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What “Social Justice Catholics” Get Wrong About Social Justice

What Social Justice Catholics Get Wrong About Social Justice Fibonacci Blue

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Brantly Millegan - published on 05/30/14

Three ways they reject the very Catholic Social Teaching they claim to champion.

“How can you support gay marriage and abortion? I thought you were Catholic.”

“Well I’m a social justice Catholic.”


Whether it’s used to describe commentator E.J. Dionne, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or Vice President Joe Biden, it’s well-known that the term “social justice Catholic” is almost always a code word for a certain brand of cafeteria Catholicism that intentionally rejects a wide range of Church teaching. What’s not as well-known, though, is that what they reject often includes central tenets of the very Catholic Social Teaching (CST) they claim to champion. Here are three significant examples.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers several key principles to CST: subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good, universal destination of goods, and participation, but the first and most important principle is the dignity of the human person.

Grounded in the biblical doctrine that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1.27), this principle means that all human beings have certain rights, the first of which the Compendium lists as this: “the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception…” (CSDC 155)

That’s right: opposition to abortion is one of the most important tenets of CST.

In fact, to reject the Church’s teaching on abortion is to reject the basis for the Church’s teachings about helping the poor. If that seems a bit much, I’ll point out that Pope Francis, who has made care for the poor a centerpiece of his papacy, made precisely this point in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:

[T]his defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […]Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be… Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. (213-214)

To support abortion, as many self-identified social justice Catholics do, is to the reject the first principle of CST.

After the initial principles are established, the Compendium starts applying them to specific parts of society. The very first subject, before talking about economics, the role of government, or the environment, is “The Family, the Vital Cell of Society.” (CSDC 209ff) In fact, the second human right listed in the Compendium is “the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality.” (CSDC 155) Regarding the proper form of the family unit, the Compendium is clear: “indissoluble monogamous marriage [is] the only authentic form of the family.” The Compendium adds that government legislation “must never weaken recognition” of this fact and specifically warns against redefining marriage legally to include same-sex marriage. (CSDC 228, 229)

In other words, divorce and same-sex marriage are both, according to CST, contrary to the very foundation of society. So are a whole host of other things the Compendium rejects: fornication, contraception, illicit fertility methods (e.g. IVF), polygamy, etc. The list of sins against the family could go on, but the point is clear: there’s no way a person can embrace the sexual revolution, as many social justice Catholics do, and yet also claim to embrace CST.

My final example of an aspect of CST often rejected by those claiming to be its champions is actually the most important: the Gospel.

Given CST’s popular reputation as a worldly, politically liberal part of Catholicism, it would probably surprise most people who pick up a copy of the Compendium that the first 50 pages summarize the Church’s teachings on God, sin, salvation history, and, most importantly, Jesus’ work on the cross.

Why does the world have injustice in the first place? While unfair social structures, ignorance, and oppression by the powerful may be part of the equation, the Compendium insists that there’s a deeper, spiritual problem:

At the root of personal and social divisions… there is a wound which is present in man’s inmost self. In the light of faith we call it sin: beginning with original sin… (CDSC 116)

And Christ, the Church teaches, is our only hope: “Christian realism sees the abysses of sin, but in the light of the hope, greater than any evil, given by Jesus Christ’s act of redemption, in which sin and death are destroyed.” (CDSC 121)

Indeed, “the inner transformation of the human person, in his being progressively conformed to Christ, is the necessary prerequisite for a real transformation of his relationships with others.” (CDSC 42) Thus, the Church’s call for social justice cannot be separated from the Church’s more fundamental mission of evangelization.

It’s true that a lot of otherwise faithful Catholics are largely ignorant of Catholic Social Teaching, and insofar as social justice Catholics may highlight lesser known or ignored teachings, that’s a good thing. But unfortunately, many who identify with that term also intentionally distance themselves from other important Catholic teachings, perhaps not realizing that they are actually core tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.

Whether you identify as a “pro-life Catholic”, “evangelical Catholic”, or “social justice Catholic”, all of these terms should be roughly synonymous. Of course, it’d be better if we didn’t have these qualifiers at all and simply respected with greater integrity the meaning of the term “Catholic.” But in the meantime, I’d encourage everyone, regardless of their beliefs, to at least have better accuracy in identifying who does and doesn’t actually accept Catholic Social Teaching.

Brantly Millegan is Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is

AbortionCatholicismLiturgyPope FrancisPovertyPro-life
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