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What is social justice?

John Burger - published on 12/01/12 - updated on 06/16/20

The teaching of the Church often makes reference to "social justice." What exactly is it, and why is it important?

Social justice comes about from the social doctrine of the Church developed in the 19th century, “when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2421). “The Church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, ‘when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it,’” says the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes. “The Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships.”

It is precisely in ensuring the right ordering of these temporal elements (while always respecting human dignity and the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, putting them at the service of the common good) that social justice is observed.

When vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden and Paul Ryan last fall to describe how their Catholic faith influences the belief about abortion, Vice President Biden trumpeted his embrace of the Church’s social doctrine.

“Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who… can’t take care of themselves, people who need help,” said Biden, the first Catholic to hold the office of U.S. Vice President. He went on to state that although he accepts Church teaching on abortion and believes that life begins at conception, he refuses to “impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”

To some, Biden may be typical of a type of “social justice Catholic” who supports an expansion of government in order to take care of the “poor” and “disenfranchised” while giving short shrift to those who are more vulnerable still: the unborn. But even if politicians and other social figures tout their own ideal of “social justice”, it is a lamentable reality that social justice is rarely referenced in the secular world as it is understood and taught by the Catholic Church.

This begs the question: what is social justice, and how should Catholics understand their call to practice it? The social doctrine of the Church developed in the 19th century, “when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2421). “The Church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, ‘when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it,’” says the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes. “The Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships.”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, issued by the Vatican in 2004, outlines four principles of the Church’s social doctrine – the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

  • Human Dignity: “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person,” the Compendium states. “The person represents the ultimate end of society.”
  • The Common Good: “The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily…. A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person — as its primary goal,” states the Compendium.
  • Subsidiarity: The Compendium quotes Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”
  • Solidarity: The Compendium defines solidarity as that which “highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity.”

Stephen Krason, president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of The Public Order and the Sacred Order, finds that in discussions of social justice there is often an emphasis on solidarity at the expense of subsidiarity. “A lot of people … call for more centralized federal government social welfare programs and things like that,” Krason said, “but subsidiarity indicates that you go to the higher levels only when there’s a true need to go there.”

He pointed out that Pope Bl. John Paul II, in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, “wrote a very strong critique of the Western welfare state,” which attempts to guarantee cradle-to-grave care for all its citizens. “He was really calling for a new attention to subsidiarity and for family and the Church and so forth to be looked to in a renewed way to deal with the needs of people, to get away from this idea of unreflectively turning things over to the state.” Likewise, Krason believes the term “social justice” is often misused; a basic Catholic ethics textbook he likes to quote from defines social justice as “the virtue that requires the individual to contribute his due share to the community.”

“It’s the other side of distributive justice, which involves the relation of the community to its members, encompassing duties which society owes to the individual,” Krason said. “A lot of people, it seems to me, use the term ‘social justice’ when they’re talking about distributive justice, and social justice actually seems to involve obligation on the part of the individual…. A lot of people talking about social justice… aren’t really talking much about individual obligations.… A lot of times…they seem to mean, ‘What can government do for people?’ or ‘What kinds of decisions can be made about the economy that are going to be favorable to different groups of people?’ and so forth.”

“In Catholic social doctrine, the term ‘social justice’ has two fundamental and related meanings,” said Robert G. Kennedy, chairman of the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “As a condition of society, as something to be sought and sustained, it is a synonym of the common good. To work for social justice is precisely to work for the common good.”

“The distinction needs to be made between the new progressives, who have used the rhetoric of social justice, and what Catholics and Christians usually mean by social justice,” says Donald Critchlow, co-author of Takeover: How the Left’s Quest for Social Justice Corrupted Liberalism. “I think the difference boils down to the role of government. New progressives, such as [Barack] Obama and others, many of them in academia, and social activists, use the term meaning extending government … to achieve what they see as social justice and redistribution of wealth and extending the welfare state. … Part of general Catholic social justice has to do with voluntary work and not necessarily that of extending governmental powers, although it may not always exclude governmental powers.”

Kennedy says that although there may sometimes appear to be a divide between “social justice Catholics” and “pro-life Catholics,” there shouldn’t be. “Catholics should be both,” he says. “However, a superficial answer might be to say that social justice Catholics are too closely aligned to secular political movements who not only support the objectives of these social justice Catholics but also are committed to a variety of pro-choice positions. Social justice Catholics have to make peace with these people and they rationalize muting their support for pro-life issues by thinking that public policies on this are set in concrete. If nothing can be done there we might at least work toward improving other social conditions, e.g., welfare programs, tax reform, etc.

“On the other hand,” Kennedy continues, “pro-life Catholics may be too inclined to move from seeing life issues as the most important social questions to acting as if they are the only important social questions. Like social justice Catholics, they have aligned themselves with political movements that support their objectives but may also lean toward libertarian views with regard to other social questions.”

“I do think traditional Catholics need to be more aware of the importance of helping the poor as well as maintaining traditional doctrine,” Critchlow maintains. “It’s fundamental to the Christian tradition that I should be my brother’s keeper and that we should help those who are poor and ill and those who suffer from misfortune.”

Kennedy and Krason both say that Catholics need to educate themselves on the Church’s social teaching, which covers a wide variety of topics. “We should acquaint our people with the authentic doctrine of the Church (and not with a lightly baptized political platform),” Kennedy says, “and we should be credible witnesses in the public arena on a variety of social issues.”

For starters, Krason recommends reading the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and Centesimus Annus.

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