What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Social Justice?

Have you seen those Old Spice commercials in which the guy taking the shower is “two things”–part man and part animal? Well, I think the same can be said about social justice. It’s two things, and one of the things is, well, beastly.

On the one hand, social justice is an integral part of Church teaching. It is based on the rights that flow from and safeguard human dignity, and it inclines us to work with others to help make social institutions better serve the common good.

In the section on Christian morality entitled “The Human Community,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes an entire section (nos. 1928-48) specifically to the topic of “social justice.” Similarly, the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which gives a magnificent overview of the wider topic of the Church’s social doctrine, nonetheless draws heavily on the concept of social justice. It provides, for example:

“The Church’s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political, and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions” (no. 210; original emphasis, footnotes omitted).

The Church’s social doctrine is rooted in Scripture and especially draws upon the Church’s social encyclicals of the past hundred or so years, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

But social justice is two things. It’s also a code word used by the political left to push a liberal social agenda coupled with a collectivist economic agenda that walks and talks like socialism. In other words, to appeal to Catholics, especially those who might tilt to the left religiously and politically anyway, some political operatives use Catholic jargon like “social justice” or “common good” or “preferential option for the poor” to manipulate public opinion. But what they mean and what the Church means are, well, two different things.

This is unlike the homosexual activists’ commandeering of the word “gay” a couple decades ago. For the most part, gay is hardly ever used as an adjective meaning “happy” or “lively” or “merry” any more, and even when it is, it’s not confused with the new usage of “gay.” So “gay” has become more like “bark,” which can be either the sound a dog makes or part of a tree. From the context, one can readily figure out what the speaker means.

When it comes to “social justice,” though, ambiguity is the name of the game. The political left understands that compassionate-sounding Catholic language can be used to generate support among Catholics. Yet the political activists are not using the terms in the same way, and most Catholics are too ignorant of the Church’s social doctrine to say boo about it.

So, while “social justice” is two things (Church teaching and liberal code word), the two things are blended just enough to cause considerable—and largely calculated—confusion. And this ambiguity is also found among some Church leaders in the field of social concerns, who can seem at least as committed to partisan Democratic politics as they are to the Church’s actual social doctrine. Some would go so far as to consider support for President Obama’s radical social agenda as a “proportionate reason” for not supporting a pro-life, pro-family candidate. That’s why many orthodox Catholic leaders, not to mention conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, would like to do away with “social justice” altogether.

How did we get to this point?

We are living during a crisis of faith. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which reflects the thought and input of the man who would eventually become Pope John Paul II, notes the unprecedented acceptance of systematic atheism and secularism in today’s world. Many people are looking for solutions “right here, right now,” without reference to the divine or to our supernatural end.

Such secularist and materialistic models have in some places corrupted the Church’s social outreach. When this happens, social justice degenerates into myopic political activism. The authentic quest for human development then becomes co-opted by agendas that are completely opposed to Church teaching and the good of the human person, most notably the pro-abortion forces and the “gay rights” movement.

Accordingly, we frequently encounter “peace and justice” Catholics who outright dissent from Church teaching on abortion and other “conservative issues,” or who relativize such teachings to an intolerable degree. Our rejection of such distortions of Church teaching can, unfortunately, lead us to swing the pendulum in the other direction–to our not paying sufficient attention to the social doctrine of the Church.

I can’t say I have all the answers to this problem. I do think that any attempt to sweep “social justice” under the rug would be akin to Martin Luther’s trying to remove the Letter of James. It wouldn’t work. Even more, social justice is a thoroughly Catholic principle that we shouldn’t be ashamed of and certainly can’t abolish from the Catholic lexicon. For faithful Catholics, social justice is a “home game,” and we should proactively promote what the Church really teaches on the subject.

So, I think a good place to begin would be for Catholics to start learning, teaching, and eventually applying the authentic social teaching of the Church. A great place to start would be by picking up a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, or by reading it online. The Compendium has many sections, including ones on human dignity, family, work, peace, economics, and politics, all examined in light of official Church teaching, through the lens of God’s love for mankind and the Church’s mission to the world.

Of course, the application of principles in this area can be difficult and even contentious:

–How do just war principles apply to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

–How does the principle of subsidiarity relate to President Obama’s healthcare legislation?

–How does the Church’s teaching on the fundamental dignity of the human person inform the debate on immigration reform?

The list is endless. We might not ever end up agreeing on all these issues, but if we approach them using the same rock-solid Catholics principles, then—and only then—the Church as such can have a meaningful, united voice in the public square.

Lastly, the “big picture,” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have seen and brilliantly proclaimed on behalf of the Church, transcends the artificial separation of the “pro-life” and “peace and justice” camps that we often find in the Church in America. The contemporary loss of the sense of God has led to a culture of death that is fundamentally violent and unjust. The remedy is found when we turn our gaze upon Christ, the Lord of Life and Prince of Peace.

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    This is a wonderful and thoughtful article. Thanks.

  • kmtierney

    I think it might also help in reclaiming “social justice” to point out that in the eyes of the Church, social justice is not simply a matter of economics and the like.

    The “social magsterium” of Leo XIII didn’t start with Rerum Novarum.

    Before Rerum Novarum, we see:

    Arcanum: On Christian marriage. Marriage is the core of any doctrine of how the Church interacts with society. I think that which touches on society is the true “social” teaching.

    Diuturnum: On the Origins of Civil Power. This deals specifically with the nature of the state’s authority, and what it can, and more importantly cannot do, and the Catholic Church has an essential mission in working with, but also serving as a “check” on the power of the State.

    Immortale Dei and Sapientiae Christianae deal a lot with a Christian view of citizenship as an individual, and the goal of Christianity as a part of something greater in the temporal order.

    Spectate Fides deals with Christian education, one of the major cornerstones of Catholic social thought. (The dignity of the human person, the defense of marriage, and the role of the parent as the primary educator of the children by rights as a parent.)

    Finally, there is Libertas. Now Libertas may be the one that makes most modern people (and even many Catholics!) cringe, but it still forms something required when speaking about the role of Catholics in society.

    Many of these aren’t very well known. (Indeed, about the only people really promoting the works of Leo XIII are rather obscure, either traditionalists or intellectuals.) Yet all of these works are required reading for I believe truly understanding Rerum Novarum.

    I think a lot of “social justice” people don’t like quoting these however. Since if one reads Leo XIII in totality (not just a few snippets from Rerum Novarum) one finds a thorough condemnation of their leftist ideology. He was the Pope who really brought a robust development of how the Church engages the world, especially a world that has rejected Christ by and large.

    I think the ultimate mission of Catholics is not just to “re-take” a Catholic understanding of things like economics, but to reclaim the entire “social justice” magesterium that Leo XIII championed. On almost every question of social teaching, one finds it underwent major development in the 25 years Msgr. Pecci was Pope.

  • GaryT

    This article is spot on that “social justice” means two very different things.

    At it’s core, social justice must include “justice” – which the church teaches is to give people their due; i.e. what is owed them.
    Many secular views of social justice actually contradict the very notion of justice.

    The secularists view have (at least) two fundamental flaws that contradict Christian doctrine:
    1. They define justice in a purely materialistic view, while forgetting about the spiritual dimensions.
    2. They focus on the entitlements provides to the recipient only, while Christian teaching notes that value in a donor providing. (See Mt 25:31-46!)

    A couple of my favorite quotes:
    “Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else?”
    “‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.'(Luke 11:41) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.” – Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

    “In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Dues Caritas Est

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