January 8, 2011

In Defense of Social Justice

In the course of my internet ministry I have noticed something disturbing: sometimes so-called conservative or 'traditionalist'-leaning Catholics dismiss social justice as if it were an error altogether or at least something outside of Christian concern. This is a serious distortion of Christianity and Catholic teaching. Our Lord himself, with the whole prophetic tradition leading up to him, (not to mention the ordinary magisterium of the Church) reveals that social injustice is one of the most serious sins against God's sovereignty, and that the struggle for justice in the world is integral to genuine religion.

I've been reflecting on where this error comes from, and I've arrived at two ideas. First, sometimes folks are distracted by the errors of the 'social justice type' Catholics themselves. For example, sometimes these ignore certain pressing issues of social justice which are not considered such by secular liberals, like abortion or homosexual "marriage" for example, and thus reveal a certain confused assimilation to the world. But if religious conservatives allow such mistakes to make them reject the idea of social justice altogether, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater and permitting the devil a great victory.

Second, I think there is, among us Catholics at least, a false separation between social justice and evangelization. There is a sense that we have our faith, we celebrate it at the Eucharist, and then we are called to go out into the world and work for justice. This is true as far as it goes, but I think we sometimes forget that the love of God and the Eucharist are themselves the social program par excellence. Yes, goods like a living wage, honest work, and access to health care and education are all things we should work for on behalf of those who need them, but in the end the old cliche holds: Jesus is the answer. In other words, we are good at remembering that we are called to struggle against social injustice, but because the world tells us to keep our religion to ourselves, we conveniently forget that God himself is the remedy for the ills of society.

This second trouble leads to two distortions in our Catholic life. First, if someone encourages others to the devout life, or to return to prayer or the sacraments, or practices the liturgy in such a way that it produces communities of devotion and fervor, this is generally not viewed as a ministry of social justice, when in fact it is so, and preeminently. Helping the greatest number of people to come into the deepest experiential contact with the mystery of Justifying Charity Himself in divine worship makes them into a justifying leaven in the world. On the other hand, if our faith leads us to agitate for social change or to join those who try to compel worldly governments to take better care of the poor, we should not imagine that we have accomplished a great victory if we have not also given people a way to God in Whom they can know the truth about themselves in the world as an alternative to the errors about creation, life, and humanity which are at the root of social problems in the first place. This goes for both the powerful and the poor of this world. It is a failure to properly acknowledge the sovereignty of God that is at the root of social injustice, and to fail to include this in our social works is to only address symptoms rather than the disease itself.


Mark D. said...

Great post, Father. I think that the hostility to the idea of social justice comes from the abuse of that term by the Left, and the refusal of liberals, even Catholic liberals, to abuse the term in defense of an agenda that is hostile to the sanctity of human life and other social goods (like private property) that the Chruch approves of. In my theological education (not nearly as extensive as yours), the idea of "social justice" was always used as a way to introduce left-wing political principles into a discussion. If you look at the world of Catholic legal education in the United States, that is most definitely true (I am a graduate of a Catholic law school and can attest to this first hand).

Personally, I think that the phrase "social justice" has become poison by misuse. The legitimate idea behind the term, embraced by the authentic social teaching of the Church and explained by popes from Leo XIII to John XXIII to Benedict XVI, is rock solid and needs a much wider and more vibrant expression in the life of the Church. But the term itself has, unfortunately, been so misused that it it time for it to be retired. IMHO.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Amen! Well said!

love the girls said...

Dear Brother Charles,

I don't doubt you've ran across such disheartening notions online, I've likewise found more than my fair share of silly positions online. I have also spent my the majority of my life surrounded by traditionalists and know them fairly well, and am one myself.

If there is any body of Catholics who actually do understand Church teaching on social issues, it would be the traditionlists.

I would be glad to give you a run down on what is commonly held by traditionalist, but what you will find is that its not unlike having the encyclicals read back to you with commentary on how to implement them into American society. No easy task.

One on the most disheartening problems I find online is that virtually all commentators are Never actually out working in the private sector earning their daily bread from hand to mouth. Of which the libs, and libertarians are by far the most egregious. And if it wasn’t so uncharitable, I would wish nothing better for them than they be forced to live by the principles and solutions they so charitably would force upon my family.

Tom said...

Good comments!--and that's a compliment from a diehard conservative.

What I see lacking often in the Mass petitions is an over emphasis on feeding and giving to the poor and a push for more government generosity BUT a lack of petitions for turning away from sin, the need for purity, more pro-life petitions, a call for deeper daily prayer lives, etc. After all, it's sin and it's distasteful aftereffects that will keep souls from unity with God in heaven. Kinda important. Often missing in the homilies and petitions. Some balance is needed, that's all.

Brother Charles said...

@Mark: Thanks for the comment. Sometimes I'm a little frustrated as I try to reflect in this area and on other similar topics, because I don't have much education or sophistication in some of the applicable areas. For example, the question of rights. Sometimes, when people want something, they say that rights are prior to the state, and when they want something else, they seem to say that rights derive from the state. Certain things are called "human rights" without an account of why this should be, and it is presumed that if something is a human right, then the state has an obligation not only to protect it but to provide for it. I wonder about all this stuff, but I just don't know much about it. Thus I value your conversation.

@IC Thanks for the encouragement!

@LTG Thanks for the balancing comment!

@Tom: exactly what I mean.

Carly said...

Oh, I so agree!!!

From a simple Mom with a young son in government-funded Catholic School, my issue is with the school's (School Board's) use of "Social Justice" to cover all things religious.

Instead of teaching the students about Catholic theology, training them in their beautiful faith, or helping them build a relationship with God, they cover all religious education in a social justice blanket.

We're collecting money for this charity (often the United Way which supports groups such as Planned Parenthood and the like), we're having a food drive, we're recycling - all very good and worthwhile endeavours.

The reason why social justice has come to leave a bad taste in our mouths is because the Catholic school (and School Board) believe their work when it comes to forming young people in their faith is done once they've taught the kids to use the compost bin or donate a few bottles.

While I firmly believe that my child's education does not begin or end with the school system, I do call his teachers, principals and administrations to a higher standard of Catholic education.

Mark D. said...

Well, Father, the simple fact is that the only coherent and intellectually tight conception of law and human rights was developed -- and I hate to say this on a comment to a Franciscan's blog -- St. Thomas Aquinas in his Treatise on Law in the Summa. Since most of modern jurisprudence is an explicit rejection of Thomist principles, the rationale for human rights, "social justice," etc., is incoherent.

The key to understanding the Left is that reason and rationales don't matter to them. If they like a policy, then they will come up with a rationale for it. If they don't, they'll come up for a rationale for that too, and principle doesn't really get in the way.

Example: life issues. When talking about the death penalty, the Left sounds positively papal in its devotion to Catholic social teaching. Catechism, JP2, bring it all out! Talk about abortion tho', and it is quickly "keep your rosaries off my ovaries" rhetoric.

ben in denver said...

There is also a 3rd reason. There are no small number of conservative and traditional catholics who have come out of seriously disordered backgrounds. I know traditionalists who were raised hindus, or practiced wicca, or were hard-core atheist communists, or had multiple abortions before finding Salvation in Jesus and His Church. For these people, who have a lived expereince of the consequences of serious sin, there is a great hesitancy to do anything that might seem like condoning the sin of another. They do not wish to involve themselves with anything that might make the spiritual condition of the poor worse. And they see cooperation with non-judgemental government assistance programs as doing exactly that.

Anonymous said...

I do, sometimes, find myself frustrated at time as well:
there is a false dichotomy that falls along a conformity to the american political ideaologies, that need not exist in our Church. And so the Good Catholics I know who take a stand on behalf of the poor and needy, often take things for granted. If Jesus and the Gospel is not the basis for our Justice, then our justice is not merely flawed by idolatry. If our worship of God Incarnate in Jesus to liberate us does not motivate us to good action, then our worship of Jesus is shallow, if not entirely inauthentic.
I guess, without Jesus being who he is, I just find no compelling reason to even credibly talk of social justice, and we might as well degrade our political system to socio darwinism.

Mark D. said...

The idolatry is the point. With the professional Left, they don't really care about the Gospel or the social teaching of the Church. They are simply using the Church's teachings when convenient to push a liberal agenda. When it isn't convenient to the liberal agenda, the Church's teaching gets pushed to the back or silenced altogether. One sees this with the health care bill, which all the "pro-life" Democrats assured us would not fund abortions. Well, guess what? There were enough loopholes included that we are in fact now directly funding abortions.

The phrase "social justice" needs to be dropped, at least for a generation or two, to allow the toxicity of the politicization of the phrase by the Left to wear off. Otherwise, the term will simply continue to be abused. Better to say "social teaching of the Church," and then identify the specific principle of social justice that is being invoked: distributive justice, subsidiarity, solidarity, common good, etc. That is far less likely to lead to the kind of political idolatry that is now rife whenever the phrase "social justice" shows up.

Greg said...

Wonderful discussion. The misuse of the term "social justice" shows the power of language in framing issues to political advantage.

The history of social justice being conflated with Marxism gives extra punch to your observation, as that philosophy directly attacks rather than supports the faith.

When we look at the current scene we find the President's Spiritual adviser pushing social justice but also accepting funding from George Soros, a Jewish atheist pushing for one world government.

Unfortunately, we also find Catholic organizations taking money from Soros, which calls into question their approach to faith.

Tausign said...

Br. Charles: Your initial concern expressed in your opening paragraph is right on target. I see people filtering the gospel message of the Church through political colored glasses to an alarming extent. One would think that Catholics would go first to documents like the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, or take some time to find out what is authentic Catholic teaching through more easily digestible parish study guides and such. I consider myself conservative on most issues and yet I cringe at seeing someone such as Glenn Beck paint with such a broad brush and encourage people to run from Churches that ‘preach social justice’. Hold your horses, please.

All of those commenting to this post have good points or should I say they have beefs with how others construct a social justice agenda and the policies they pursue. Those on the left have their issues they ignore…especially prolife. But those on the right pick and choose also…supporting death penalty, mostly ignoring economic injustice, overlooking torture.

And I think that’s the heart of the problem, the propensity to choose social justice issues like servings from a buffet…take what you like…and dismiss the rest. There’s bound to be some elements of the Church’s Social Doctrine we’re not comfortable with...much like people favor or dismiss certain sections of the gospel…so what’s our response? This is not an easy task because ongoing conversion is the necessary element for the Church members, as the Body of Christ. We should be working together to create a more fraternal world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively.