Religion and Its Duties Are Not Only an Act of Justice Toward God, but Something We Owe One Another

blog-12.13In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the virtue of religion within his treatise on justice. This surprises some, who expect it to be treated under the theological virtue of faith. But Thomas clearly states that religion is not a theological virtue. Theological virtues have God Himself for their object, whereas religion has as its object the reverence, worship, and honor due to God (cf IIa, IIae 81.5). Religion is a matter of justice because we owe God a debt of honor, worship, and gratitude (cf IIa, IIae 81.2).

I would like to briefly consider an extended notion of this concept (that the virtue of religion is a part of justice), drawing it out in a way that St. Thomas permits but does not himself develop (likely due to the fact that atheism and other forms of irreligion were less widespread in his times).

We can see how religion and the internal and external acts associated with it (devotion, prayer, adoration, sacrificial offerings, tithes, vows, etc.) are a matter of justice in relation to God. God is worthy of our praise. As the author, sustainer, and giver of every good and perfect gift, He is owed a great debt of gratitude from us. It is our duty to praise Him.

In an extended sense, there is also some duty we have to one another and to the common good by the virtue of religion and its acts. St. Thomas admits this, but does not develop it as such when he says,

Religion is referred to those things one exhibits to one’s human kindred if we take the term religion in a broad sense, but not if we take it in its proper sense (IIa, IIae 88.1 ad 2).

St. Thomas goes on to say that in its strict and proper sense, the virtue of religion is primarily directed to God alone, to whom we owe the debt of honor, reverence, and gratitude. But he does permit a secondary and/or broader understanding of religion that includes certain duties to one another. It is this that I would like to develop, given the modern tendency to marginalize religion as a real duty to God or to one another.

The usual notion today about belief and religion is who cares whether someone goes to church or not, or whether someone believes in God and worships Him or not? This attitude is common even among churchgoing Catholics. Whether or a not a person believes and observes religious duties is relegated to the purely private realms of who they are. Religious practice is not considered essential in the process of sizing up the character of a particular person or of people in general. Note, however, that this is very different from a mere sixty years ago, when Church attendance was considered an essential aspect of a person’s character.

I would argue that we need to rediscover religious practice as an aspect of justice for several reasons, not the least of which is the accountability to which it summons us. Let’s look at several reasons why religious practice and faith are important and related to justice.

I. It indicates some knowledge that we are accountable to someone higher than ourselves, someone to whom we must render an account – This assists us and motivates us to consider more seriously the consequences of our actions on others. This works in both directions. We are encouraged to acts of altruism by the reward that such acts will bring to us on the Day of Judgment. We are dissuaded from evil acts because we know that we will one day have to account for them before a just God, who does not leave malicious acts unpunished.

Although today many like to say that it doesn’t matter whether or not a person believes in God, we are courting danger when increasing numbers of people in our culture conduct their lives thinking that they will never have to account to God for what they have done or what they have failed to do. Such a world can become very dark and evil, as any study of the godless regimes of Nazi Germany, or the atheistic communist regimes of the U.S.S.R. and China (among others) will show. In our own post-Christian culture, things have gotten dark very quickly as God has been marginalized and “re-imagined” through many modern heresies. Many no longer worship the God of the Scriptures but rather a personally fashioned god (an idol who is made in their image and just happens to agree with them on everything). A world in which many live in a way that effectively denies that they will ever have to render an account is an increasingly dark and dangerous world.

Someone may object by saying, “I know some atheists and some people who aren’t religiously observant, but who are good people.” Even if it can be demonstrated that a certain individual is “good” due to natural virtues, it still remains a dangerous situation when increasingly large numbers of a culture, community, or nation do not think that they will ever have to account to someone who has the power to reward or punish them justly.

Irreligion and unbelief are an injustice not only to God but also to fellow human beings, who are endangered by the spread of unbelief and lack of accountability. To be religiously observant renders a debt not only to God but to one another. To report regularly for religious instruction and be admonished and reminded of the requirements of justice and charity is itself an act of justice toward others. When I submit myself to holy instruction that admonishes me to remain within the bounds set for me by God, when I submit to being reminded that I will one day be accountable to God, I justly partake of a remedy for bad behavior that harms both me and others. I owe a certain debt to others to partake of such remedies.

Clearly, then, the battle against irreligion, atheism, and false religion is also part of justice. None of these are part of a healthy culture and it is unjust to allow them to go unchecked or unaddressed.

II. Religion is at the heart of culture – The English world “culture” has at its root the word “cult.” While the word “cult” has taken on negative connotations, it originally referred simply to faith or worship. What makes for a culture is a common set of beliefs and practices and the looking above to God, to whom we must render an account.

We in the West are currently engaged in an experiment that seeks to assert that a culture can exist and be healthy without a shared “cultus” (i.e., a shared worship and reference to one God). So far, the experiment is yielding poor results. Something higher than we are (i.e., a shared doctrine to which there is basic agreement), someone higher than we are, must serve as the basis for unity in a culture. Without this we have what we have today: power struggle, confusion, and the tyranny of relativism. When reason and a body of shared faith no longer serve as reference points, the result is ever-deepening confusion about even the most basic truths (e.g., who is male, who is female, what is marriage, and why these things matter).

This confusion and refusal to admit what even common sense reveals also results in power struggles and the tyranny of relativism, because the ones who “win” these debates are not those who appeal best to reason and a shared body of truth, but rather those who have the most money, power, access, and influence. And when they have it, watch out if you don’t agree with them! The PC police will be coming to get you to force your compliance.

Religion and its cultivation are part of justice because we look above to God and His revealed truth as a way to unite us. This forms the basis of wider peace and understanding. Until recently, although there were sectarian differences in America, most Christians and Jews were in agreement on the basic moral vision of the Scriptures: duty to God, worship of and accountability to Him, duty to parents and authority, respect for life, the purpose of sex and its relationship to marriage and family, the duty to respect the property of others and to be just to the poor, the duty to tell the truth, and the need to avoid greed. Even if we did not live these out perfectly, the basic agreement was there and a culture could be experienced out of a shared “cultus.” Even in our most serious flaws (e.g., slavery and racism) it was ultimately the appeal to the deepest notions of faith and biblical justice that prevailed.

Beginning with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, much of this basic consensus has disappeared. Today our culture has arguably become an “anti-culture” that promotes chaos, confusion, decadence, and darkness.

The refusal to be instructed and to submit to religious truth means being willing to inflict injustice on others. Living selfishly with no relation to a body of time-tested truth, and encouraging others to do so, ushers in great dangers and divisions and thus serves injustice.

This understanding of culture (shared beliefs) precisely explains the terrible clash between Islam and Christianity, especially in places like Europe and Africa. While some still hope for a pluralistic basis for culture in such places, the very word “culture” suggests that two such very different notions of God cannot likely co-exist within one culture; one will ultimately win. This is all the more reason for us to intensify our adherence to the Christian faith and to strengthen Christian culture; as an act of justice to one another and an act of honor to God, who gave us the truth of our faith.

III. Religion assists holiness – At the heart of true religious observance is the quest for holiness. As we become more holy we become ipso facto more just, kind, and charitable to others. We have duties not only God and to our own self to pursue holiness, but also to others, since our improved sanctity is a blessing to all. Refusing to pursue this is an injustice.

Therefore, have little to do with notions that marginalize faith and the role of the Judeo-Christian vision. Religion is about justice. St. Thomas rightly places it there. And though my reflection here is about a secondary sense of religion and its justice, that sense has risen to the fore in an age of increasing unbelief.

Naysayers will often point to “religious wars” of the past. But a more careful analysis of those wars shows more of a focus on land, money, power, and past grievances (all the typical causes of war), even if cloaked in religious language. Our darkest and most hideous wars came in the 20th century, as unbelief and atheism rose. Nothing from the more distant past remotely compares with the bloodshed, genocide, and body counts of 20th century conflicts; the numbers reach into the hundreds of millions.

Thus, note well the relationship of religion to justice. There is justice to God, but also justice to one another, as we work to preserve the concept of accountability to God, the true basis of culture, and to grow in personal holiness that of its nature loves both God and neighbor and so fulfills the law.

3 Replies to “Religion and Its Duties Are Not Only an Act of Justice Toward God, but Something We Owe One Another”

  1. Would love to hear your thoughts on the notion of religious freedom – both according to our nation’s founding and our laws, and according to our Catholic faith – as it relates to what you have written here. We have a commitment to religious freedom in both cases, but yet it seems this must be limited when it undermines the common good of a nation. Many Catholics favor no religious restrictions and that this is what it means to be a good Catholic, but it seems that this opens the floodgates to the eradication of Christianity itself, for example with threats of spreading atheism or Islam – as Church history well attests. Yet religious restrictions can in turn be used against Catholics (for example our battle with the HHS mandate). To the enemies of the Church it appears that we want to exercise our own religious freedom without any limits while restricting the religious freedom of others. But when you apply reason to lawmaking, of course Christianity prevails as the one most conducive to the common good, and it is not in a nation’s best interest to have no preference in matters of religion, as you have laid out in this post. Sorry for the rambling, just trying to think clearly through all of these contemporary issues according to Catholic teaching and our American constitution.

  2. Also, on a related note would love to hear your thoughts regarding the movement going on in Poland – vibrant nationalism (or emphasis on shared cultus) combined with vibrant Catholicism going on in Poland under Father Jacek Miedlar … is this where the virtue lies in the relationship of religion to justice in a nation? Is this movement what we want to see in the U.S.?

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