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True justice requires being true to your emotions

Our faith calls us to include our whole being in our moral and spiritual lives.
Our Faith

Prior to my work in the peace and justice arena, I focused much of my academic attention on moral psychology, which attends to the emotional and psychological aspects of the moral life. Although these concepts still inform my own pursuit of justice, the opportunities for expounding on them in public discourse are rare. However, I am convinced that the divisive animosity that permeates political engagement is due, in part, to a lack of attention to our affective lives in moral analysis. Now is as good a time as any to make that case.

We often think of emotions as passive events that simply happen to us and for which we cannot be held accountable—indeed, the root of the word passion is the Latin pati-, to suffer or endure. When we take this view, we can excuse ourselves for experiencing undignified emotions as long as our words and actions align with moral law. For example, I can feel smugly satisfied when harm befalls my political opponents, provided I did not actively try to harm them.

Our faith, however, calls us to include our whole being in our moral and spiritual lives. Indeed, the heart of Christian morality is the commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31). These maxims demand that we engage our whole selves—including our emotions—in the pursuit of virtue.

I cannot expect my work for justice to be productive unless my emotions register the dignity of every human person, each made in the image of God. This is because emotions motivate actions and are indicative of values. Disordered values will sabotage any efforts toward justice by motivating actions that stem from pride and tend toward domination, rather than toward building authentic community.

St. Augustine used the concept of the ordo amoris—the order of love—to make this point, claiming that virtue is “nothing else than perfect love of God,” or rightly ordered love.

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For Augustine, when our love is rightly ordered, our values will be authentic. Actions and emotions that stem from our values are, as Augustine says, “evil if the love is evil; good if the love is good.” Emotions are physiological responses to cognitive values, and insofar as our wills select what is valuable to us, our emotions are indicative of the activity of our wills. While we might not be in total and immediate control over our emotions, the character of our wills shapes the feelings that arise in us—we are not entirely passive regarding our emotional responses.

Unfortunately, since our wills are fundamentally flawed, we inevitably will err when constructing our value systems. Nevertheless, a solid place to start is to value others in all of their particularity.

For Augustine, when our love is rightly ordered, our values will be authentic.

Insofar as justice should affirm human beings in their full dignity, then justice cannot lack an emotional component. Failure to recognize the moral value of the affective life of human beings is a failure to view them in their wholeness and particularity—a failure to relate to them fully, rightly. By ordering our love rightly, we help ensure that the emotions we feel are right and fitting for a given situation and therefore conducive to justice. But what does it mean to love our enemies?

Augustine recognizes that human beings are “bound together by a certain fellowship of our common nature”—and this truth cuts through temporary labels such as “enemy” to define our permanent relationship to our fellow human beings. For Augustine, conflict should always protect and restore our common human fellowship—(former) enemies included. Augustine writes, “Even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker”; elsewhere, we “should hate the vice and love the [person].”

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Notice that this does not mean that so-called negative emotions are always problematic. Sorrow, fear, anger, and disgust can all stem from rightly ordered love. The conviction that every person possesses inherent dignity may trigger these emotions. However, these emotions must be directed at the action, not the person. Otherwise, as Pope Francis warns in the 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), they deprive us “of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”

Importantly, however, Augustine—also known as the father of just war theory—affirms that love for enemies does not mean we should turn a blind eye toward their injustice. Pope Francis emphasizes this as well:

We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable. On the contrary, true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others.

It is love for both perpetrators and victims that works to counter injustice.

On an interpersonal level, we are called to do all things with love, so that, as Augustine says, “even . . . wars will not be carried on without the benevolent design.” In our current culture war, it seems we are missing the goodwill that is so critical to Augustine’s account. As we read in Fratelli Tutti:

Today we have a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment. Like the chance traveler in the parable, we need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen. We may often find ourselves succumbing to the mentality of the violent, the blindly ambitious, those who spread mistrust and lies. Others may continue to view politics or the economy as an arena for their own power plays. For our part, let us foster what is good and place ourselves at its service.

Our love for our neighbors should motivate us to counter injustice, but our calls for justice should foster an environment of common fellowship. We should critique injustice, immorality, and failures of leadership with the hope that those to whom we speak will have a change of heart—and with an openness to personal growth. Our attitude toward those in opposition should be one that affirms that they too will share in—and be integral to—our national community in the peace that will come from justice. After all, peace is not simply the absence of war but the presence of right relationships. And so, as Pope Francis exhorts, let us “persevere in love, to restore dignity to the suffering and to build a society worthy of the name.” 


This article also appears in the October 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 10, pages 34-35). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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Image: Shutterstock/SiwaBudda

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About the author

Kathleen Bonnette

Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D., teaches Theology at Georgetown University and is the 2022 Imbesi Family St. Augustine Fellow at Villanova University’s Augustinian Institute.

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