The Social Justice Challenge
One of the unhappy effects of the attack from within the Church itself on Catholic doctrine is a tendency for the orthodox to be almost as much occupied with preserving the faith as with practicing it. I think it is becoming possible for us to move past this, now that the flood of heterodoxy seems to have reached its crest and begun to recede. Its most visible spokesmen have been reduced to anger and irrelevance, of which the news that Fr. Richard McBrien is serving as a consultant to the movie version of The DaVinci Code seems a good indicator.
Those of us who take the central teachings of the Church as they have been understood for centuries, and look for no doctrinal revolution, should be able now to turn our attention outward, toward evangelization primarily, but also (and maybe inseparably) toward social justice.
I use this term with some hesitation. For many or most religious traditionalists, and for the often-overlapping group of political conservatives, the term “social justice” has long been tainted. The former have fought the attempt to put it in place of salvation as the object of religion, and the latter have seen it—correctly for the most part—as a synonym for socialism. But it’s a good succinct term for something which must always be a concern for Christians. The obligation upon each of us to practice charity and justice in all our personal dealings is perfectly clear. No one can read the Gospel and believe that he can be saved without these.
But popes going back at least to Leo XIII have insisted that Catholics have an obligation to work for the correction of injustices and evils outside our personal sphere. To say so does not mean that specific measures are prescribed, and we need to broaden our concept of social justice beyond its socialist connotations. I would like to think that current economic tendencies might create an opening for more people to consider the distributist idea more seriously, though this may be wishful thinking.
We also need to extend the idea of social justice further into non-economic considerations. Many of what we normally speak of as “social issues” can be seen as questions of justice; abortion is the obvious one, but there are, for instance, several kinds of injustice involved in pornography. It’s odd that “social issues” and “social justice” should have such distinct and separate connotations, the one having to do with questions of public morality and the place of religion, the other mostly concerned with the distribution of wealth and privilege. The distinction is useful up to a point, but the two are branches of one tree, and the time is opportune for us to treat them that way.
I read Pope Benedict’s first encyclical as pointing us in this direction, as implying that with our own house in some decent degree of order we must simultaneously renew our acquaintance with one of the elemental and most cherished truths given to the Church—the principle that God is love—and take more seriously the obligations to the world which that truth imposes upon us.
It’s time also to recognize the contributions of many of those “social justice people” whom we have tended to dismiss, and to get ourselves out of the reactive syndrome of disregarding the problems they point out because we suspect that they are doing so to advance a cause with which we disagree. We don’t have to accept their doctrine, either religious or political: I concluded some time ago that anyone still sympathetic to Communism can be credited at best with either good intentions or good political sense, but not both. But we can agree with them that the problems—third world poverty, for instance—are real and serious, and that much of their work deserves support. I can think of several people active in direct aid to the poor who have political and religious beliefs which I consider very mistaken, but who are in a much better position than I to answer the questions at the end of Matthew 25.