Only Part of the Story

The conventional wisdom operative in American Catholic social justice circles neglects the role of virtue.

What is social justice? In Catholic circles, the expression is much in use these days, but is it used correctly—used, that is, according to its meaning in the Catholic tradition and the Magisterium of the Church? A lot more than you might expect depends on the answer to that.

Recently I received, unsolicited, a 39-page booklet called What Is Social Justice? According to this popularly written account, published by Acta Publications in Chicago, the essence of social justice is expressed in collective action to reform social structures on behalf of the common good.

In support of this understanding, the author approvingly quotes Ronald Krietemeyer, a justice and peace executive at the United States Catholic Conference in the ’70s and ’80s now with Catholic Charities in St. Paul: “Social justice is not about private individual acts. It is about collective actions aimed at transforming social institutions and structures in order to achieve the common good.”

Krietemeyer isn’t the only one who thinks that. Along with others who are cited in What Is Social Justice? as sharing this point of view, the collective-action school includes Father J. Bryan Hehir, another USCC justice and peace guru of three decades ago, who now heads Catholic Charities in Boston and teaches at Harvard. In an article on social justice written for Father Richard McBrien’s HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995), Father Hehir says:

The function of social justice is to evaluate the essential institutions of society in terms of their ability to satisfy the minimum needs and basic rights of the citizenry…. It is usually expected that social justice will be accomplished through organized activity rather than individual action.

Two things stand out in all this: collective action and reforming social structures. According to What Is Social Justice? the source of this vision of social justice is Father William Ferree, SM (1905-1985), an American Marianist priest who published several influential books on Catholic social teaching. In expounding social justice, however, Father Ferree also had a source: Pope Pius XI. Especially important is the landmark social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order), which he published in 1931. The question then necessarily becomes: What did Pius XI mean by “social justice”?

Fortunately, that question receives an exhaustive discussion in Church, State, and Society by theologian J. Brian Benestad of the University of Scranton (newly published by the Catholic University of America Press). Subtitled An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine, Benestad’s scholarly volume deserves to become a standard work in its field.

According to Benestad, the term itself, “social justice,” first appears in a two-volume work on natural law published by a Jesuit philosopher named Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio between 1840 and 1841. The idea is, however, much older than that. In fact, it has its roots in St. Thomas Aquinas’ concept of “legal justice,” which Pope Pius XI drew upon in his encyclical.

Benestad acknowledges that Quadragesimo Anno is less than crystal clear on the subject. Nevertheless Pius’ definition of social justice is plain enough from his 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism). There he writes in part: “It is of the very essence of social justice to demand from each individual [emphasis added] all that is necessary for the common good.”

In Pius XI’s treatment of the concept, Benestad says, social justice is understood as a virtue that inclines individuals as well as groups to work for “the common good of the family, the professions, voluntary associations, schools, neighborhoods, and the political community on the local, national, or international level.” Along with the reform of social structures, the reform of morals is central to social justice, and is required for the restoration of society itself. All this, he demonstrates, is fully borne out in Quadragesimo Anno.

Thus the difficulty with the understanding of social justice propagated by Father Ferree and his disciples is not that it’s entirely wrong, but that it’s only part of the story (“incomplete…erroneous in parts,” Benestad says). And this, it must be borne in mind, is the conventional wisdom about social justice that’s operative in American Catholic social justice circles today. 

Apart from its failure to match up with the Catholic tradition, the dominant view of social justice has several other problems. The most troubling may be the support it unwittingly lends to Hobbes’ view that political problems are technical problems, to be solved by technical means. Benestad quotes Leo Strauss on this aberration: “There is no evil in men which cannot be controlled; what is required is not divine grace, morality, nor formation of character, but institutions with teeth in them.”

By contrast to the view described by Strauss, Pius XI insists (and Benestad seconds) that the reform of the social order can’t really be achieved apart from the inculcation of virtue in citizens and its practice by them. That should come as no surprise. On the contrary, it should be obvious that a good society needs good men and women to enact good laws and good men and women to live by them.

The neglect of such elementary truths may help account for the persistent neglect of conscience formation by social justice advocates, in favor of political and social activism. Among other things, too, it helps explain why the American conference of bishops and its staff have given more attention over the years to being—or attempting to be—players in the political game rather than formers of consciences.

This in turn has contributed to a tendency in those same quarters to adopt stands on contingent questions as policy positions of the Church. (Generally speaking, it’s easy to say what shouldn’t be done—for example, aborting unborn children, though even here there is room for legitimate differences about the best way to prevent it. But how to achieve good positive outcomes—the relief of poverty, the preservation of peace—is in the nature of things always open to diverse views. When church groups take policy stands on contingent questions, all this gets muddled.)

A good example of the fallacy of getting too specific on how to achieve a good outcome dates back to the 1990s. It’s welfare reform. Conservatives criticized the welfare system as it then existed for fostering a culture of dependency by offering de facto encouragement to people to remain unemployed. But spokesmen for religious groups, including Catholic ones, opposed reforming the system because supposedly that would hurt the poor.

Nevertheless, in the mid-’90s Congress enacted reform and President Clinton signed it into law. To the surprise of opponents, it worked: the culture of dependency was weakened and the poor were better off. Welfare reform is now considered one of the major domestic policy achievements of that era.

The mistake that led religious spokesmen to oppose welfare reform back then hasn’t gone away. A variation on it was seen last May when 80 Catholic college professors, including 30 from the Catholic University of America, released a letter criticizing the selection of Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) as CUA’s commencement speaker. The professors’ complaint was that the economic policies urged by such as Boehner and his GOP colleague Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), both of them Catholics, would hurt the poor and were in conflict with the social doctrine of the Church.

Just about then, happily, a letter came to light in which Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed thanks to Ryan for his assurances of “continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress.” Declaring that “the principles of Catholic social teaching contain truths that need to be applied,” Archbishop Dolan added: “One must always exercise prudential judgment in applying these principles while never contradicting the intrinsic values that they protect.” In other words, people like Ryan and Boehner might be right or they might be wrong, but calling them bad Catholics doesn’t work.

With another election year at hand, it remains to be seen whether the rest of the bishops will follow Archbishop Dolan’s lead or again overstep the line as they sometimes have in the past by getting too specific on contingent issues. And, that aside, the larger question remains whether and when they will get on with the more difficult—and in the long run more productive—work of forming Catholic consciences.

Eighty years ago, Pius XI put it like this: “If we look into the matter more carefully and more thoroughly, we shall perceive that preceding this ardently desired social restoration, there must be a renewal of the Christian spirit, from which so many immersed in economic life have…unhappily fallen away” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 127).

But let us give the final word to another pope, Benedict XVI, who just last May noted the “legitimate pluralism among Catholics in the implementation of social doctrine.” Quoting Blessed John XXIII, he said: “When this happens, they should be careful not to lose their respect and esteem for each other. Instead, they should strive to find points of agreement…and not wear themselves out in interminable arguments, and, under pretext of the better or the best, omit to do the good that is possible and therefore obligatory.”

Even tenured professors should be able to understand this as a working formula for social justice.

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About Russell Shaw 286 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).