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Social Justice Isn’t Left or Right

I was different from many of my law-school classmates in the early 1980s. I had no desire to become rich, nor was I interested in the power and prestige that accompanies a successful law practice. Rather, in my own naïve way, I wanted to help people. Issues such as poverty, capital punishment, racism, and nuclear arms were what motivated me. I even volunteered one summer with the Los Angeles County   Public Defender’s office.

In retrospect, I believe that the Lord blessed my sincere desire to defend the “underdog” and used this as the means to draw me back to himself and his Church.

After graduating from law school and still searching for a way to channel my desire to help people, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with secular approaches to societal ills. But I was still ambivalent, at best, about the Church.

Then one Sunday I wandered into Mass and listened to a homily on the Church’s social teaching by a deacon who also happened to be a lawyer. I was fascinated to discover that the Church had something to say about the real-life issues that mattered most to me. It dawned on me that the Church not only took my questions seriously, but also offered satisfying answers. Thus began my journey back to full communion with the Church.

Ever since that time, I’ve found that the Catholic faith necessarily involves synthesis and integration—what is commonly called  the “Catholic both/and.” We uphold faith and reason, prayer and work, personal holiness and social justice.

Yet I’ve also found social justice to be a lightning-rod issue that divides Catholics. Because it touches upon things that matter to everybody—politics, economic concerns, world peace—there’s bound to be some disagreement. But the problem goes deeper, pointing to the need for us more fully to  understand and integrate this rich body of teaching. So, the first question must be, “What is social justice?”

Rooted in Scripture

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 (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, further elaborates upon the concept of  social justice:

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. (201)

The Church’s social doctrine is rooted in Scripture, and it 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.

The Collectivist Code?

Yet, Catholics who are steeped in Catholic social doctrine are not the only ones who use the term “social justice.” It has become a code word used by some to advance a libertine 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 influence public opinion. But what they mean and what the Church means are not always the same.

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 rule, not the exception. Sometimes social justice can mean the entire body of Catholic social teaching,  perhaps summarized as “a personal commitment to serve the poor and address the causes of poverty.” Yet it can also just as easily mean “a personal commitment to . . . address the causes of poverty by advocating the specific policies that liberals prefer” (Timothy Dalrymple, “Is the Tea Party a Social Justice Movement?“). No wonder the term has become  politicized, leaving some Catholics to believe that only political progressives care about “social justice.”

Don’t Reject—Reclaim

The political left understands that compassionate-sounding Catholic language can be used to generate support among Catholics. To be sure, the use of Catholic terminology in the public square can be a  very good thing, as it allows us to frame the debate. 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 know the  difference.

Sadly, this ambiguity is also found among some Church leaders in the field of social concerns, who can seem at least as committed to partisan politics—left or right—as they are to the Church’s  actual social doctrine. That’s why many conservative Catholic leaders, not to mention libertarian-sounding commentators, would like to do away with “social justice” altogether.

I think most people have simply conceded the word gay to the homosexual community. Yet we can’t give away social justice to extremists in the Church and government. The term has been stolen from us, and we  need to take it back (See Keith Fournier, “Social Justice: Take Back the Term from the Thieves and Build a New Catholic Action,”, October 4, 2010).

Even more, it’s not ours to give away   in the first place. As noted, it’s part of our rich Catholic heritage. It’s also rooted in the natural law, and thus it is part of our human heritage. We fully believe that the Church, as the champion of   the natural law, possesses much-needed wisdom on the major social issues of the day. We can’t give an inch to anyone, especially one posing as a Catholic, who would distort theChurch’s social teaching.

Yet, the concern about “social justice” as a term that has been largely co-opted by the left is legitimate. As restorative measures are considered, it may be instructive to reflect briefly how we even arrived  at this point.

A Matter of Both/And

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. Indeed, Pope John Paul II commented that our society’s loss of the sense of God and of man “inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds  individualism, utilitarianism, and hedonism” (Evangelium Vitae 23). Many people are looking for solutions “right here, right now,” without reference to God or to our supernatural end.

Such secularist and  materialistic models have in some places corrupted the Church’s social outreach. When that happens, social justice degenerates into shortsighted 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 supposedly 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 demands of the gospel. But it’s another matter of Catholic both/and, not either/or.

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 from the New Testament. It wouldn’t work. We can’t pick and choose what teachings we will ignore any more than Luther could decide what books to toss out of the Bible. 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. Faithful Catholics are on native soil when speaking of social justice, and we should proactively promote what the Church teaches on the subject.

Principles, Not Politics

What’s the best place for a Catholic to begin to learn, teach, and eventually apply the authentic social teaching of the Church? A great place to start is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the   Church. The Compendium has many sections (See “What Does the Compendium Say About . . .,” above), 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 the complex arena of Catholic social teaching    can be difficult and even contentious, regardless of one’s political allegiances:

  • How do just war principles apply to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • Have modern terrorist tactics changed how we assess preemptive strikes?
  • How does the principle of subsidiarity relate to federal health-care 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, who is both the Lord of Life and Prince of Peace.


Beyond the Buzzwords

While “social justice” can be two things (Church teaching
and politically charged buzzword), the two things
are blended just enough to cause considerable—and at
times calculated—confusion. Here are just a few examples
of “social justice” terms and how they are misused:

  • Human rights and human dignity belong to each and every person by virtue of his being created in the image and likeness of God, and upon the natural law. Some now assert that such rights and   dignity are determined by the state or the “will of the people.”
  • Freedom reaches its perfection in seeking what is true and good, which ultimately leads one to God. Some now define “freedom” as the   license to do whatever one feels like doing (as long as it isn’t illegal), without regard to truth, goodness, or God.
  • Truth involves correspondence to objective reality. Some now claim that “truth” is  merely a relative term that can vary from person to person. In the process, they deny objective truth, particularly in the moral realm.
  • Common good refers to the good of the entire community, as the   proper object of a just law, which nonetheless presupposes respect for the individual person (cf. CCC 1907). Some now equate the promotion of the common good to the redistribution of wealth, entitlement programs, and an exaggerated deference to the federal government.
  • Culture of life derives from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. While it provides a coherent presentation of the range of life issues, the document hones in on abortion and euthanasia as the key issues of our time. Some use “life” or “culture of life” (without meaning anything in particular) to give  credence to their position, even as they persist in their permissive position on abortion and other non-negotiable issues.
  • Development involves access to the basic necessities of life, especially for the poor. Some use “development,” consciously or otherwise, as code for exporting—or even imposing when necessary—American secular values, most notably an anti-natal agenda.

What Does the Compendium Say About . . .

  • Human rights: Pope John Paul II has drawn up a list of [human rights] in the encyclical Centesimus Annus: 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; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality . . . The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from  conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia (155).
  • Contraception: Also to be rejected is recourse to contraceptive methods in their different forms: this rejection is based on a correct and integral understanding of the person and human sexuality and represents a moral  call to defend the true development of peoples. . . All programs of economic assistance aimed at financing campaigns of sterilization and contraception, as well as the subordination of economic  assistance to such campaigns, are to be morally condemned . . . (233-34)
  • Abortion and Direct Sterilization: Concerning the “methods” for practicing responsible procreation, the first to be rejected as  morally illicit are sterilization and abortion. The latter in particular is a horrendous crime and constitutes a particularly serious moral disorder; far from being a right, it is a sad phenomenon that contributes seriously to spreading a mentality against life, representing a dangerous threat to a just and democratic social coexistence (233).
  • Same-Sex Marriage:  The family, in fact, is born of the intimate communion of life and love founded on the marriage between one man and one woman . . . No power can abolish the natural right to    marriage or modify its traits and purpose. Marriage in fact is endowed with its own proper, innate, and permanent characteristics. . . . (211, 216).
  • Subsidiarity and “Big Government”: Subsidiarity is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine and has been present since the first great social encyclical. . . . The principle of subsidiarity protects people from  abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfill their duties. . . . Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its  limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative (185, 187).
  • Social Engineering and the Concept of Justice: Justice is particularly important in the present-day context, where the individual value of the person, his dignity, and his rights—despite proclaimed intentions—are seriously  threatened by the  widespread tendency to make exclusive use of criteria of utility and ownership. . . . Justice, in fact, is not merely a simple human convention, because what is “just” is not first   determined by the law but by the profound identity of the human being (202).

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is available online at the Vatican’s website (

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