Overheard upon the election of Pope Francis: “Finally ‘social justice’ won’t be a bad word anymore.” It is astounding how many misconceptions can be packed into nine short words.
First, there is this constant misperception that Francis, because of some stylistic differences, is somehow light years apart from Pope Benedict XVI in substance. Actually, a comment like the one above somehow suggests that Francis is radically different from most, if not all, of his modern predecessors. Here’s the rub: when people are asked to present evidence that Pope Francis is somehow “different,” they simply fall flat. They fall flat because there is no evidence. Even if one were to reach back into his days as Cardinal Bergoglio, the evidence of continuity piles up left and right (pun intended). I will resist the urge the quote extensively from Benedict, John Paul II, and others to demonstrate the continuity, mostly because I am getting weary of the task. The more I talk with people who adhere to a sudden jolt of discontinuity brought about by the Bergoglio pontificate, the more I think that the onus of proof is on them. Those who see Francis as “different” or a “breath of fresh air” or as someone who will finally “bring the Church into the modern liberal world” owe us some evidence of the fact. They owe us a rational argument and examples of such a claim.
However, the opening quotation is about more than a perceived discontinuity. It is also about a mistaken understanding of “social justice” in the Church, on two accounts. The first account is that “social justice” is somehow limited to poverty, immigration, the environment, and universal health care. “Social justice” is much broader than just these issues. If we break down the two terms, “social” refers to man living with his neighbor, and “justice” refers to the classical virtue. Therefore, anything involving the dignity of the human person would fall under this category. “Social justice” would then also include the right to life from conception to natural death, upholding the traditional definition of marriage, and issues of cloning and fetal stem cell research. Quite frankly, in its broader sense it would also include basic issues of morality such as the Church’s teaching on contraception. On that note, I return to the point in the previous paragraph. One who claims that Francis is or will be different from his predecessor on any of these issues should be required to demonstrate an argument complete with examples. I have dedicated most of my spare reading time to the writings of John Paul II, when he was pope, and Benedict XVI. I can tell you that both men tirelessly stood up for the poor, called Catholics to personal action in this regard, defending the dignity of life at all stages, spoke about the challenges and abuses regarding immigration, taught us that basic health care is important for all of mankind, vehemently resisted efforts to change the definition of traditional and sacramental marriage, encouraged us to protect the environment, and spoke out against human cloning and fetal stem cell research. They also reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on difficult issues of morality such as contraception. They did so because they were Catholic. They did so because they were relentlessly dedicated to the truth. Pope Francis has shown in his time as Cardinal Bergolgio and his opening month as Holy Roman Pontiff complete continuity with regards to the Church’s teaching in all of these areas.
The second account of how the opening quotation misconstrues “social justice” is how it collapses the difference between principle and implementation to the latter. When it comes to moral principles, theologians distinguish between what the concept is (principle) and how best to achieve it (implementation). For instance, an individual cannot in good conscience be a practicing Catholic and not adhere to the principle that we are responsible for taking care of the least among us. Christ clearly calls every individual to be concerned with the poor. That is the principle. The implementation is something altogether different, and people of good will can disagree on the best way to bring about the call to help those in need. Is it through major government programs, is it through private charitable giving, or is it through some mix between the two?
There are, however, some moral teachings in which the principle is the same as the implementation: abortion, for instance. There is no other way to implement the moral principle of the right to life except to protect it at all stages. Any law that does not seek full protection is unjust insofar as it fails in this regard.
Here is where we return to the crux of the issue. “Finally ‘social justice’ won’t be a bad word anymore.” Social justice was never a bad word, or a bad pair of words to be precise, within the Church. Those who get frustrated when the term “social justice” is thrown around carelessly do so not because of the term itself, nor because of their own personal commitment to the Church’s teaching, but rather because of its misuse, because of how it is pigeonholed into a platform for the political left.
We are all called to seek justice in every area of Catholic moral teaching, just as we always have been. There is nothing that has changed in the transition of Pope Benedict to Pope Francis in this call. In order to understand this properly, however, we must be able to distinguish principle from implementation. The Church calls all of us as individuals to do what we can to help the world’s poor. However, this is something altogether different that looking to government to solve the problem for us, to take the onus off the individual. This has always been the crux of the issue. I would have severe words for the “Catholic” who says, “The poor are not my problem, and my time and money will not be wasted trying to solve this issue.” Yet I would have equally severe words for the person who thinks that government programs are the solution to the nation’s poverty.
If the Church has learned anything from the centuries-long bad press she received regarding the Galileo debacle, it is that she should tread very lightly in speaking outside of her area of expertise. The Church should and will point out instances of economic injustice, but providing specific economic solutions is something that she leaves to those governing the nations. Instead, the Church stays at the level of the human heart. She calls every believer to serve the poor, but she does not call believers to support specific government solutions. Pope Francis is an outstanding example of this. He states the principle, and then he does it. But he most emphatically does not say that we can pass off our personal responsibility to government programs. Rather than calling up the Italian government to dictate how they can best take care of and rehabilitate the imprisoned youth of the country, he – he himself – washed their feet. The call of the Gospel is a call to the human heart. It is not a call for any one government program.
This is where some issues of social justice are different than others. Some allow for disagreement among people of good will when it comes to the implementation. Others do not because the principle is the same as the implementation. We saw this play out in the last Vice Presidential debate between two Catholics. On the one hand there was the Republican Paul Ryan who, when criticized for his economic plan, stated clearly, the the plan did not violate Catholic principles, but rather it is because of Catholic principles than he supports the plan. Congressman Ryan was interviewed on EWTN and allowed to explain this in more detail. He said in no uncertain terms that he has a deep compassion for the poor, one that is formed by his Catholic upbringing, and then he outlined precisely why he thinks that fiscal conservatism is the best way to help the poor. One is free to disagree with the Congressman on the level of economics. For my own part, I readily recognize that I am not an economist, and so I have little to add on whether or not Ryan’s plan will work. I can say that the entitlement programs of the left seem to not have produced near the results that they promised since their inception. What I do know is that Ryan is well within Catholic social teaching in his explanation of his fiscal policies. He might be dead wrong on an economic level, but he is clearly approaching this as a well-formed Catholic. On the other hand we had Vice President Joe Biden who, when questioned about his stance on abortion, stated,
My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who – who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to – with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a – what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the – the congressman. I – I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that – women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.
The problem is that one cannot hold this position and be a Catholic in good conscience. This is because when it comes to abortion, the principle is the same as the implementation. One cannot hold in principle that every life has a dignity and should be afforded protection from the first moment of conception and then claim the best way to implement this is to not protect it.
“Social justice” is not a bad word, but these two principles must be kept in mind when properly discerning the Church’s teaching in matters of social justice. First, “social justice” is bigger than the “left” and on the “right.” It includes a whole range of issues. Second, many of the issues are stated as principles, but details of implementation are left up to the prudential judgement of national leaders. The Church will only speak out of issues of national implementation when a specific system has demonstrated utter incompatibility with Church teaching, as when she condemned socialism.
It seems to me that Pope Francis understands social justice quite well, just as did his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor. There will not be a change in Church teaching with the new Pope, no matter how much the left wants to co-opt Pope Francis for their own political agendas.