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In all the Christmas talk, justice gets short shrift.

Every Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, and every year we sadly note the discrepancy between his message Of peace and the state of human relationships all over the globe.

There is no peace today in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nor is there peace in Northern Ireland. Nor between Hindus and Muslims in India. Nor among warring ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union. Neither is there peace in the inner cities of America, nor in homes where women and children are abused, nor for those dying of AIDS, nor for those in the grip of drug and alcohol dependency, nor for victims of injustice, discrimination and oppression of every kind.

The message of peace inside a Christmas card doesn't translate readily into practice. And it doesn't come cheaply.

Pope Pius XII and Paul VI often reminded us that peace is the work of justice. But justice seems to be one of the least popular of virtues today, even within the church.

You will hear homilies that make frequent reference to love, faith, forgiveness, patience, fidelity, self-sacrifice, generosity, respect for life, obedience to God's will, or loyalty to the church and the Holy Father, but rarely to justice.

This is not to lay all the blame on preachers. Many in the pews become uncomfortable when the subject turns to justice, and preachers sense that.

Politically conservative churchgoers bristle at the mention of justice because for them that usually means having to acknowledge the rights of people they dislike or having to pay higher taxes to support them.

They're not at all happy when their priest or a lay minister tries to tell them that they don't have an absolute right to what they possess and that perhaps some of what they possess was obtained at the expense of others.

For such people, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All," was an act of supreme impertinence.

What right do bishops have to instruct us on matters they know so little about from their own direct experience? (Probably about as much right as they have to instruct us on matters of human sexuality and marriage, others would point out.)

Theologically conservative churchgoers also balk at the mention of justice because that can mean having to acknowledge the rights of church employees (more than 80 percent of whom are women) or having to drop more money in the collection basket to provide them with a fair wage and benefits.

Justice is an especially touchy subject in a parish, a school or a diocesan agency where an employee has been unfairly treated or fired. Most know it was wrong, but few, if any, dare to become involved lest their own jobs be placed in jeopardy.

Intermittent reminders of the plight of the former employee -- adrift without income, without health benefits, without prospects of another job, even without unemployment compensation -- are about as welcome as rain on Christmas morning. They don't want to hear about it anymore.

But an injustice never goes away -- not until it is addressed and rectified.

There is an old Latin maxim, res clamat domino, which literally means "a thing clamors for its owner."

The maxim was a familiar part of the moral theology taught in Catholic seminaries before Vatican Il. It meant that a stolen object never becomes the property of the thief, even if the thief holds onto it for a very long period of time.

There is a kind of internal moral alarm system in the stolen object that relentlessly signals to its rightful owner. And that mechanism never shuts off until the object has been returned.

Injustices are like that. A hit-and-run driver isn't morally exonerated if he's not caught within a year. A brutal concentration camp guard isn't morally absolved if he manages to escape to another country.

Neither do victims of sexual abuse forfeit their right to justice simply because many years have passed since the abuse occurred. Nor does an unjustly fired church employee lose her claim on her former parish, school or diocese simply because many months have elapsed and another person has been hired to take her place.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. But peace, Popes Pius XII and Paul VI declared, is the work of justice.

Unfortunately, when justice knocks at our parish, school or diocesan door, it too often receives about as warm a welcome as Mary and Joseph did at the inn at Bethlehem.
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Author:McBrien, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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