The Catholic Thing
The Missing Foundation of Social Justice Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 23 December 2010

For years, my diocese has held a large summer conference on “social justice,” and for years, rarely (if ever) is there a presentation on the evils of abortion and euthanasia. An older view of social justice assumes “social justice” and “respect for life” can be considered separately, in much the same way as, say, taxes and foreign policy. The mistake is similar to the one we make in trying to separate the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of the sexual act, when in fact they are fundamentally related: each is necessary for the proper realization of the other.

I went searching recently for a complete collection of the Church’s social justice encyclicals, and quickly discovered that a key text, Evangelium Vitae was always missing. Even the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church failed to list Evangelium Vitae among the “social justice” encyclicals. What’s more, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano pays a rather incomplete homage to the late Pope John Paul the Great in the introduction to the Compendium when he suggests that, “Continuing to expound and update the rich patrimony of Catholic social doctrine, Pope John Paul II. . .published three great Encyclicals — Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and Centesimus Annus….” With all due respect to his eminence, this list overlooks the fourth great “social justice” encyclical by John Paul — the foundation for all the others: Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life.”

      They wisely showed us that “social justice” and
      “respect for human life” can never be separated.


John Paul II had a gift for clearly and powerfully articulating how foundational the “life issues” are to true “social justice.” The “unconditional respect for the life of every innocent person,” he declared in Evangelium Vitae, “is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands”: 

The Gospel of life is for the whole of human society. To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace. (emphasis added)

So too for Benedict, “respect for life” continues to play a crucial and indeed fundamental role in “social justice.” In his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, for example, Benedict insists that:

One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples. It is an aspect which has acquired increasing prominence in recent times, obliging us to broaden our concept of poverty and underdevelopment to include questions connected with the acceptance of life, especially in cases where it is impeded in a variety of ways. 

Contrary to what many world “development” authorities seem to think, “openness to life,” says the pope, “is at the center of true development.”:

If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fiber and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual.

Like John Paul II, Benedict says: “the social question” today has become a “radically anthropological question.”  What unites and serves as the foundation for all the various “topics” in social justice is a particular “theology of the human person,” one that is often at odds with current ideas and practices. In contrast to our current obsession with manipulating and mastering every aspect of human life — how and when our children are born and with what characteristics; how and when we will die and by whose hand —Benedict and John Paul have preached a consistent respect for the mystery and inherent dignity of human life. 

Underlying many of our current problems, they have insisted, “are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity” and “foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life.” “Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development?” asks Pope Benedict. “How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human?. . . .While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human.”

In this Christmas season, when we pray for “peace on earth,” let us remember that Mary gave birth to the one who is the life of the world. And let us give thanks for Benedict and John Paul, who have so wisely shown us that “social justice” and “respect for human life” can never be separated, since the protection of human life and respect for the dignity of the human person will never cease to be the foundation stone for all the other dimensions of social justice.

What they have so wisely put together, may no bureaucrat or politician put asunder.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Howard Kainz, December 23, 2010
It is ironic, and a bit bizarre, that liberal Catholics who support "a woman's right to choose" justify this by claiming that the essence of Christianity is social justice, and not "side-issues" like abortion.
written by senex, December 23, 2010
Since the time of Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum in 1891, the concept of social justice in Church documents has referred to economic issues affecting people in society. To drag in to social justice pro life issues separate and apart from those broader issues is to dilute and confuse. It is bad enough that much of what is written about social justice is socialism, not justice. Your quote from Caritas in Veritate is taken out of context.
written by Bill, December 23, 2010
Sr. Keehan of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, AZ is a "social justice" religious who assented to an abortion of a healthy baby at the Hospital. Bishop Olmstead excommunicated her and removed St. Joseph's (after years of studying it and Catholic Healthcare West) as a Catholic institution.
Isn't it so much more pleasant when you have an adult Pope and an adult bishop? It removes everything from the realm of theory where the Church has been "parked" for the last fifty years.
written by Bill, December 24, 2010
A very important correction on my reply above: Sr. Keehan was not associated with St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix as she heads the U.S. Catholic Health Association. She was NOT excommunicated, but she does support the hospital against Bishop Olmsted. The nun who was excommunicated was Sr. Margaret McBride of St. Joseph's Hospital.
written by FW Ken, December 25, 2010
Economic issues are not "broader" than life issues. It's quite the other way around.
written by Gary Kelly, January 07, 2011
Christian conservatives must begin to confront the evil of tyranny, masked as "social justice," by not only asking, but demanding, by what new and improved foundation of wisdom do progressives possess that supersedes that of the Biblical moral virtue of America's Founding Fathers? It is without doubt, as it always is, the response will be at best evasive, then once offended, attempt to deflect and redirect the blame of the current chaos back towards those who possess Biblical moral virtue. The Christian conservative must in the midst of these baseless attacks continue to press for that new and improved foundation upon which progressives cannot provide.

Does this indicate the fault of "We the People" falling for the secular Marxist's ploy and becoming "We the sheeple?" Or is the neglect of the shepherds of Christendom who no longer preach all that they are called to preach? Are "We the sheeple" only hearing John 3:16 and not John 3:16-21, 1 Timothy 2 and not 2 timothy 4? Is this why "We the sheeple" cowardly refrain from discussing "religion and politics" because someone might get offended when the FOUNDATION of Biblical moral virtue highlights the chaos of lives without responsibilities as defined by the boundaries of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God?"

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