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.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

11 Responses

  1. Robert Peters says:

    I was recently attacked by a social justice warrior. My response to her demand that I become a true believer is social justice for all was that the only justice I could offer consisted of thoughts, words and deeds which were expressions of those moments in my life in which I was humbled by the authority and love of Christ. I cannot claim that every aspect of my life in every moment exudes justice because I am not at all times under the humbling authority and love of Christ; as a fallen creature, I all to often reserve certain aspects of my life for myself, denying Christ the authority over them. During those all-too-often times, not under the authority and love of Christ, I do not think, speak and act justly toward others; for I simply lack that capacity sans Christ.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yesterday afternoon, my wife and son were in the yard and saw a young woman half-running up the sidewalk with a knapsack and small suitcase. A young man in a car drove up quickly and, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, use dour driveway to turn around in, sped off after the young woman. Shortly thereafter, an older woman came up to inform my son–who had met her years ago–that she had met the young woman in the park and she told her she was an abused wife running away from her husband, “I’m her guardian angel” she declared and sped off in dispute. Then the husband returned and wanted to explain that his wife was “bipolar” and refused to take her medicine and told whatever story came to her.

    It really doesn’t matter too much who was telling the truth, but the social-justiee warring “Guardian Angel” was in either case a busybody who was on a jag of feeling good about herself.

  3. Arthur Livingston says:

    Catholics have had a lengthy and disastrous history of trying to use expressions common in the culture, but then losing arguments because they had surrendered the terms of debate. “Social justice” is one of those terms that is indeed slippery. Speaking as a person who has supported the ideas of Belloc and Chesterton for fifty-five years, I began early using that phrase until realizing that it seldom communicated what I intended, but it was thought part of some hare-brained socialist scheme. That was the moment I realized why Catholics should normally retain scholastic vocabulary. It can at least be defined and those whom we hope to persuade have the opportunity to learn rather than having the discussion descend into mutual gibberish. What well-instructed Catholics in most cases mean by social justice is what is traditionally called distributive justice; that is the root of the word distributism and should not be given up. Dr. Fleming, we are, I think, in complete agreement on how to use (or not use) words.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, Art, to the first step in surrendering to the enemy is to speak his language, hence to speak of an imaginary right to life–much “international human rights”–is to concede victory to the enemies of life and justice. Scholastic language can be too arid for everyday use, but its precision should never be dropped in exchange for fashionable cliches. Unfortunately even the term “distributive justice” needs some re-clarification after so many decades of corrupt usage. Indeed, the moral language of St. Thomas, including the term “natural law” was redefined by Hegelians to mean something quite different from the Aristotelian-Stoic understanding of Thomas.

  5. Dot says:

    I never liked the expression, social justice. Quite frankly, the expression makes me feel guilty. To whom social justice? I should forget myself for the sake of someone out in Tim Buck Two and forget that I’m part of the social fabric? Better following a 12 step program. Thank you.

  6. Dot says:

    Also, the US pays the most for dues and peacekeeping to the UN. Since the government doesn’t earn money, we all pay to the UN and other so-called social justice programs.

  7. George Gaudio says:

    Modifying any noun with the adjective social turns the meaning on its head. Social drinkers are drunks, social security is broke, and taking what one man earned and giving it to another is “justice”.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    In the July/August Atlantic, after describing how poor immigrants take jobs from poor citizens, Peter Beinart says we still need to let these immigrants in as a matter of social justice. He also admits that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme when he argues that young immigrants are needed to keep it afloat.

    In a companion piece, Franklin Foer claims that Donald Trump is a racist and so is everyone who voted for him.

  9. James D. says:

    “…but it was thought part of some hare-brained socialist scheme.”

    Sadly, half (or more) of the Catholics I know, use “social justice” in this context and conflate Catholicism and Marxism.

  10. Robert Reavis says:

    ” as time goes on more and more matured under the effect of the modern attack upon
    the Faith, are slavery to the State and slavery to private corporations
    and individuals.

    Terms are used so loosely nowadays; there is such a paralysis in
    the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases
    may be misinterpreted. If I were to say, “slavery under capitalism,” the
    word “capitalism” would mean different things to different men. It means
    to one group of writers (what I must confess it means to me when I use it)
    “the exploitation of the masses of men still free by a few owners of the
    means of production, transport and exchange.” When the mass of men are
    dispossessed_own nothing_they become wholly dependent upon the owners; and
    when those owners are in active competition to lower the cost of
    production the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to
    order their own lives, but suffer from want and insecurity as well.

    But to another man, the term “capitalism” may mean simply the
    right to private property; yet to another it means industrial capitalism
    working with machines, and contrasted with agricultural production. I
    repeat, to get any sense into the discussion, we must have our terms
    clearly defined.”

    I think this was written in 1897 -1900

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There were several people who understood Communism before the Russian Revolution, particularly Belloc and Mallock.