Social Justice: What the Church Sees

In order to kick off this series exploring social justice and Catholic social teaching, I thought it would be wise to begin with a post explaining what I mean by “social justice”.  In some sense, trying to define it is like trying to nail jello to a wall, but using the lens of the Church, I will give it my best shot.

The word Justice has many different connotations.  The most common definition of justice would be something like this one from Wikipedia:

Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics.

Whew.  That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?  Well, it seems to be as complete a definition of ‘justice” as it is commonly understood as possible.

Of course there are different models of justice.  For instance, there is the criminal justice system, which executes the laws of our country and punishes those who violate them.  It serves one kind of justice, but is not justice complete, for it does not evaluate whether or not those laws are in fact ethical, and does not interest itself with whether structures outside of the law are ethical.

There is contractual justice, utilitarian notions of justice, entitlement claims of justice, liberation ideas of justice, and on and on.  While each of these theories of justice contributes something to the conversation, I want to narrow the focus to the theory of justice that is explained through Catholic social thought and teaching. After all, it is the Church’s teachings on justice, as opposed to any other, which should be of primary concern to Catholics.

The body of modern Catholic social thought began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s publication of the encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor).

The documents which follow have been an attempt by the Church to present a consistent theory by which to relate faith to social conditions and problems.

There are three basic affirmations that drive the core of Catholic social thought, as it has been developed over the past 120 years:

1. The human person has inviolable dignity as a creature made in the image and likeness of God.

2. The human person has an essentially social nature.

3. The goods and resources of creation and of social life are given for all people. (Lebacqz 67).

The over-arching theme of all Catholic social thought is that the inviolable dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is the foundation upon which all social structures must be built.

As flows from this fact, people must always take priority over institutions, and institutions exist to serve people, not the other way around.  However, This framework of justice is not simply distributive justice.  Social justice is more than distributive justice, because it does not want to simply re-distribute resources, but rather, wants to ensure that all people have the opportunity and ability to participate in the creation of resources through work and effort.  The state and private sector, working together, must enable all (as far as possible) to participate in the life of society.  Because human beings are essentially social in nature, true justice must be addressed through social relationships (such as employer-employee, etc.) as well as private relationships (husband-wife, parent-child, etc.).

Within the Church, social thought differs somewhat from an earlier notion of justice which has been most clearly taught by St. Thomas Aquinas. However, the two are not mutually exclusive, and I hope to show how the more contemporary theory of social justice has its basis in an understanding of Thomistic justice.

Thomistic Justice

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas defines justice thus: “ a habit whereby a person renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will”. In this understanding of justice, one cannot simply intend to do justice. One’s external actions must render to another what is due to them according to relationships of “proportional equality” (Elsbernd 92).

In Aquinas’ framework, claims of justice are based on human relationality, since justice is “concerned only with our dealings with others” (ST II-II q.58 a.2). Further, in this model, one’s actions ought to conform to the God-established order through adherance to both civil and Church laws. Aquinas is thinking with deductive reasoning, which renders this theory of justice applicable, though incomplete. One major weakness of this model of justice is that it does not speak to institutions and social structures which are outside of laws, nor does it have a notion of justice as being present or absent in social structures and institutions.

Justice in Catholic social teachings

The teachings of Catholic social thought, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891, are rooted in Thomistic justice, and over time, have stretched that concept of justice, without totally disregarding it.

According to the book When Love is not Enough: A Theo-Ethic of Justice by my mentor and teacher Mary Elsbernd O.S.F. (God rest her soul), the Thomistic framework of justice as “giving to each what is due” has been stretched through the encyclicals of Catholic social thought over the last one-hundred and twenty years or so.

In reading through each of the encyclicals, justice is encountered as: obligation (Rerum Novarum), distribution of resources (Quadregesimo Anno), equity (Mater et Magistra), acess to basic human needs (Gaudium et Spes), structural facilitation of fairness (Laborem Exercens), and as contributing to the common good (Centisimus Annus) (Elsbernd 106).

So we arrive at Social Justice. It’s roots begin in Thomistic theory of justice, but it moves beyond this framework in a few ways:

1. Social justice concerns itself with the policies, structures, patterns, and laws which facilitate or hinder the practice of just deeds.

2. Social justice attends not only to what is due in relationships, but to the creation of circumstances so that it is possible for persons and nations to contribute what is due.

3. Social justice in interested in the whole socioeconomic order as an interlocking system, rather than its individual parts. (Elsbernd 107).

Social Justice then is concerned both with justice within personal relationships and social ones as well. The reason for this concern is because (1) the human person has inviolable dignity as a creature in the image and likeness of God, (2) the social nature of the human person and (3) the belief on the part of the Church that the goods of creation and social life are meant for all people to enjoy.

This definition of social justice may be different from notions of justice with which you have been previously familiar. Our President has famously been associated with social justice movements because of his work as a community organizer early in his career. Surely there are differing ideas as to what, exactly, social justice is. The justice our President believed he was working toward was most likely not rooted in the same framework and view of the human person that Catholic social justice calls for, or perhaps in an idea of justice which is incomplete and inauthentic from a Catholic perspective.

I am all too well aware that there are many people who claim to be working for social justice, yet fail to see protection of the weakest, most defenseless among us as being a goal of social justice. All I can offer in response to that is this: Persons who believe that social justice can be attained without respecting the life and dignity of each and every human being on the planet are laboring in vain. Their efforts are sure to fail because for any justice to be authentic, it must recognize the inviolable dignity of the human person. As I stated above, the recognition of that fact must be the basis of all social structures in order for them to be just. That is the teaching of the Church, and it is the Truth.

Anything less is not justice, regardless of what someone might like to call it.

I will explore this notion further in my next post, which will be a list of common myths about social justice, and the truth of what authentic Catholic social justice calls us to.

Thanks for reading, and I hope it wasn’t too lecture-like. Unless of course, you’re into that sort of thing. And just to show that I don’t take myself or all of this “too” seriously, here’s a social justice joke:

Hmm, fair trade coffee. Though I do enjoy a good song ’bout freedom as well.

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  • Louise

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this, because it is an area with which I have very limited familiarity. Everything you’ve written “feels” right to my Catholic heart, but you’re giving your readers insights into the logic and reasoning behind Catholic social thought, which is awesome! Thank you!

  • CM

    I really like how you’ve expanded on these thoughts a little more formally. For someone like myself, who’s had very little background in this, it helps to clarify some things. Thanks!

  • Kate

    Wonderful! I’m jealous of your MA in Social Justice, by the way… the opportunity that arose for my master’s degree resulted in a degree in Pastoral Ministry, even though SJ is my real passion. I’m feeling called toward a PhD (in few years – I need a break!) in Social Justice – if only I can find a program!

    Anyway, I <3 academia, so thanks for reminding me of that fact. :)

  • Rae

    I love this!

    And as far as the joke goes, I’m thinking that a brick could be part of the eco-friendly side of social justice with the conserving water by putting a brick in the toilet tank trick? I’m such a good, peace loving Catholic. 😉

  • Pat

    Thank you for the posting. This Earth needs social justice. Certainly it should be a concern of all Christian congregations, whether Catholic or Protestant. Please keep writing on this topic.

  • That Married Couple

    Oh, this is great Sarah. I too am unfamiliar with all this, so I’m glad for your clear explanation!