What is Social Justice? (Part Two)

The teachings of Vatican II, Paul VI, John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

What is Social Justice? (Part Two)

“Social justice,” a term coined by the Italian Jesuit Father Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (1793-1862), appeared in an 1894 curial document and a 1904 encyclical. Later, Pope Pius XI (1922-39) made it part and parcel of Catholic social doctrine.

In perhaps the most succinct description of the virtue, Pope Pius wrote in 1937 that “it is [the essence] of social justice to demand from individuals everything that is necessary for the common good.” Venerable Pius XII (1939-58) and Blessed John XXIII (1958-63) made Pope Pius XI’s teaching their own as they urged Catholics to cultivate the virtue of social justice. The former wrote in 1952 that society “ought to be renewed according to principles of charity and social justice,” while the latter prayed in 1960 that Christians might “offer to fellow citizens examples of all virtues, in the first place social justice and charity.”

The three decades following John XXIII’s death witnessed further developments in Catholic teaching on social justice. In 1992, Catholic doctrine on social justice was set forth with particular authority when Blessed John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Vatican II

The term “social justice” appeared three times in the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65). In Nostra Aetate (1965), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, the Council Fathers exhorted Christians and Muslims to “preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (no. 3).

Six weeks later, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the Council Fathers observed that “excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace” (no. 29). The Council Fathers called for the creation of an “organism of the universal Church” whose role would be “to stimulate the Catholic community to promote progress in needy regions and international social justice”—in the original Latin, “social justice among nations.” Venerable Paul VI established that organism, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in 1967.

The three conciliar references to social justice use the term in the context of “all mankind,” the “one human family,” and “among nations.” Pope Pius XI wrote about the importance of social justice within the life of a nation, particularly between employers and workers; following the council, the stage was set for extended papal reflection about social justice within the life of the human family, particularly between wealthy and poor nations.

Venerable Paul VI (1963-78)

Imprecise translations of papal documents can make the study of the Magisterium’s teaching on social justice more challenging. At times, the word “social justice” appears in English translations where it does not appear in the Latin – for example, in Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic constitution on fast and abstinence, where condicionem socialem aequiorem [a fairer social condition] is rendered as “social justice,” or in paragraph 61 of Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul’s 1967 encyclical on the development of peoples, where iustitiae [of justice] is rendered as “social justice.”

The term “social justice” does appear in three places in the Latin text of Populorum Progressio: once in a quotation from Gaudium et Spes, and twice in reference to trade. Among the duties of wealthier nations, wrote Pope Paul, is “the duty of social justice…that trade relations taking place between more fortunate and weaker peoples may be reconstructed for the better” (no. 44). The Pope explained:

The teaching set forth by Our predecessor Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum is still valid today: when two parties are in very unequal positions, their mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract; the rule of free consent remains subservient to the demands of the natural law. In Rerum Novarum this principle was set down with regard to a just wage for the individual worker; but it should be applied with equal force to contracts made between nations: trade relations can no longer be based solely on the principle of free, unchecked competition [in the Latin, "on the sole law of the free and unrestrained rivalry of competitors”], for it very often creates an economic dictatorship [i[in the Latin, "power to command, sovereignty”]Free trade can be called just only when it conforms to the demands of social justice (no. 59).

Pope Paul further explained, in the words of the English translation, that “in order that international trade be human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of opportunity” (no. 61). (A literal translation from the Latin might state, “A consideration of justice, in order that it may be worthy of man and honorable, demands that in commercial acts that are carried out among the various nations of the world, at least some fair and equal condition of buying and selling should be granted to competitors.”)

In 1923, Pope Pius XI wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas established “sound principles” of social justice. In his 1967 apostolic letter Roma Altera, Pope Paul VI wrote that St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the Jesuit doctor of the Church, set forth “the beginnings of the doctrine on social justice.”

“I would not properly speak of Bellarmine’s doctrine of social justice in the terms in which we would understand it today,” comments Stefania Tutino, author of Empire of Souls: Robert Bellarmine and the Christian Commonwealth (Oxford University Press, 2010). She told CWR that Pope Paul’s apostolic letter “refers to the years in which Bellarmine was archbishop of Capua, and in that capacity Bellarmine did take some steps to protect the poor and the socially disadvantaged, but within a context of what today we would call philanthropy rather than properly social justice. In other words, during his time in Capua Bellarmine helped the poor, but he never theoretically and systematically reflected on social justice as part of his doctrinal views.”

“By explicitly mentioning Bellarmine, one of the greatest theologians of the Church, in this context, in my opinion Paul VI wanted to give a strong signal of the importance of the issue of social justice within the history of Catholic doctrine,” she added.

The term “social justice” appeared again in Pope Paul VI’s famed 1968 encyclical on the regulation of births, Humanae Vitae, in which he urged governments not to adopt population policies that violate the natural law. “No one can, without being grossly unfair, make divine Providence responsible for what clearly seems to be the result of misguided governmental policies, of an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children,” he wrote (no. 23).

In 1970 and 1971, Pope Paul repeatedly turned his attention to social justice: