7 Oct 1979 (Washington, DC): https://www.vatican.va/holy\_father/
john\_paul\_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf\_jp-ii\_hom\_l 9791007\_usa- was hington\_
4We leave aside the few cases where a couple tarn out to be naturally sterile.
5It is John Paul II who makes this grave diagnosis: "our society... from various points
of view, is a society which is sick, and is creating profound distortions in man" (Letter
to Families, 1994, no. 20).
6Allowing for the use, when justified, of NFP; cf CCC 2368

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