The Opticks of Justice

Isaac Newton penned his treatise Opticks in 1704 – and who am I to improve upon his spelling, about which they were not exactly rigorous in those pre-O.E.D, and O.C.D., days? – in which he outlined his theory of vision, that light was a stream of corpuscles hitting the eye. Newton was responding to a prior theory of his contemporary, the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who in his own treatise in 1690, Traité de la Lumière, argued that light was in fact a wave of some sort.

In turned out they were both right, as befits the complexity of reality – that whole wave-particle duality of light and matter at their basic level. But this paradoxical truth eluded us for some time, about three centuries, as the nature of light is hard to tell – it hides its true nature. We don’t really ‘see’ light – rather, we see ‘by’ light.

In the moral sphere, the light of justice – how things appear – is also difficult to discern. When something appears just ‘not right’, we say that the ‘optics’ aren’t good, and this has become an actual principle in law: it is not enough for justice to be done; justice must be seen to be done.[i]

That is, there is, and should be, an ‘optics’ to justice, something that hits the eye, and so goes into the mind and heart, so that all might see that the balance of the universe is – to some extent – restored.

In other words, pay your tax and water bills by cheque or some other visible and traceable means, and purchase your computer at the counter; don’t leave a wad of cash under the town office door, or on the empty spot on the shelf. Justice must be seen to be done.

But, we may add, in giving alms, ‘tis best not to be seen and, as Christ says, for your left hand not to know what your right is doing. We will leave the morality of tax receipts and named bequests for another day.

How do we ensure that justice is done and seen? We may begin with a definition: Justice as a virtue is the constant and firm will to give others what is owed, a will that must normally be expressed visibly, for all to see.[ii]

What precisely is owed to others is really the nub of the question, which this Covidian crisis has brought to the fore. The only way we can know what we owe others – the state authorities but, more to the point, our fellow strangers and sojourners – is through a solid foundation in the truth.

Ah, yes, truth, that rare entity in our world. Quid est veritas, mumbled Pontius Pilate. He was in part, we may presume, talking to himself in rhetorical fashion; but he was also speaking, how wittingly we know not, to the One Who is the Truth, offering a query that redounds through the ages.

What indeed is truth?

An initial answer is that truth is an adequatio rei et intellectus, a conformity between the mind and res – reality, or how things truly are, as well as how they should be. Any apparent justice that is not in accord with the truth – that is, with reality – is no justice at all, but a perversion thereof.

We may permit the reader to apply these forms of justice to all our daily interactions, and we are, or should be, left to some large extent to make up our own minds about this. It does not do much good to be purely passive and obedient in these things, hypnotized and browbeat into acquiescence – that is the modus operandi of socialism and communist dictatorships, whether ‘benign’ or not. For we are rational agents in God’s very image, responsible for our own destiny. Authority and law are a means to an end, and they are, and must be, shaped in part by us, filtered through own conscience, and manifested in our personal decisions, habits and customs. Just because something has been decreed – and often in dubious ways – does not mean it accords with reality, nor with our good, or the common good. And, in our modern era, such laws and coercive suggested practices are oft, in reality, unjust, ineffective, disproportionate, illiberal, and, in some cases, insidious.

In sum, we may seem (optics!) to be doing the just thing – but really doing something unjust. This is the whole notion of virtue signaling, originally demonstrated by the Pharisees, whose name has gone down in history condemned by Christ Himself, wearing their phylacteries broad’ and ‘tithing mint and cumin’, but who were in reality whitewashed sepulchres. The same might be said of those who speak of women’s rights and tolerance and staying safe all sorts of nice-sounding words, concealing a great deal of evil behind them.

On the other hand, we should add, there is also the possibility that someone may seem to be doing something unjust, but in reality, fulfilling justice far more fully, like Christ healing on the Sabbath, or being found alone with the notorious woman at the well, or, most of all, allowing Himself to be handed over, humiliated and hung on the Cross – scandalizing almost all of His Apostles and disciples, who scattered to the four winds. The optics did not seem good, but one must look behind the veil, to a deeper reality and truth.

We will leave the reader to apply and manifest these principles, but here are some examples, with others forthcoming in the future, and the reader may supply more of his own:

The continued locking – even the shuttering – of churches, at least in my part of the world and many others. And all this before they were even – if ever – required to be so, and they continue to be locked in many places even as other ‘businesses’ – insofar as such applies to the Church – open their doors, if they ever closed. Access to food, beer and wine – not that I’m complaining, mind you –  but not to the Eucharist? It does not look good for the faithful to be presented with closed doors for months on end.

At the very least, should not our shepherds explain more fully and rationally why our places of worship prayer and solace must be barred shut, indefinitely (as some signs say), while people crawl over each other at Wal-Mart and Costco? What level of risk is tolerable? Again, no one knows, nor will anyone say.

At a deeper level, there are the optics – if not the outright reality – of the Church, even as she re-opens, kowtowing to the State, acting like just another secular business – and a distinctly non-essential one at that. The recent decision of the Supreme Court, with the swing vote of Justice John Roberts, has ensured state control into the indefinite future. At least a token sign of resistance and independence would hearten the hearts of Catholics, signifying the truth that the Church transcends the State, and not the other way around.

The forbidding of sacraments, and the state control of how they are administered. Yes, they are a gift from God, but as His gift, we have some right to them, Confession and Communion, in particular – a point that Robert Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation of Divine Worship, has emphasized vividly just recently. These are not ‘treats’ given to the faithful, but the very lifeblood of the Church’s, and our, spiritual life.

At one church in a southern Ontario city, the sign in big, black letters announced ‘No Mass, No Confessions’. Just so. Or not.

Is it the role of the state to determine what level of risk we might take  – defined, of course, by state apparatchiks – in taking the sacraments?

Ponder the German method of minimizing that risk to the point of liturgical insanity: The same Cardinal has condemned the idea of the German church – where else? –  to provide Holy Communion in little ‘safe’, sealed bags to take home. Pardon moi? Wie bitte? As the Cardinal says, with some degree of understatement, ‘Jesus cannot be treated like that’. In other words, He is owed far more than such indignity. We’re a long way from the vivid and vivifying optics of the Blessed Sacrament brought to the sick and shut-in with solemn procession, two acolytes and lighted candles.

And while on optics, Sarah also some warning against building up too strong a habit of watching Mass on screens. I’m heartened to hear the Cardinal say more or less what I have thought all along, that we cannot and should not get used to this, for watching Mass is not the same as attending Mass, and as he puts it, this cannot go on for too much longer, without the whole sacramental economy becoming unhinged.

On more secular matters, do we owe it to everyone, or to ourselves, to social distance? Or wear a mask? As the trio of Trudeau, Tam and Anthony Fauci would have it, do both ad infinitum?  Is this to be the ‘new normal’? The reality is that that utility of masks – short of full filtration systems – is controversial. Some physicians claim wearing a mask may even increase the chance of getting the virus, as moisture builds up on the inside, and, as well, the constant breathing in one’s own carbon dioxide is not a recipe for overall health.

With that, and the two metre distancing rule, and the fear of every other human as a potentially infected leper, what are we teaching especially our children – nay, even our very selves – about the fear of human contact?

And what are to say of the optics of unleashing the full force of the executive branch – that is, police and military – to enforce these policies under the principle of justice? Should we have armed officers enforcing such measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing to ‘stop the spread’ – we’ve already flattened the curve – with scenes such as the one from Brooklyn, with a woman taken down by a horde of burly officers like an about-to-detonate-suicide-bomber, for wearing her mask ‘improperly’?

Do we owe it to join in the clapping, banging of pots and pans, hooting and hollering for ‘essential’ and ‘front line’ workers, as occurs in many urban centres across the globe? This is an optic that we must at least discern, and not just be carried along by groupthink, or what psychologists term ‘encompassment’, that mass emotional feeling one might get in the final moments of a sports game, as one’s team rallies for a come-from-behind win.

Yes, there are sacrifices being made by many, but not just from those workers deemed ‘essential’ – and ‘essential’ as decreed by governmental diktat – nearly all of whom are paid rather handsomely for what efforts they make. A small matter, but at one grocery store I happened upon, the sign asks us to sing ‘O, Canada’ on Sundays at noon; and my thought was, what of the Angelus, the Regina Coeli, and give what thanks we owe first and foremost to God? The optics of secularity – a forgetting of God – are all ‘round us.

What of the optics of calling the vastly greater number of the populace ‘non-essential’? Is not that term demeaning, belittling – who are suffering loss of income, perhaps financial ruin, family stress, even break-up and divorce, discouragement and depression?

And as the benign face of nanny-state morphs subtly, or not so subtly, into the wicked stepmother of the Stasi state, unaware – perhaps – of the irony of heavily armed police offers growling at us to ‘stay safe’…or else, with neighbour now snitching on neighbour.

Is this justice being done? Or are we now in a tragic fun house, a veritable Alice-in-Wonderland world, wherein the truth is obscured and obscured, with some semblance of the optics of justice, with little of the substance?

Are we not made for freedom and life, even if that means enduring what must be endured, even if the optics that some may die may seem uncharitable, but is in fact God’s will, and the truly charitable option?

My advice? Limit the watching of the mainstream news and media, for starters, and filter carefully through thine own brain and common sense what you do watch or read. ‘Great is the power of constant repetition’ is a mantra by which lies, especially subtle and insidious ones, worm themselves into our minds, and thence to our behaviour. Fear makes us act oddly, and it’s not far from acting oddly, to acting evil.

Form your mind with Scripture, spiritual masterpieces of the saints, the Magisterium, the Summa, good novels; listen to, and play if you can, beautiful music – and pray. Speak with the God Who is the ground of all reality, Who created you, with His Mother and all the saints, ask Him and them, His mediators, for light and counsel.

God is not stingy with the truth, and He will see your way through this. After all, He’s got the most perfect optics going, for He sees it all, past, present and future, totum simul, sub specie aeternitatis.

So come on out of the narrow confines of the darkness and fear of Plato’s cave, into the glorious outdoor sunshine of truth and freedom – and, while we’re at it, health and well-being.


[i] For the intriguing history of this aphorism, attributed to Justice Lord Hewart in a 1923 case in Britain involving a motorcycle collision wherein the decision was tainted by the presence of someone with a financial interest in the decision, see here.

[ii] Our tradition has outlined three divisions of justice:

Distributive – what a higher authority owes over those whom it governs. The state or leader making laws, bestowing benefits, and so on.

Legal – what those are so governed owe to the higher authority, called ‘legal’, since what is owed is manifested as the ‘laws’ of the society.

And commutative, the what everyone in society owes everyone else, just as equals, the most basic and fundamental form of justice, from which all other justice flows.