we are called to work for social justice

we are called to work for social justice April 7, 2016

An article from Crisis, entitled “The Misguided Compassion of Social Justice Catholics,” by Dana R. Casey, was making the rounds on the internet recently, and I tried not to read it, because I knew it would not make me happy. But, because I am an intellectual masochist, and because educated Catholics were sharing it, I did the thing, and clicked the link, and regretted it. I will probably regret responding to it also. I meant to write a piece on Charlotte Bronte this morning, but that will have to wait, and I think Charlotte would understand. So here goes.

The author never quite explains what she thinks social justice is, but seems to imagine it as something liberal Catholics tacked onto our faith tradition. She distinguishes between those who “honestly believe in the social justice movement” (I guess that would be me?) and those who use it for their own agenda (apparently, Beyonce?). Here already I am shaking my head, because whenever anyone uses the phrase “their own agenda” they seem to imply something unethical, as though there were anything inherently wrong with having a clear plan for making one’s life better. Indeed, everything the article goes on to say is in praise of those who make their lives better. As usual, I am mystified by the ideals of casual Ayn Randians who praise self-interest in one breath, and then denounce agendas in the next.

Actually, I am not mystified at all. The big crucial distinction, for casual Ayn Randians (and I know this because I was once one, too, in my teens), is that the heroes make their lives better on their own, with no help from anyone, especially with no help from the government. The moochers depend on others. Like that idiot in the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance. And all those people Jesus healed, who just lounged about shouting for his help, instead of cultivating a wholesome self-reliance. This is understandable: our American mythos is all about self-reliance, our tales of blessings are invariably tales of market mastery, and everyone likes to imagine herself as super-woman, not some wounded outcast crying to be healed.

Unfortunately, we are all wounded outcasts crying to be healed.

Casey’s article is directed at those without an agenda:  those who employ social justice in helping others, not themselves. This demographic apparently includes preachers lecturing on social justice in homilies – something I rarely hear, unfortunately, but not surprisingly, because a genuine gospel of social justice is likely to make everyone, myself as well, very uncomfortable. Then there is “the teacher inculcating in her marginalized students Social Justice values” – but, still, we are left unclear on what these values are. Voters who support entitlement programs (for the poor, I guess?) are also numbered among this misguided lot. Finally, Casey refers to “those who just wish to assuage their own ‘guilt’ no matter the unintended consequences for those less able to recover from the Social Justice warriors’ so-called benevolent compassion.” Is she referring here to the sense of collective guilt shared by those of us who are aware that, often, our privilege has come to us at the expense of the rights of others? Right-wing Catholics are quick to assure us that such guilt is false since we ourselves are not directly responsible for the suffering of the downtrodden. But I am not comfortable with this. Having already bought into the Christian understanding of original sin and shared culpability, and knowing what I know about how systemic injustice functions, I believe there is a legitimate sense in which we can experience guilt, not as crippling self-hatred, but as a humbling reminder of all that we have been given, and our reliance upon social structures that victimize others (wage slave labor, energy sources that despoil the environment in which others live, the military industrial complex). This guilt should spur us on to action.

And this is where Catholic social teaching is so important, because our political efforts to end injustice can easily fall into either violence on one hand, or ineffectual utopianism on the other, without a solid theological underpinning. Casey’s article suggests that social justice warriors employ a “false compassion” which actually debilitates the underprivileged, instead of providing them with the tools they need to improve their own lot. I disagree strenuously with her assumption that people are best served by being held to high standards and then left to fight their way upward, because not everyone is equipped with the same tools to engage in this fight, and she fails to take into account the very real psychological devastation wrought by years of poverty and marginalization. And she is simply wrong when she claims that social justice warriors try to help only collectives, not individuals, and insulting to the underprivileged when she asserts that they simply take advantage of us dim-witted social justice types. My own experience teaching in an adult continuing education program for the mentally ill and the homeless indicated quite otherwise: sometimes people need to be encouraged and assured of their value before they are ready to face high standards, and when they accept this, it is not “taking advantage” – but rather, taking what was owed to them before, and never given. A person must first be loved, in order to love, and as Plato asserts, all great deeds arise from love (this is why I believe in God, incidentally).

But as one who has had to rely on social welfare programs in the past, I am aware of the fact that these could be improved on. There is certainly a kind of helplessness that descends on one, when it becomes clear that there are no jobs, that your employer will never give you a raise, in spite of a proven record of excellence. At least there are still food stamps! But in such circumstances, it is definitely a temptation to just stop trying to excel at all, unless one happens to be very stubborn. So I understand frustration with programs that seem ineffectual, especially when they are taken out of a larger theological vision of our duty to one another, and our place in the world. There is room for discussion about how best to implement social justice, indeed.

Contrary to the beliefs of this author and many others, social justice is a a genuine part of our Catholic life. 

“As regards the State, the interests of all, whether high or low, are equal…and therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due…Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice – with that justice which is called distributive – toward each and every class alike.”
Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII

“Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.”
Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI

“[I]t is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood.”
Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI

“The Church has always emphasized that this obligation of helping those who are in misery and want should be felt most strongly by Catholics, in view of the fact that they are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. “In this we have known the charity of God,” says St. John, “because he has laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. He that hath the substance of this world and shall see his brother in need and shall shut up his bowels from him; how doth the charity of God abide in him?”
Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII

“It is imperative that no one, out of indifference to the course of events or because of inertia, would indulge in a merely individualistic morality. The best way to fulfil one’s obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one’s means and the needs of others, and also to promote and help public and private organizations devoted to bettering the conditions of life.”
Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II

“Furthermore, while there are just differences between people, their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.”
Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II

“Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
Justicia in Mundo, World Synod of Catholic Bishops

“Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equality…If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an over-emphasis on equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.”
Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI

“Their obligations stem from a brotherhood that is at once human and supernatural, and take on a threefold aspect: the duty of human solidarity–the aid that the rich nations must give to developing countries; the duty of social justice–the rectification of inequitable trade relations between powerful nations and weak nations; the duty of universal charity–the effort to bring about a world that is more human towards all men, where all will be able to give and receive, without one group making progress at the expense of the other.”
Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI

“The life and words of Jesus and the teaching of his Church call us to serve those in need and to work actively for social and economic justice. As a community of believers, we know that our faith is tested by the quality of justice among us, that we can best measure our life together by how the poor and the vulnerable are treated.”
Economic Justice for All, U.S. Catholic Bishops

“Every citizen also has the responsibility to work to secure justice and human rights through an organized social response. In the words of Pius XI, “Charity will never be true charity unless it takes justice into account … Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt himself from the great duties imposed by justice.” The guaranteeing of basic justice for all is not an optional expression of largesse but an inescapable duty for the whole of society.”
Economic Justice for All, U.S. Catholic Bishops

“Love for others, and especially for the poor, is made concrete by promoting justice.”
Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.
Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI

If one dislikes the fact that social justice is part of the fabric of our religious life, one is certainly free to assert this, but one must, in so doing, be honest about the fact that one is taking up a position, not in defense of, but in opposition to the teaching and the lived faith of the church.

Image: Gentleman giving alms to a beggar: Illustration for “Of Pride” in John Day’s A christall glasse of christian reformation, London, 1569.Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woodcut_Giving_Alms_to_a_Beggar.jpg
Public domain.  {{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.


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