Social Justice, Francis, Benedict, and Other Things Tragically Misrepresented

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.

13 Responses to Social Justice, Francis, Benedict, and Other Things Tragically Misrepresented

  • Penguins Fan says:

    I submit that the social programs set up and funded by the Left have worked….exactly to the Political Left’s advantage. Uncounted numbers of people do not know how to survive without a check from the Government. If these people vote, they vote for the Left. Seen in this light, these programs work.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Chastity, obedience, poverty . . .

    The First Joyful Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary: The Annunciation. Desire the love of humility. Think of tthe humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary when the Angel Gabriel greeted her with these words, “Hail full of grace.” The Pope is the servant of the servants of God.

    Notes to Sister Socialist: One, when the risen Jesus told Simon Peter to “Feed my sheep”, he didn’t mean carnal sustenance. Two, while you were soulessly lisping, “the least of His brothers”, you were aiding and abetting your allies in murdering 47,000,000 unborn babies, and countless millions of souls were lost.

    Charity does not spring from somebody else’s wallet.

  • DJ Hesselius says:

    My father was quite interested in history and economics and the like : books by Paul Johnson, Kirk, Thomas Sowell, Hayek, etc. I remember him saying once that one of those people, it might have been Hayek, had noted that anytime “social” was put next to a word, such as “social justice” the meaning of the second word was basically warped or destroyed. “Social” refers to the group, so “social justice” would be “group justice” or “community justice.”

    I must confess, I don’t understand why we must use the term “social justice.” Why not simply “justice”? I have a hard time seeing how the phrase “social justice” is better than the word “justice.”

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    D J Hesselius

    I fancy that “social justice” is sometimes used in the sense of distributive justice, as opposed to commutative justice, to employ the terminology of the older moral theologians.

  • William Meyer says:

    A critical problem in the application of the phrase “social justice” is its use to justify violations of Church doctrine. With nearly 2000 years of history, the Church has well developed positions on nearly every aspect of life–all that is necessary, in most cases, is to consult the Catechism.

    Social justice cannot justify socialism, which the Church has condemned. Neither can it justify indiscriminate amnesty to illegals (see CCC 2241).

    We are ill-served when our bishops employ this phrase. They should, instead, simply be citing Church teachings and doctrine, not making it up as they go, and especially not in violation of doctrine.

  • Pinky says:

    As I’ve said elsewhere, a lot of Francis-boosting is covert Benedict-bashing. The people who do it will turn on Francis in a heartbeat – or, rather, the moment that Benedict’s heart stops beating.

  • MIke Malone says:

    Splendid article, succinct and to the point. The term ‘social justice’ is much broader in scope than the definition used by my liberal katholic friends and acquaintances. These liberal katholics give all the social issues like abortion, poverty, health care, contraception etc. the same weight. So they believe abortion, while regrettable, may be necessary to combat poverty. This kind of distorted thinking reminds me Cardinal Bernardin’s corrupt ‘Seamless Garment Philosophy’.

    However I’m starting to see worry lines on their face….the optimism is much more muted….much more, “wait, he said what?” His recent remarks on the dire effects of loosening Church teachings, his affirmation of the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, his remarks on abortion, emphasis on confession etc. is not what they were hoping for.

    I have been telling them, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” I imagine this pope will do some unexpected things but I am confident that not one iota of doctrine will be changed.

    Viva il Papa Francis

  • William Meyer says:

    As to Pope Francis’ future direction, I decided in the first week that the available comments were so chaotic as to be meaningless. The only approach which seems rational to me is to wait and see.

  • Carlos X. says:

    Mr. Meyers: greetings in Christ to you! Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the way in which the connotations of words, far from supplementing and bringing focus to our expressions, begin to confuse the meanings and get in the way. I appreciate everything that has been said about the term “social justice” and appreciate these quibbles, but we must try in good faith to follow the teachings of our Church. Similarly, I am troubled by your use of the word “amnesty” and “illegals,” but I am duty-bound to understand your terms in good faith and with an open heart and not just through the filter of the hurt feelings of my ethnic group.

  • The terminology “social justice” as it is used today is a construct of the progressive/liberal agenda to transform America into a socialist state. It is only one of the many terms that have been taken over and assigned new meanings to put a pretty face on an ugly ideology.

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