The Missing Foundation of Social Justice

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.