Social Justice: A Much Needed Primer

The call for “social justice” is often employed today, not as a mandate for the application of Catholic principles and precepts in the public square, but as a slogan for those who wish to promote agendas that are frequently at odds with authentic Church teaching.

“Social justice” is a term that is Catholic in its very origin. It was first employed in the 1840’s by an Italian priest in a book that he wrote to address some of the challenges faced by rural people as they moved into cities and towns in order to provide labor for industry.

It would be some fifty years later that Catholic social doctrine as we now know it came to real prominence in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in which he set about defining “social justice” without ever employing the phrase.

With all of the confusion surrounding social justice these days, now seems a very good time to examine what it is, as well as what it is not. Now, I don’t propose to give an exhaustive treatment of how social justice is most properly applied in the details; rather, I’d like to offer a sense for what social justice properly understood demands of us, and how its demands are often distorted by today’s secular interests.

Those inclined to do so will find the task of deciphering the truth from the deceptions that are so commonplace in current political discourse as it applies to social justice fairly easy from here.

Okay, so what is social justice?  First, let’s consider the word “social;” it means of or relating to cooperative, interdependent relationships and associations among human beings. Remember that word “associations.” It will come up again. Simple enough, right?

It is in considering the word “justice” that we most need to make sure we are focused on the Church’s understanding as opposed to the secular world’s definition.

In His Lenten message, Pope Benedict XVI said:

The term ‘justice,’ in common usage implies ‘to render to every man his due.’  In reality, however, this classical definition does not specify what ‘due’ is to be rendered to each person.

So the question remains, what is man’s due?

The world will tell us that man’s due is a function of absolute freedom, and it manifests itself largely in the so-called “right” to seek pleasure without moral restraint or judgment. At its worst the notion of absolute freedom for one man becomes the weapon by which another man’s freedom is taken; extending even so far as to consider it “justice” to take an innocent life through abortion, euthanasia, or the destruction of human embryos for medical purposes.

“Justice” in this view is also sometimes invoked for inflicting an artificial equality (also labeled as “fairness”) upon society in a way that attempts to override the legitimate uniqueness of individual human persons.

This can be discerned in social systems that attempt to downplay the connection between skill, effort and outcome; e.g., in educational systems that shun traditional grading methods, or in “competitions” that take an “everyone’s a winner” approach, or in economic systems that divorce production from remuneration. At its most egregious we see it in statist systems of governance that seek to redistribute temporal goods in the name of fairness, sometimes even going so far as to reject the right to private property.

The secular view of justice-as-fairness also manifests itself in radical feminism — embraced as it is in varying degrees by both men and women alike – in which the unique qualities that are proper to males and females are eschewed as mere cultural constructs that only serve to restrict and confine human potential.

All of these initiatives misnamed as “social justice” have a common theme; they are built on the assumption that rendering to every man his due is ultimately defined, though not always explicitly so, in terms of the avoidance of suffering.

The challenge in maintaining clarity in the matter for Catholics lies in the fact that the secular view of social justice as we’ve discussed it thus far presents what seems like rather admirable ideals: freedom; equality; fairness and the avoidance of suffering… In other words, it doesn’t really seem at first blush to cry out for rejection.

It is helpful to recognize that the secular view of social justice is untenable at its root because it is born of an unwillingness to embrace the fact of the human condition; i.e., it is unwilling to accept who we truly are.

We are created beings, body and spirit, beholden to the Creator in whose image we were made. We are endowed with a free will indeed, but one that is duty bound to the Divine law above all else. We are beings of equal dignity one to the other, but we are also uniquely endowed with God’s gifts such that no two are alike.

Furthermore, we are uniquely dignified among all creation thanks to our unique relationship with the Creator, and we are therefore of inestimable worth, but we are also fallen and sinful and destined without exception – in this life – to suffer and die.

This last truth of the human condition – that all must suffer and die – is of paramount importance in conceiving of “justice” rightly. When we embrace the reality of human suffering as it relates to justice, not only are we coming to terms with who we are; we are also coming to terms with who God is.

Human suffering has always had this effect on humanity, moving us to question, why do we suffer?  How can God allow such things? Is God not just? What is the meaning of life?

The reason the world struggles so mightily to understand justice is simple; the world has rejected the reality of sin. Is God not just? Yes, of course He is just, and His perfect justice allows suffering in order to redeem the sinner. It’s simple; failure to recognize sin is failure to recognize justice.

Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, tells us in his Lenten message that, Christ is the Justice of God. It follows, therefore, that failure to recognize Christ is failure to understand justice.

“Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely” (Proverbs 28:5).

Christ is justice. This means that mercy, love and truth as revealed in Him is justice.

Still seem like a vague concept? Don’t feel bad. Pope Leo XIII said of social justice:

The discussion is not easy, nor is it void of danger. It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt (RN 2).

The teaching found in Rerum Novarum is as relevant now as ever in combating the errors of the world. The agitators are agitating with remarkable tenacity!

Pope Leo went on to give us valuable core principals that form the basis for Catholic social teaching. We need to embrace these core beliefs or we’re going to be misled. Ultimately, in the interest of space, the heart of the matter is this:

The true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue… Christian morality, when adequately and completely practiced, leads of itself to temporal prosperity, for it merits the blessing of that God who is the source of all blessings; it powerfully restrains the greed of possession and the thirst for pleasure (RN 24, 28).

Our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, tells us in his Lenten message that “Above all, justice comes from grace…”

Get that? Social justice lies in the fullness of morality as defined by God, not as calculated by majority rule. It is a function of grace, not government.

The last point I want to leave you with is this: the oft overlooked principle of subsidiarity tells us that human needs are best met by the smallest possible unit of society — the individual, the family, the parish, the community, etc… We must therefore be wary of excessive government control.

On this point, know this: in Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII pointed to the freely formed associations of men in response to the demands of social justice no less than 48 times, and he pointed to the State as the servant of the people who form them.

Keep these thoughts in mind the next time someone calls for social justice and ask yourself, is the “justice” they invoke according to the world, or is it authentic justice — that which is made manifest in Christ?

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  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    “The discussion is not easy, nor is it void of danger. It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt.”

    There was only one “revolt” in the 19th century, and Pope Leo would have been intimately aware of it. That revolt, of course, was the revolt of Liberal Republicans against the Church and her institutions. Now, 19th century Republicanism has little to do with the modern American political party of the same name; 19th century Liberalism is of the Liberté, égalité, fraternité variety, characterized by the vicious and bigoted anti-Catholic motivation that was originally institutionalize in the French Revolution. Rerum Novarum was published May 15, 1891. It was at this time that 19th century Republicans were consolidating the power they had seized. Porfirio Diaz, the Republican general of the Mexian Reform wars, had only recently ascended to become dictator of Mexico. Liberal Republican governments were consolidating personal wealth and secular power throughout Central America. Napoleon’s post-Revolutionary adventures (i.e. all of the adventures of all the Napoleons*) in France itself had come to an ignominious (and well-deserved) end. Thus, Pope Leo refers here to the literal revolts against the institution of the Church, carried out throughout much of the western world.

    Now, in most cases, those who revolted were well-justified. Church institutions in many societies were quite rich, and large concentrations of wealth and power were controlled by a few men of the upper hierarchies in most countries. More importantly, they did not tend to use this wealth to further the common good. However, the Church institutions were in all these cases no different from all other institutions within any given society. Every country in which a revolt occurred had large concentrations of wealth and power held by a few, and those few, whether ecclesiastical or lay, rarely operated with the common good in mind. The craftiness of the agitators consisted in directing the well-justified ire of the people against the Church — and the Church alone. In most cases, the agitators themselves wound up controlling or owning the properties seized from the Church, and nothing changed in the social organization: a very few controlled vast amounts of wealth and power and did not use it for the common good. The only change was that instead of distributing wealth and power amongst both an ecclesiastical and a secular elite, the secular elite deposed the ecclesiastical elite in order to build itself up to be even larger.

    Pope Leo knew this, too, of course. And he would have been well-aware of the consequences of completely disenfranchising Church institutions from participation in the society. When Church wealth was deposed, it was deposed even from modest and genuinely poor institutions which did use their resources for the common good, and no secular equivalents emerged replace the services formerly provided by the Church. Real people suffered real harm. Thus, it is quite possible to read Rerum Novarum in light of the actual history in which it is set. It criticizes those social institutions which build themselves up at the expense of persons, while denying the very personhood of those whose efforts are so used. This is a far cry from criticizing wealth and rich folks merely because they are wealthy. Rather, it represents an understanding of the times which is far outside the scope of the time: Pope Leo admonishes those who exercise authority over wealth to be cognizant of the need for virtue, not just as an abstract philosophical term but as an imperative for directing actual human behavior. In other words, the common good must be sought in administering the riches of this world.

    Recall that the 19th century Republicans seized the wealth of the Church, which is to say that they seized the wealth controlled by a small number of bishops and upper clergy (while completely debilitating the minor institutions as well). They then made use of this wealth themselves, either by taking it into their own private ownership or by controlling the institutions of government power that now owned this wealth — or both. In reaffirming subsidiarity, Pope Leo reminds those governments and persons made wealthy by Church seizures that they have taken what is not theirs. He also reminds those clergy who were former owners that their own improper stewardship is to blame for their loss and reinforces the overwhelming majority of clergy, religious, laity and Church institutions that never had access to much wealth for doing the good that they did throughout.

    Thus, it is indeed true that “[w]e must therefore be wary of excessive government control,” in light of Rerum Novarum. This is the primary purpose of the document: to criticize the government institutions of the time for poor stewardship. Pope Leo tells us that stewardship is no abstract concept but is rather the very means by which we eat and drink and find shelter. When selfishness rules — and all those Republican governments of the 19th century were selfish — people suffer and die for our selfishness. Moreover, the very size of the government institutions that materialized in the wake of 19th century Church seizures was an impediment to serving the common good. Thus, true justice means we need to reduce the size of those institutions whenever possible, without building them back up into behemoths that dwarf the earlier problems. In other words, there may be good reason to depose a behemoth — even if it is headed by a Church official — but we have to make certain that we do not simply depose the one in order to build up a worse one in its place.

    * One of the great ironies of the period is that Diaz and Napoleon III actually fought against each other, with Napoleon III backing a Mexican monarchy with the support of those that opposed Mexican Republicanism.

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