Social Justice Isn’t Left or Right: It’s Catholic

11 Oct

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 accompany 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 UMKC 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–such as politics, economic concerns, world peace–there’s bound to be some disagreement. But the problem goes deeper, pointing to the need for us to more fully 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 (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, 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” (no. 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?, June 16, 2010).

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 as they are to the Church’s actual social doctrine. That’s why many conservative Catholic leaders, not to mention libertarian-leaning commentators like Glenn Beck, 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 the Church’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, no.  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 sections on topics such as 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.

This article previous appeared in This Rock magazine. Over the next few days at No Place Like Home, we will take a closer look at what Catholic social teaching is–and isn’t.

3 Responses to “Social Justice Isn’t Left or Right: It’s Catholic”

  1. Nicole October 11, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    There’s a huge issue with the social justice discussion: no one defines justice. Rational definition is the basis of communication, without it, all you’re dealing with is pleasing or unpleasing sentiment, often blind, but not often helpful in the achievement of human action (as opposed to simply passionate acts of man).

    Seeing that justice is giving each man what he is owed, one can see better how we are to respond to our duties to God, to family, to neighbor and to country – how to act piously, basically.

    Everyone talks about justice and different aspects of justice (like freedom) as if it is a thoroughly defined concept that everyone graps well, when that is hardly the case. Learn the concepts first, then try to talk about it. 🙂


  1. Beyond the Buzzwords « - October 12, 2011

    […] Yesterday’s post noted that “social justice” can be two things. Sometimes it refers to authentic Church teaching, and other times it’s a politically charged buzzword. Further, these two meanings are blended just enough these days to cause considerable–at times calculated–confusion. […]

  2. Musings of an Accidental Conservative « - January 29, 2013

    […] staunch defense of human dignity and social justice, which generally speaking is a very good thing (when the concept isn’t hijacked). But in the Church, “liberal” typically equates with “dissident” or ”heterodox,” which […]

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