What is Social Justice? From John Paul II to Benedict XVI

The third and final installment in a series on social justice in Catholic social doctrine

What is Social Justice? From John Paul II to Benedict XVI

When the Italian Jesuit Father Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (1793-1862) coined the term “social justice” in the middle of the 19th century, he probably could not have foreseen its mention in an 1894 curial document and a 1904 encyclical, nor the importance attached to it by Pope Pius XI (1922-39) and subsequent pontiffs, culminating in the authoritative teaching on social justice in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992).

After the Catechism’s promulgation, Blessed John Paul II (1978-2005) continued to speak about social justice. In a 1993 audience devoted to priests and politics, he said that “Jesus formulated the precept of mutual love, which implies respect for every person and his rights. It implies rules of social justice aiming at recognizing what is each person’s due and at harmoniously sharing earthly goods among individuals, families and groups.”

John Paul taught that as priests follow the “precept of mutual love” which “implies rules of social justice,” they must do so in different ways from the laity. Strongly affirming the teaching of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, which was devoted in part to justice in the world, John Paul said that

in circumstances in which there legitimately exist different political, social and economic options, priests like all citizens have a right to make their own personal choices. But since political options are by nature contingent and never in an entirely adequate and perennial way interpret the Gospel, the priest, who is the witness of things to come, must keep a certain distance from any political office or involvement.

Quoting the Catechism, Blessed John Paul added that “it is not the role of the pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens.”

In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul taught that social justice has its deepest roots in creation and in the institution of the jubilee year, described in Leviticus 25. “The riches of Creation were to be considered as a common good of the whole of humanity,” he wrote. “Those who possessed these goods as personal property were really only stewards, ministers charged with working in the name of God, who remains the sole owner in the full sense, since it is God’s will that created goods should serve everyone in a just way. The jubilee year was meant to restore this social justice. The social doctrine of the Church, which has always been a part of Church teaching and which has developed greatly in the last century, particularly after the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, is rooted in the tradition of the jubilee year” (no. 13).

In his 1995 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, John Paul called for “a serious commitment to foster on the continent conditions of greater social justice and good government”—or, as the Latin text literally states, “conditions of greater social justice and the more just exercise of power”—“in order thereby to prepare the ground for peace” (no. 117).  “If you want peace, work for justice,” he added, quoting Paul VI’s well-known statement.

Two years later, in an address to Philippine bishops, John Paul further developed Catholic teaching on social justice by explicitly linking social justice to the defense of the family.

“Two crucial and intimately related areas of pastoral life [are] the family and the promotion of social justice,” he said. “Indeed, the defense and promotion of the family, the heart of every society, is a preeminent task facing all those committed to the pursuit of social well-being and justice.” The pope added:

It falls in the first place to you, the bishops, to form the consciences of the faithful in accordance with the Church’s teachings, so that the laity in particular may work effectively for the introduction of public policies which strengthen family life. Your Conference has spoken out frequently on this theme, recalling that a family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies. In this sense the State, which by its nature is ordered to the common good, is bound to defend the family, respecting its natural structure and inalienable rights.

Recalling Laborem Exercens, his 1981 encyclical on work, John Paul reflected on the link between a family-centered economy and social justice:

The economy likewise has a vital part to play in ensuring the strength of the family. One of the main criticisms which the Church’s pastors have to make regarding the prevailing socioeconomic system, understood as the subordination of almost all other values to market forces, is that the family dimension of the work contract is generally ignored. Such a system makes little or no provision for the family wage. How far are most societies from what the Church urges: “Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future” (Laborem Exercens, no. 19)! Legislators, leaders of business, industry and labor, educators and those working in the mass media, and families themselves, must all be encouraged to re-create a family-centered economy, based on principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. True social justice passes by way of the family!

In his 1998 motu proprio on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences (Apostolos Suos), Blessed John Paul listed “the promotion of social justice” as one of the issues that “call for the joint action of bishops” (no. 15).

Between 1999 and 2003, the pope mentioned social justice in four post-synodal apostolic exhortations devoted to the life of the Church in various regions.  In Ecclesia in America (1999), he taught that

by her social doctrine the Church makes an effective contribution to the issues presented by the current globalized economy. Her moral vision in this area rests on the threefold cornerstone of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity. The globalized economy must be analyzed in the light of the principles of social justice, respecting the preferential option for the poor who must be allowed to take their place in such an economy, and the requirements of the international common good (no. 55).

“For democracy to develop, there is a need for civic education and the promotion of public order and peace,” he added. “In effect, there is no authentic and stable democracy without social justice. Thus the Church needs to pay greater attention to the formation of consciences” (no. 56).

In Ecclesia in Asia (1999), John Paul observed “a growing awareness throughout Asia of people’s capacity to change unjust structures” in the face of corruption. “There are new demands for greater social justice, for more participation in government and economic life, for equal opportunities in education and for a just share in the resources of the nation” (no. 8).

In Ecclesia in Oceania (2001), the pope mentioned social justice six times. He said, for example, that “the parish as a community cannot insulate itself from the realities of the world around it. The Christian community must be attentive to issues of social justice and spiritual hunger in society” (no. 13).

“Cooperation in areas of charity and social justice is a clear sign of Christian fraternity” (no. 23), he continued, as he reflected on efforts to promote Christian unity. Commitment to social justice, he added, forms an important part of the Church’s evangelizing mission:

The Church regards the social apostolate as an integral part of her evangelizing mission to speak a word of hope to the world; and her commitment in this regard is seen in her contribution to human development, her promotion of human rights, the defense of human life and dignity, social justice, and protection of the environment … It is certain that commitment to social justice and peace is an integral part of the Church’s mission in the world. Yet her mission does not depend upon political power. The Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end (no. 26).

Towards the end of his pontificate, Blessed John Paul returned to a theme he emphasized in his very first encyclical: the link between social justice and human dignity. In Ecclesia in Europa (2003), he wrote that because the Church’s social teaching “is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Europe’s future” (no. 98).

In a similar vein, John Paul wrote in his final apostolic exhortation, Pastores Gregis (2003), that “the Ten Commandments have a firm foundation in human nature itself, and thus the values which they defend have universal validity. This is particularly true of values such as human life, which must be defended from conception until its end in natural death; the freedom of individuals and of nations, social justice and the structures needed to achieve it” (no. 29). He repeated his earlier teaching that “the globalized economy must be analyzed in the light of the principles of social justice, respecting the preferential option for the poor who must be allowed to take their place in such an economy, and the requirements of the international common good” (no. 69).

Toward the end of John Paul’s pontificate, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also returned briefly to the theme of social justice. In its 2002 doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in political life, the Congregation taught that Catholics must promote the “right to religious freedom and the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which the rights of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged” (no. 4).

A year to the day before Blessed John Paul died, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released, at the pontiff’s request, the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church “in order to give a concise but complete overview of the Church’s social teaching.” Although social justice is not one of the topical headings, the phrase does appear in 11 of the document’s paragraphs, three times in reference to earlier texts of the Magisterium.

“A large part of the Church’s social teaching is solicited and determined by important social questions, to which social justice is the proper answer,” the Compendium noted (no. 81). Social justice “represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political, and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions” (no. 201).

In subsequent paragraphs, the Compendium taught that

·         “human work is a right upon which the promotion of social justice and civil peace directly depend” (no. 292)

·         “an equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria not merely of commutative justice but also of social justice, that is, considering, beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subjects who perform it” (no. 303)

·         “properly speaking, unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers in their particular professions: ‘this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavor ‘for’ the just good … not a struggle ‘against’ others’” (no. 306, citing Laborem Exercens)

·         “it is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. This is what happens when businesses are part of social and cultural systems marked by the exploitation of people, tending to avoid the obligations of social justice and to violate the rights of workers” (no. 340)

·         “among the deformities of the democratic system, political corruption is one of the most serious because it betrays at one and the same time both moral principles and the norms of social justice” (no. 411)

·         “the legitimate requirements of economic efficiency need to be better harmonized with those of political participation and social justice. Concretely, this means that solidarity must be made an integral part of the networks of economic, political and social interdependence that the current process of globalization tends to consolidate” (no. 564)

Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

Social justice was an important concern of Pope Benedict XVI: he spoke about it in at least 48 of his addresses and other writings.

In 2005, he promulgated the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2005), which summarized the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on social justice. “Society ensures social justice when it respects the dignity and the rights of the person as the proper end of society itself,” the Compendium teaches. “Furthermore, society pursues social justice, which is linked to the common good and to the exercise of authority, when it provides the conditions that allow associations and individuals to obtain what is their due” (no. 411).

Subsequent questions that appear under the heading of social justice discussed human equality (no. 412), social inequalities (no. 413), and human solidarity (no. 414). In a later paragraph, the Compendium taught that social and economic life “should be pursued according to its own proper methods within the sphere of the moral order, at the service of the whole human being and of the entire human community in keeping with social justice” (no. 511).

“The journey of lay Christians, from the mid-19th century to today, has brought them to the awareness that charitable acts must not replace the commitment to social justice,” Pope Benedict said in a 2006 address to Italian business leaders. Two months later, he again recalled the important role of the laity in striving for social justice:

Equally urgent is a tenacious, on-going and shared effort to promote social justice. Democracy will attain its full actualization only when every person and each people have access to the primary goods (life, food, water, health care, education, work, and the certainty of their rights) through an ordering of internal and international relations that assures each person of the possibility of participating in them.

True social justice, furthermore, can only be possible in a perspective of genuine solidarity that commits people to live and work always for one another and never against or to the detriment of others. Thus, to achieve this in practice in the context of the contemporary world is the great challenge of Christian lay people.

Recalling a frequently-mentioned theme of Catholic social teaching, Pope Benedict said in a 2008 address that a “commitment to promoting effective social justice in international relations demands of each one an awareness that the goods of creation are destined for all, and that in the world community economies must be oriented toward the sharing of these goods, their lasting use, and the fair division of the benefits that derive from them.”

Although Pope Benedict mentioned social justice frequently, he referred to it only twice in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. “From the social point of view, systems of protection and welfare, already present in many countries in Paul VI’s day, are finding it hard and could find it even harder in the future to pursue their goals of true social justice in today’s profoundly changed environment,” he wrote (no. 25), adding:

The market is subject to the principles of so-called commutative justice, which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction. But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context, but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well (no. 35).

In a significant reference to social justice in 2010, Pope Benedict incisively linked “real social justice” to civil liberties, respect for life, and respect for the nature of marriage. Addressing the ambassador from Ecuador, he said that “the pillars of every human community worthy of this name” include “the defense of life from its conception to its natural end, religious freedom, the free expression of thought, and also the other civil freedoms. The latter constitute the authentic condition for real social justice. This, in turn, can only be affirmed on the basis of the support and protection, in both juridical and economic terms, of the primary cell of society: which is nothing other than the family based on the matrimonial union of a man and a woman.”

Five months before his resignation, Pope Benedict again linked “authentically human social justice” to the defense of the unborn and of marriage. “Your political and institutional commitment must not, then, be limited to responding to the requirements of market logic,” he said to a group of Italian political leaders, adding:

Rather, its central and indispensable goal must remain the search for the common good, correctly understood, and the promotion and protection of the inalienable dignity of the human person … The areas in which this decisive discernment is to be exercised are … not separate from one another but profoundly interconnected; they possess a manifest continuum which is constituted by respect for the transcendent dignity of human beings, in the fact that they were made in the image of the Creator and are the ultimate goal of any authentically human social justice. The commitment to respecting life in all its phases from conception to natural death — and the consequent rejection of procured abortion, euthanasia and any form of eugenics — is, in fact, interwoven with respecting marriage as an indissoluble union between a man and a woman and, in its turn, as the foundation for the community of family life.

Pope Pius XI wrote in 1937 that “it is [the essence] of social justice to demand from individuals everything that is necessary for the common good.” Just as Pius XI emphasized that social justice makes demands upon employers, and Paul VI emphasized that social justice makes demands upon wealthy nations, so John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught that “real social justice” and “authentically human social justice” demand that governments defend and promote the family.


Related reading:

What is Social Justice? (Part One)

What is Social Justice? (Part Two)

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

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