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 [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:

·         In Sancti Stephani Ortum, his 1970 apostolic letter to Hungarian Catholics, Pope Paul wrote that the Christian is called to foster a “respect for the human life just conceived, whose sole and highest Lord is God Himself; due reverence for human dignity; liberty of conscience; the advance of social justice; the will for serving the common good; a true and just peace.”

·         In a January 1971 address to the council of the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Paul said that “more in these days, the Catholic Church should unite for social justice, which should be established in today’s world, and certainly in so difficult a time in its history.” 

·         Four months later, Pope Paul issued his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens, on the eightieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum Novarum. Although the term “social justice” did not appear in Rerum Novarum, the encyclical’s message, said Pope Paul, “continues to inspire action for social justice” (no. 1). “Since the period in which the encyclical Rerum Novarum denounced in a forceful and imperative manner the scandal of the condition of the workers in the nascent industrial society, historical evolution has led to an awareness of other dimensions and other applications of social justice” (no. 5), Pope Paul added, as he called upon Christians to “perceive an original application of social justice” in addressing urban problems (no. 12).

·         In June 1971, Pope Paul spoke briefly about social justice in Evangelica Testificatio, his apostolic exhortation on the renewal of religious life. “It is certainly true that religious institutes have an important role to fulfill in the sphere of works of mercy, assistance and social justice; it is clear that in carrying out this service they must be always attentive to the demands of the Gospel” (no. 16).

The term “social justice” did not appear again in a major papal document until 1979, when Blessed John Paul II wrote his first encyclical.

Pope John Paul II

Grounding their teaching on social justice in concern for the common good, Pius XI emphasized the obligations of employers to workers, while Pope Paul VI discussed the obligations of wealthier nations to poorer ones. In an important section of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man, 1979), Pope John Paul II developed Catholic teaching on social justice by emphasizing the obligations of governments towards their citizens and by teaching that respect for human rights, including respect for religious freedom, is the acid test of determining whether social justice is present in a nation’s political institutions.

“The Church has always taught the duty to act for the common good and, in so doing, has likewise educated good citizens for each State,” he wrote. “Furthermore, she has always taught that the fundamental duty of power [in the Latin, “of the public powers”] is solicitude for the common good of society; this is what gives power its fundamental rights. Precisely in the name of these premises of the objective ethical order, the rights of power [“of public power”] can only be understood on the basis of respect for the objective [“natural”] and inviolable rights of man.” He continued:

The common good that authority [in the Latin, “public authority”] in the State serves is brought to full realization only when all the citizens are sure of their rights … Thus the principle of human rights [“the rights of man”] is of profound concern to the area of social justice and is the measure by which it can be tested in the life of political bodies [“becomes the measure by which it can be examined whether it (social justice) is truly observed in the life of political institutions”]. These rights are rightly reckoned to include the right to religious freedom together with the right to freedom of conscience (no. 17).

Even as he discussed social justice within the context of respect for human rights, Blessed John Paul did not ignore the concerns of previous popes. In Laborem Exercens, his 1981 encyclical on human work, he observed that “if one studies the development of the question of social justice, one cannot fail to note that, whereas during the period between Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno the Church’s teaching concentrates mainly on the just solution of the ‘labor question’ within individual nations, in the next period the Church’s teaching widens its horizon to take in the whole world” (no. 2). John Paul emphasized the relation between social justice and solidarity with workers:

In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries, and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers, and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger. The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the “Church of the poor.” And the “poor” appear under various forms; they appear in various places and at various times; in many cases they appear as a result of the violation of the dignity of human work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment, or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his family (no. 8).

Unions, he continued, can be “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice [in the Latin, ‘promoters of the struggle for social equity’], for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions” (no. 20).

In a letter written the following year on the significance of work, Blessed John Paul told his cardinal secretary of state that “responses to the difficulties in the province of human work are to be sought in the ends of social justice.”

In 1983, Blessed John Paul promulgated the Code of Canon Law, which stated that all of the Christian faithful are “obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources” (no. 222 §2). The Code added that pastors of parishes are obliged “to foster works through which the spirit of the Gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice” (no. 528 §1).

Under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirmed the international dimensions of the question of social justice while criticizing a Marxist interpretation of class struggle.

“When the Church encourages the creation and activity of associations such as trade unions which fight for the defense of the rights and legitimate interests of the workers and for social justice, she does not thereby admit the theory that sees in the class struggle the structural dynamism of social life,” the Congregation taught in its 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.

In this document, the Congregation taught that the universal destination of created goods—a Thomistic principle explained by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (no. 22)—is “a primary demand of social justice” (no. 88). Echoing Populorum Progressio, the Congregation also taught that among the duties of wealthier nations are the “duties of social justice,” which call for “a revision in correct terms of commercial relationships between North and South, the promotion of a more human world for all, a world in which each individual can give and receive, and in which the progress of some will no longer be an obstacle to the development of others, nor a pretext for their enslavement” (no. 90).

The following year, at a meeting in Detroit, Blessed John Paul exhorted his listeners to be attentive to the common good and the demands of social justice. “Do not let this hour pass without renewing your commitment to action for social justice and peace,” he said. “Turn to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to strengthen your resolve to become instruments for the common good!”

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, his 1987 encyclical on the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Blessed John Paul taught that “peace, so desired by everyone, will certainly be achieved through the putting into effect of social and international justice” (no. 39). “The Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice is of particular importance for each Catholic university, to be shared by its teachers and developed in its students,” he wrote three years later in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities.

In 1990, Pope John Paul promulgated the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which affirmed that the Christian faithful are “obliged to promote social justice” (25 §2) and stated that it is “desirable that the Catholic faithful undertake any project in which they could cooperate with other Christians, not alone but together, such as works for charity and social justice” (908).

In his 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Blessed John Paul affirmed his teaching in Laborem Exercens on workers’ “struggle for social justice” (no. 14), which he distinguished from Marxist class struggle. He then reflected on the relation between the market, the state, and social justice:

Following the destruction caused by the war, we see in some countries and under certain aspects a positive effort to rebuild a democratic society inspired by social justice, so as to deprive Communism of the revolutionary potential represented by masses of people subjected to exploitation and oppression. In general, such attempts endeavor to preserve free market mechanisms, ensuring, by means of a stable currency and the harmony of social relations, the conditions for steady and healthy economic growth in which people through their own work can build a better future for themselves and their families. At the same time, these attempts try to avoid making market mechanisms the only point of reference for social life [in the Latin, “the last end for the whole life of man”], and they tend to subject them to public control [“public vigilance”], which upholds the principle of the common destination of material goods (no. 19).

Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Blessed John Paul in 1992, discusses social justice under two headings: the human community (nos. 1928-48) and the Seventh Commandment (nos. 2426-36). In doing so, it authoritatively presents the demands social justice imposes upon individuals, employers, and nations.

“Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation,” the Catechism teaches. “Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority” (no. 1928). There is thus a certain symmetry between Pius XI’s teaching and the Catechism’s teaching on social justice. Pius XI wrote that social justice demands “from individuals everything that is necessary for the common good”; the Catechism, in turn, demands that “society” provide conditions in which “associations or individuals” obtain their own due for the sake of the common good.

Under the heading of “The Human Community,” the Catechism discusses social justice in three sections: respect for the human person, equality and differences among men, and human solidarity. All are obliged to respect the “transcendent dignity of man” (no. 1929); society, particularly public authority, must recognize man’s rights (no. 1930). Social justice demands that each person look upon others, including the disadvantaged and enemies, as a neighbor, a “second self” (nos. 1931-33). Equal in dignity, persons nonetheless have different aptitudes and experience different conditions that “often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods (nos. 1934-37). “There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women” (no. 1938).

Human and Christian brotherhood calls for solidarity, “manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work,” as well as “the effort for a more just social order” (nos. 1939-40). Solidarity is the key to overcoming socioeconomic problems and “goes beyond material goods” to encompass spiritual ones as well (nos. 1941-42).

In its discussion of social justice under the heading of the Seventh Commandment, the Catechism teaches that “everyone has the right of economic initiative” while being bound to “observe regulations issued by legitimate authority for the sake of the common good” (no. 2429). The state is bound to promote “sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services” (no. 2431), while “those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits” (no. 2432), avoiding unjust discrimination (no. 2433) and paying a just wage to “guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level” (no. 2434).

At the heart of social justice, then, is the firm intention of individuals, employers, rulers, and nations to pursue the common good. According to Catholic teaching, it is an intention made manifest in respect for human dignity and human rights, in the paying of a just wage, and in consideration for poorer nations in trade relations. It demands that governments respect the right of economic initiative and “allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due”; at the same time, it demands that businesses respect the good of workers and of the environment and that individuals look upon all with neighborly solidarity. It is something far richer, at once more demanding and more consoling, than its use in contemporary American political discourse would suggest.


Related reading: What is Social Justice? (Part One)

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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.