Religio Philologi: Social Justice
In March 2010, I put online an earlier version of this piece:
In all the political debates over nationalized welfare and health care, both anti-Christian socialists and Catholics frequently the term “social justice” in their arguments for guaranteed incomes, social welfare, and socialized medicine. In fact, the expression “social justice” is frequently heard from the lips of Catholic traditionalists (including distributists), Marxists, and Greens. Are they talking about the same principle or different principles? Does the expression have any usable meaning? Before going on to sketch out some basic principles of a Christian’s duties to his fellows, we might begin by examining this much (ab)used phrase.
As always, let us start the investigation by looking at each word separately and simply, without reference to any body of theology or philosophy. "Justice" is derived from Latin iustitia, which the Romans used as the equivalent of the Greek dikaiosune. Justice is the quality of things that are just, and thus it is both a set of principles of how a human being is to behave rightly towards others and the virtue that informs such conduct.
"Social" comes from Latin socius, comrade or ally. Thus a social relationship is one between soldiers, workmates, political or military allies, and between allied or confederated peoples. This is in contrast, in principle at least, with the Greek notion of friend (philos) or with our own expression "kith and kin"--relationships that are not necessarily the result of a choice among co-workers or competitors but one that can he inherited or derives from our membership in a community. However, since "social" is also related to "society," and since "society" in sloppy usage has taken on the meaning of community or nation, the word has also taken on the meaning of “pertaining to society,” whether that society is particular (as in American society) or the general/universal sense of global society. Then what is social justice? Is it the justice that men owe each other as members of an army or profession or which allied nations owe each other or what we owe each other generally as human beings or which is owed by us to society or by society to us or to others? Like all propaganda terms, "social" is conveniently ambiguous, and that ambiguity leads not uncommonly to dishonesty.
Antony Flew has argued quite cogently that social justice is a contradiction in terms, because justice is by definition a virtue or action that I possess or owe to other persons and not some generic obligation owed by or to some fictive collectivity. One does not have to be a liberal individualist to find some wisdom in this argument. We shall take this up later, when we discuss charity, but for the moment let us just raise the question of whether, when, we feel a collective obligation that is discharged by the state using the money it has taken from us, we are really disposed to accept a personal responsibility for performing the acts of charity commanded by Christ and His apostles.
Perhaps Prof. Flew is wrong about social justice. Perhaps it means something quite wholesome and real. Unfortunately, the expression “social justice” is not at all self-explanatory. Let us look at a little history. According to that fount of all misinformation, Wikipedia, the term “social justice” is found in both Gibbon and The Federalist. This is obviously an irrelevant fact because neither Gibbon nor Hamilton could possibly have meant the same thing as either Fr. Coughlin or the Greens. The phrase comes up in Federalist 7, apparently written by Hamilton. The subject is on what conditions the separate states might go to war against each other. Hamilton lays it on fairly thick in order to make his case for a more unified central government. After listing the delinquencies and digressions of various state legislatures, Hamilton rises to a fever pitch, predicting “a war not of parchment but of the sword would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.” In other words, social justice means the moral and legal duties owed by confederate allies to each other, just as the expression Social War referred to the war between Rome and her Latin allies. Gibbon uses it in a slightly extended sense to mean something like the international law of warfare.
Setting aside Wikipedia’s (and other pop historians’) red herrings, we can turn to the 20th century. Catholics usually point to Fr. John A. Ryan as the originator of the concept of both a living wage and more generally of social justice. Ryan said he was inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, but in his book A Living Wage, I read more about the principle of natural rights found in the decidedly unCatholic thinkers Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson. I have not read enough to know in which book Ryan actually used the expression, and this is not an article about Ryan. It is enough to say that whatever utility there might have been to his ideas, he utterly destroyed it in supporting the national-socialist regime of Franklin Roosevelt, to whom he became a close advisor. But one can also find the term social justice used several times by Walter Rauschenbusch in his once famous A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). Rauschenbusch was among the pioneers who equated do-gooding and progressive-style Marxism with the message of the Gospels.
Catholic proponents of “social justice” refer constantly to Rerum novarum, but I do not find the phrase there and it is only a tendentious reading that could insert the the soft-Marxist ideas of Ryan and Rauschenbusch into Leo XIII’s grave encyclical. Consider only this paragraph:
“From all these conversations, it is perceived that the fundamental principle of Socialism which would make all possessions public property is to be utterly rejected because it injures the very ones whom it seeks to help, contravenes the natural rights of individual persons, and throws the functions of the State and public peace into confusion. Let it be regarded, therefore, as established that in seeking help for the masses this principle before all is to be considered as basic, namely, that private ownership must be preserved inviolate. With this understood, we shall explain whence the desired remedy is to be sought.”
This very brief and cursory survey has not got us very far except to the point that we can conclude that the concept of social justice invoked by Catholics today is not ancient, does not have the authority of Pius IX or Leo XIII and is all too frequently confused with the theories of Marx and the policies of the New Deal. Then let us turn to a Catholic writer who is neither a Marxist nor a New-Dealer, Fr. John Hardon. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. Hardon describes social justice as first, “the virtue that inclines one to cooperate with others in order to help make the institutions of society better serve the common good. While the obligation of social justice falls upon the individual, the person cannot fulfill the obligation alone, but must work in concert with others, through organized bodies, as a member of a group whose purpose is to identify the needs of society, and, byt the use of appropriate means, to meet these needs locally, regionally, nationally, and even globally.”
This definition, which began so well, turns sour rather quickly and, as we shall see, the sourness turns to a bitterness that has a hint of poison. Let us begin with the good stuff. Justice is a virtue, perhaps the virtue, so if there is social justice it must be a virtue. Like other virtues, the burden falls upon persons—Hardon should have avoided the liberal language of individualism—but it is exercised in groups acting for the common good. Church parishes, the Boy Scouts, Food Pantries, Musical Societies are groups that come to mind. The problem begins, though, with that tricky word society. Hardon reveals how dangerous such an expression is by extending it to the entire human race. Surely, this notion of a philanthropic obligation to humanity is contradicted by the teachings of the Church and by common sense. We shall take this up later, but there is a line of thought from Paul to Augustine to Thomas that goes decidedly in the other direction.
Fr. Hardon justifies this break with tradition by adding: “Implicit in the virtue of social justice is an awareness that the world has entered on a new phase of social existence, with potential for great good or great harm vested in those who control the media and the structures of modern society. Christians, therefore, are expected to respond to the new obligations created by the extraordinary means of promoting the common good not only of small groups but literally of all humanity.”
It is only my great respect for Fr. Hardon that prevents me from describing this globaloney (to use a term coined by a great Catholic laywoman) in condign language. The argument that mass media and commerce have created a global society requiring global solutions has been used by every crackpot, including Adolf Hitler, for over a hundred years. What, the Roman Empire did not pose similar challenges and opportunities? We are really living in a new moral universe? Should we try to control the networks, picket the UN, create an imperium to impose peace and justice?
There are so many problems with this line of argument, we should never get back to the topic, if we were to try to refute them all. We are dealing with the temporal equivalent of ethno-centrism or American exceptionalism. You see, our time is unique, and no one ever faced these problems before, which is why we have to create new forms of academic study from adolescent psychology to bio-ethics, to climatology. Poor Jesus and the Apostoles were only simple fishermen, who could not have understood the challenge represented by nuclear power, global warming, or transgenderism. I know Fr. Hardon would not have endorsed such conclusions, but that is where all this sort of thinking ends up.
If anyone cares about the Scriptures, perhaps we should begin there.
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Jesus was given this choice. It was part of Satan's testing (not temptation!) of the man or God he could not fathom. This Christ said, did he not, that he wanted to do good to mankind, well, here is His chance to take power, redistribute incomes and privileges, and create a just social order. What was the answer? "Get thee hence, Satan." Of course, this was only a Galilean Jew of the First Century, admittedly, the Galilean Jew who is the reason why we call it the First Century, but no matter. The opportunity he rejected, we in our wisdom will accept.
Dostoevksy argued that although Marxism and the Catholic Church were at odds, the do-gooding propensities of the Church would one day lead Catholics to embrace socialism. The language of social justice has been one very important mechanism that has encouraged this fatal embrace. In seeking to understand our Christian obligations, then, let us dispense with this troublesome expression.