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The Poverty of Social Justice Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 07 February 2011

Several years ago, the editor of a Catholic encyclopedia asked me the write a dozen or so entries on Catholic social teaching, including one on social justice. I read into the literature. But I found that social justice, if it can be said to exist at all, is a pretty threadbare idea.

Before you write in: Catholic social teaching tells us we have responsibilities of solidarity towards others, especially the poor. We all need to reflect seriously on that and act. But Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and the whole Christian tradition until recently talked simply about justice, which always involves social relations and, therefore, doesn’t need to be revved up with “social.”

This whole question matters a lot because, besides the obvious urgency of supporting the poor, Catholics have been told for a half century that “social justice” is an equal part – alongside pro-life activities – of protecting all human life. And we should vote accordingly (almost always to the detriment of pro-life candidates). The problem is, it’s relatively easy to figure out how to protect babies in the womb: don’t abort them. How to help the poor is much less clear, especially in political terms.

Old school Catholics learned that justice comes in three forms: commutative, the just exchange between two parties, on which all other forms depend; distributive, which requires that goods and services be reasonably distributed in the community (This is different from redistribution; redistributionist schemes in the twentieth century led to quite unjust, even tyrannical regimes); and the general justice enshrined in law.

Social justice crept in under the same assumptions as socialism, Marxism, and other kinds of social engineering: the belief that there is some “scientific” analysis of society that allows us to establish “programs” and “systems” (two words that always demand close scrutiny) that will produce social justice. In this perspective, all that is missing is will – and advocates usually suggest that dark forces, namely business people, are the only obstacles.

This picture used to be quite potent, even within the Church. But in the current economic crisis, the dogs of social justice are not barking much. In Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, the term social justice appears in only two places. The first, not until twenty-five sections into the document, points to the changed circumstances for social justice (e.g., globalization means jobs sent overseas help the poor elsewhere, but what of workers in the developed countries?); the second mostly identifies social justice with what are sometimes called “pre-political” values like trust and solidarity. No facile social justice claims. There’s wisdom in Benedict’s limiting himself to general principles.

 
     The Slaughter of the Innocents (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Because as you may have noticed, even in the voluminous debate on a large question like the current economic crisis, there’s not much agreement. Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, Princeton economics professor, and New York Times columnist, is apoplectic, arguing that the massive stimulus (over $800 billion dollars) was woefully inadequate. Other distinguished eminences are equally passionate that massive expenditures not only did little, they’ve put us further from restarting business growth, job creation, and debt reduction.

That’s the wonky approach. If you want to argue justice – social or otherwise – things are even cloudier. Liberals and conservatives alike were enraged at Wall Street bailouts, while people were left without jobs on Main Street. The jury is still out on efforts to create or to preserve jobs directly – as in the General Motors bailout. Certainly, “Cash for Clunkers” shows on a small scale that you can use $5 billion of taxpayers’ money and do nothing but encourage people to buy cars a little earlier.

But here’s the rub for justice, at least on the old model: how is it just to bail out one industry and not another? Why do auto workers in Detroit or builders of solar panels get financial favors while, say, the poor readers, writers, and editors of The Catholic Thing and the taxpayers themselves can’t catch a break? Is it just that some people – a cynic might say those with political connections or better lobbyists or some ideological advantage – get different treatment under the law?

Private organizations don’t know much more about social justice. Catholic Charities USA, which I give to at the end of every year in support of its relief work, has made it a goal to cut poverty in half by 2020. A pious wish, and I’d be delighted if it happened. But can they do it?

When President Johnson inaugurated the “war on poverty” in the mid 1960s, the poverty rate was about 15 percent. It’s fluctuated of course – descending to a little over 10 percent, back to near 15 percent, and currently 14.3 percent – mostly because of the economy rather than anything social justice advocates have done.

Spending trillions on poverty was bound to have some effect, bad in terms of welfare disincentives, as well as good. (We’ll leave constitutionality and the wisdom of expanding governments that spread anti-Christian values for another day.) But does anyone know how to cut poverty in half? That means a historically unprecedented 7 percent. Statistics are never simply scientific and certainly can’t predict the future, but there’s no policy wonk in Washington or Harvard’s Kennedy School who would bet the mortgage on that.

If social justice is just a matter of lobbying and convincing people in business and government to give up their selfish ways and to adopt “programs” and “just structures” that eliminate poverty – obviously not all the ones that have failed to date – why is cutting poverty in half highly unlikely?

As I say, advocates tell us our concern for all human life demands working towards social justice. I myself would be happy with justice. But while we grapple with problems no one knows how to solve, there’s no excuse for failing to confront the greatest justice issue of our day, which we do know how to fix: the slaughter of the innocents.


Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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written by James Danielson, February 07, 2011
In graduate school I had a course called "Catholic Social Ethics," taught by a Jesuit who proudly described himself as a Communist. Happily, he didn't advocate his ideas beyond claiming this dubious label. We read American bishops on economics and nuclear war, always with the sense that these guys should stick to what they do best, whatever that is. The great social encyclicals were good reading, but one didn't get the sense that the popes were saying that social justice requires the state to confiscate one man's property and give it to another. This seems the definition of injustice. I find congenial the view of Albert Jay Nock that no amount of meddling by the state will make men better, especially if they are pleased with their condition. The best one can do for his society is, in Nock's words, to present it with one improved unit.
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written by Just a mom, February 07, 2011
"...what we need is not available through political action. It is available instead through our own minds and hands; through our own direct intervention to fix what seems wrong; through our own co-creative efforts to advance the good, the true and the beautiful. It is in our nature, when we see a man fallen, to help him up. It is not in our nature to wait for the government to arrive. Therefore stop waiting, and live." (David Warren, "Stop Waiting for Policy", Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 14, 2010)
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written by Achilles, February 07, 2011
Andy, your commentary is multitudes intellectually weaker that Mr. Royal's excellent article. Using James to justify a socialistic ideal is unconscionable. Msgr. Ronald Knox said “we are here to colonize heaven, not to make things better on earth.” The meaning of justice is just as Mr. Royal explained, as Aristotle and Aquinas would have explained it. Read Josef Pieper’s excellent book The Four Cardinal Virtues. If you can check your red baggage at the door it will be edifying. If you really think James intended for governments to take a man’s riches there will be little if any profit for you.
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written by Achilles, February 07, 2011
I am sorry, I meant to write Mathew, not James, but reading James will be of little help to Andy either if he can impossibly justify governments taking away man's free will using a quote from the Bible.
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written by Ray Hunkins, February 07, 2011
Thank you Dr. Royal for your excellent column on a topic that has been troubling. As a conservative lawyer (no, that is not an oxymoron)of 42 years experience and a Catholic convert of only 5 years, I tend to rankle at any qualifier attached to the term "justice". I have heard the term used to justify the redistribution of wealth and other utopian schemes. But that is not how the term is used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.# 1924 defines the common good as allowing for people "to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily". #1927 states it is the role of the state to promote the common good and #1928 says "Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good ...." Sounds like an opportunity society to me!
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written by James Danielson, February 07, 2011
Wow, Andy! The American state is a saintly operation, doing for us in spades what Jesus was not able to do. I'll know my salvation is complete when there's nothing left in my paycheck.
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written by Howard Kainz, February 07, 2011
There's also a fourth meaning of "justice." Plato sometimes uses the term to indicate a state of personal harmony and virtue, and one finds this meaning also in the Bible -- e.g., Matt. 5:20, where Jesus admonishes his listeners that their justice should abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and in Luke 1:75, concerning walking "in holiness and justice."
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written by Robert Peterson, February 07, 2011
If we say there is justice, but also that there is a "social" justice as well, then a person can be innocent under the first, but (on the basis of some collective affiliation) "guilty" under the second. In other words, just as one cannot serve two masters, one cannot serve two justices. One must choose between one or the other.
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written by Nick Palmer, February 07, 2011
The hair goes up on the back of my neck when, in the Prayers of the Faithful in my parish, we pray for "world leaders to ensure a fair distribution of wealth." That's what those leaders have purported to do. As Robert Royal notes, look how well that has worked.

Charity is an attribute of an individual, not a "system." When I am judged on the last day (or on my last day), it is I, not my "society" or "system" that will stand in the dock.
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written by Bill, February 07, 2011
abusus non tollit usum. I believe that Catholic social justice principles are sound, though easily high-jacked. They serve as a needed corrective especially in an indiviualistic society like ours.
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written by Other Joe, February 07, 2011
Having been a VISTA volunteer - I experienced firsthand how the government must always put policy ahead of charity. True charity involves love. Caritas and charity are related conceptually and linguistically. Government by definition cannot love. What government can do is to offer social support facilities such as hospitals for mental illness and basic food provisions. But we are fools if we believe, as many do, that human nature does not apply to political organization. Poverty has many causes, which include folly and sin. Politics is no stranger to folly and sin. Any scheme to eliminate poverty must be viewed with suspicion. And yet each Christian is required to offer comfort (and for the advanced - love) to the poor. In a sense, then, charity (like justice) is blind. The beggar may well use the offering to get drunk. We can't assay another's heart, but face to face, we can use judgment and discrimination. The government cannot do so. It works on the wholesale level and for the past fifty years has been painstakingly building a permanent underclass - with the very best of policy intentions of course.
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written by Me, February 07, 2011
CST is beautiful when embraced as a whole. Aside from the 7 themes, there are the 4 principles: Common good, solidarity, dignity of human person, and subsidiarity. The Church is very clear that all 4 principles have to be applied to each issue for it to be balanced. What happens (often by religious and priests)is that only some of these are applied. Take for instance the health care debate, where was subsidiarity? Hidden in the closet or shoved under the rug b/c those in the know knew that they couldn't make it fit with the passing of this bill. CST does not call for taking from one to give to another. It calls for creating an understanding that we are called, out of a sense of justice,to give our excess to those in need. Using our God-given talents for ourselves and those around us. And importantly, realizing that giving what is due in justice is NOT charity. Those would be basic human rights(food, clothing, shelter etc..)Instead of letting CST get skewed and distorted, read the Compendium, embrace it and take it back from the crazies who think insane things like: common good means majority rules and that more govt welfare programs are the answer to ending poverty.
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written by Jo the Housewife, February 07, 2011
From a Lutheran pastor: "...So when I hear this phrase, “social justice,” I toddle between irritation at the communistic values that underpin the phrase and laughter because of the complete lack of etymological sensitivity to what “justice” actually is. At a theological level, for example, I have no doubt that God is a just god. But Christians believe that God is more than merely just; God is also merciful. Mercy is a very different concept from justice. Mercy is full of compassion; it is grace incarnate. It is looking at your neighbor as one who may not deserve help, but should receive it anyway. If we looked at our neighbor from a perspective of justice, we could find many reasons not to help them. Justice might even demand that we don‟t. But hopefully, we look on others with mercy, not justice. Mercy also only has as much power as the person doing it. Because it is voluntary, its power is limited to the person showing mercy. Mercy is hard to rally, politicize or generate votes. It‟s doing the right thing for its own sake. So I advocate the phrase “social mercy” over “social justice,” because if nothing else, it is not so pompous as to assume that communism is the only way to achieve a loving society. If justice ruled our hearts more than mercy, none of us would come out alive."
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written by Bill McCormick, February 07, 2011
On the one hand, Royal makes the excellent point that any discussion of justice must include a consideration of prudence, and that modifying justice with "social" is often an excuse to supplant impatiently thinking with immediate action. This frenetic activity at the cost of contemplation is a hallmark of modernity - just read Luther! - and the Holy Father's scholarly career has been in large part a caution against just such error. On the other hand, however, the prevalence of "social justice" in popular discourse ought to be an invitation to consider the role of the Christian in politics in a systematic way. The root of the problem with this modern penchant for activism - what Voegelin calls "Gnosticism" - is forgetfulness that true justice cannot be had on earth. Even Aristotle could use some help on that one.
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written by Graham Combs, February 07, 2011
After living in New York for many years, being acquainted with various law professors and book editors and writers, and obtaining a law degree there myself, I came to realize why social justice can be only a government endeavour. The kind of political machinations and efforts required for wars on poverty and social injustice are the work exclusively of people who find the Catholic world view repugnant. The Depts. of Justice, Labor, Education, even Health, are in bed with virtually every rights group of the past half century, including teacher's unions which pervert the education of the young. All of this time and money and manpower inevitably targets the Church. Sr. Carol Keenan and Sr. Mary Campbell and Fr. Pfleger are not the exception but the rule -- their status as Church insiders is a scandal. But they are most at home with senators and congresspersons and community and civil rights activists. No wonder they betray the culture of life with undisturbed consciences. Catholic doctors, nurses, lawyers, and judges will find future challenges to conscience may require the abandonment of their vocations to healing the sick and maintaining rule of law. Can a judge or lawyer belong to the ABA and not violate Church teachings? Mustn't a Catholic doctor truncate any relationship with the AMA? Both organizations have actively promoted reproductive and end-of-life rights -- the culture of death could not exist as it does without both of these professional organizations. Social justice is another term which has been taken over and which cannot be reclaimed. It must be let go. The associations are too toxic.
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written by Hank, February 07, 2011
A thought

I would think that “social Justice” is sub-category of cardinal virtue of “Justice.” If this is not so we could get the ridiculous situation of “Social Justice” conflicting with real justice, and expressing a preferential option injustice. To paraphrase JPII we do not do injustice that justice may come of it. To many discussions of “Social Justice” seem to ignore if not avoid the issue of Justice in a larger sense.

This is where I think the main article is on target, calling the conversation back to what is justice. With this answered, I think the rest will fall in place.
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written by Robert Hurley, April 03, 2011
Threadbare?! What nonsense! I take the author has never meditated on the passages from Matthew 25. Ideology seems to trump the clear call of that Gospel. Talk about a mote! Looks like he would prefer a preferential option for the rich!

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