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Rehabilitating Social Justice

May 15, 2023

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As St. John XXIII’s papal encyclical Pacem in Terris—an essential document in the Catholic social thought tradition—hits its 60th anniversary, it’s worth reassessing the status of “social justice” in contemporary political culture. In brief, it’s not faring well. To the progressive left, social justice has become an object of idolatry, a self-justifying meme whose very utterance, like the incantation of a spell, has the power to silence all dissent. To the establishment right, social justice has become (or always has been) a dirty word: at best, the vocabulary of naïve devotees of wokeism; at worst, code for advancing a new breed of authoritarianism. 

Beneath the rhetorical bomb-throwing of this ideological trench warfare, the authentically Catholic conception of social justice has lain mostly dormant. Whether due to timidity masquerading as humility (“being nice so as not to cause offense”) or ignorance of the tradition’s moral and political riches, the Church has regrettably, in the words of Catholic Worker Movement founder Peter Maurin—in an example that Bishop Barron frequently cites—suppressed the “dynamite” of her social teachings. It’s high time to let it blow. Both the left and the right are misguided about the meaning, purpose, and power of social justice, and we’re all suffering because of it. 

The errors of both stem from faulty anthropology, that is, their respective understandings of the nature of human existence. To the left, human nature and the human good are wholly products of individual and, more recently, group will. This conception of malleable humanity is expressed abstractly in the subjective epistemology, “This is my truth” or “This is our truth,” and concretely in LGBTQUIA+ ideology (especially the “TQIA+” part), which asserts that individuals’ feelings contain the moral authority to justify radical alterations to the human body itself, including the bodies of children. 

Morality and the will-to-power have been completely collapsed, one into the other.

An additional variable makes this ideology even more politically potent: victimhood. If an individual or group can effectively (even if deceitfully) claim to be the victim of a disembodied yet malevolent collective power (e.g., the patriarchy, systemic racism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, etc.) then, when combined with progressivism’s subjective epistemology, it can claim that “the system” has a moral responsibility to do whatever we (the victim group) demand. It is this incoherent sludge of relativism on the one hand (“All individuals/groups have their own truths”) and chauvinistic coercion on the other (“We will ruin you if you don’t publicly celebrate us”) that produces the progressive left’s conception of social justice. It’s how you get the assertion that government-subsidized extermination of unborn children (marketed as “reproductive justice”) is a form of social justice; that state-funded child mutilation is a form of social justice; that state-funded and easily accessed suicide (euthanasia) is a form of social justice; that punishing those who pay their bills on time is “social justice”; even that racist discrimination against those of Asian descent is “social justice.” In the progressive rendition of social justice, in other words, there is not a sliver of light between, “This is the right thing to do” and “This is what we want, and you must do it (or else).” Morality and the will-to-power have been completely collapsed, one into the other.

Does the right have a point, then? Yes—if the point is that the progressive left’s vision of social justice is perversely up-side down and totalitarian in method and scope. But that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that “social justice” itself should be jettisoned from moral and political concern. The problem is not with social justice per se but, rather, with its definition (a problem that recently went viral on Twitter when Jordan Peterson critiqued Pope Francis’s call for social justice; Peterson had the left’s definition in mind, when, as we’ll see, the Catholic conception is something else entirely). 

There are two preliminary questions to ask the right about its rejection of social justice: 1) Are they claiming that social justice cannot ever be attained? or 2) Are they claiming that it doesn’t exist (that is, that there is no true definition)? If it’s the former—the belief that, expressed theologically, there can never be a heaven on earth—then the Catholic social tradition is 100% in agreement. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Centesimus Annus

When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. . . . But no political society—which possess its own autonomy and laws—can ever be confused with the kingdom of God.

In other words, if social justice means a conceited, doomed-to-fail quest for utopian perfection, you can count Catholicism out. 

But that’s not what it means. Here’s a Catholic formulation of social justice from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

By means of her social doctrine, the Church shows concern for human life in society, aware that the quality of social life . . . depends in a decisive manner on the protection and promotion of the human person, for whom every community comes into existence. . . . [A]t play in society are the dignity and rights of the person, and peace in relationships between persons and between communities of persons. These are the goods that the social community must pursue and guarantee.

What’s crucial to note here is the relationship between a) the dignity and rights of the individual, and b) the good of the social community. The “individual” and the “community” are irreducibly different and should never be conflated. However, the good of each is inextricably intertwined: If individuals do not live properly ordered lives, society will suffer; yet just the same, if society is not properly ordered, then individuals will suffer. This interdependence—a fact grounded in human nature—is at the heart and head of Catholicism’s conception of social justice.

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And it’s precisely what so much of the political right gets wrong about the validity—indeed, necessity—of pursuing social justice properly defined. To reject “social justice” as a false moral category, or to say that it should have nothing to do with a society’s laws and policies, is to embrace a preposterously abstract, disembodied anthropology. It is a claim that individuals can be free to realize their full moral, economic, and social potential independently of how society is morally structured.  

One could critique this position on metaphysical grounds, but how about just looking around? Is it reasonable to conclude that nearly 100,000 drug overdoses per year, many of which occur in the most economically desolate regions of the US, is due entirely to autonomous individuals making free choices? Should we think that our laws and policies have no causal impact on the explosion of young people with depressive and anxiety disorders, including the desire for self-harm? How about the fact that many young people cannot perform at or even near grade-level in basic reading, writing, and math skills? How about the statistic that nearly one in five pregnancies in the US ends with the killing of the unborn child, with that number skyrocketing to two out of three for children diagnosed with Down Syndrome (often inaccurately)? How about both parents needing to work (more than one job each) to have any hope of attaining financial stability, requiring many of them to pay strangers to raise their children? 

These, and many more, are social justice issues. To reject the category of social justice as false or politically irrelevant is not only unwise strategically (the right’s islands of individual autonomy will eventually shrink into oblivion as societal collapse swallows them up). It is to deny, contrary to common sense, that public policy is causally related to the political and cultural turmoil happening before our own eyes. 

In the end, the Catholic conception of social justice comes down to asking and answering two fundamental questions:  

  1. Can we identify a policy that is causally contributing to (and not merely correlated with) an unjust impediment to the full, authentic flourishing of families, individuals, and communities? 
  1. Is there a realistic possibility that a change to that policy (either by means of addition, revision, or deletion) could quantifiably remove or reduce the unjust impediment—without violating natural law or causing greater harm—and thereby support the full, authentic flourishing of families, individuals, and communities? 

If honesty leads us to answer “yes” to both questions, then we’ve got a social justice issue on our hands and society—that is, all of us together—have an obligation to address it. To those understandably still squeamish about associating with “social justice” because of how wokeist and conservative-corporate ideologies have polluted it, here’s one candid way to frame your position in a way that will confound left and right alike: “I fight for social justice because I believe in the sanctity of human dignity and the protection of individual rights.”