Deacon James Toner: Social justice
Scripture is replete with the call to justice – as in Psalm 15 or Micah 6:8 or in Matthew 25:31-46, containing Our Lord's promise and warning about the Final Judgment and our Christian duty to take care of the least important in society. The Church teaches us about many kinds of justice: commutative, referring to the justice of contracts between individuals, including wages and prices; distributive, referring to fair allocation of benefits and burdens among people, including considerations of power and wealth; and legal, referring to what the citizen owes in fairness to the community.
Catholics may know these ideas under the heading of "social justice," for the public ministry of the Church today is often described simply as the work of social justice, which may be understood as the corporal works of mercy being practiced in society (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447). Over the past 50 years, the Holy Father has taught us wisely and well about the critical importance of Catholics being committed to social justice. In encyclicals from "Pacem in Terris" (John XXIII) to "Populorum Progressio" (Paul VI), to "Centesimus Annus" and "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" (John Paul II) and "Caritas in Veritate" (Benedict XVI), we have heard the call to remember always what we learn in Sirach: "Give your help to the poor, and the Lord will give you His perfect blessing" (7:32 GNB).
The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once told us that errors often creep into our thinking by the magnification of only one part of a good idea. For example, we can, and often do, over-emphasize the importance of sex or money or sport. If we concentrate only, or even principally, upon social justice (which is, I repeat, a great good), we run the real risk of diminishing or possibly denying the enduring first duty of Christ's Church, which is to save souls (see "Lumen Gentium," 14; "Gaudium et Spes," 45). The Church must never be reduced to a political interest group or to a social agency or to a relief service.
We are always called to minister to the poor and to understand what is called the "universal destination of goods" (see CCC 2402-2403). We have a "horizontal" duty to our brothers and sisters. We have, though, a primary "vertical duty" (the two arms of the holy cross) to keep Christ and the teachings of His Church always first in what we think and say and do. The first words of Our Lord, as reported in Mark's Gospel, are "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (1:14). All Christians are called to the work of saving souls. As our priest prays in the First Eucharistic Prayer: we ask the Lord to deliver us "from final damnation and (to be) counted among the flock of those You have chosen" (cf. Mt 10:28).
As important as the corporal works of mercy are, I fear that we hear too little today about the spiritual works of mercy, or about the traditional nine ways in which one can cooperate in sin, or about the necessity for conversion (as in Romans 12:2), or about our need (as we hear in every Holy Mass) to acknowledge our sinfulness and to do penance, or about the spiritual warfare that rages around us (see Eph 6:12-13, CCC 407). In other words, the first element of justice – in Latin "suum cuique" – is to render everyone his due, and, above all, to worship God in words and in works.
Of Eucharistic Adoration, for instance, Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame said that it "is a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward." Asked by a reporter about abortion, political activist Sister Simone Campbell replied: "That's above my pay grade." Other nuns, though, practicing a life of contemplation, have been told "to get off your knees and do something!" The idea that we are called, first, to worship and prayer; the idea that we should try always to grow in holiness; the idea that piety should be cultivated (see CCC 1831) – these ideas are sometimes relegated to a very distant place in the fever of political activism.
When Jesuit Father Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio (1793-1862) coined the term "social justice," he was asserting the fact that we are social beings who live in community, and the government is not the ultimate dispenser of justice. In other words, Father Taparelli used the term to make the Catholic point, as writer Jacques Maritain was to say later, that "Man is not for the State; the State is for Man." (Notably, Father Taparelli's thoughts on the social ills of the Industrial Revolution inspired his student, who later became Pope Leo XIII, to write the great social justice encyclical "Rerum Novarum" in 1891.)
Pope Pius XI, who in 1931 made the term "social justice" a key part of our moral vocabulary, wrote that "to use the words of (a previous pope), 'if human society is to be healed, only a return to Christian life and institutions will heal it.' For this alone can provide effective remedy for that excessive care for passing things that is the origin of all vices; and this alone can draw away men's eyes, fascinated by and wholly fixed on the changing things of the world, and raise them toward Heaven. Who would deny that human society is in most urgent need of this cure now?" He wrote, "(As long as souls are in ruin), all efforts to regenerate society will be ineffective."
Social justice, then, rightly practiced, demands first the cultivation of personal virtue (1 Pt 1:13, 2 Pt 1:3-11), starting with being on our knees to God (Eph 3:14).
Deacon James H. Toner serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro.