What Is Social Justice?

Discussions about social justice often revolve around particular government programs. For the popes who guided the Church during the formative years of the development of Catholic social doctrine, social justice is something far richer, far more demanding.

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Few terms have become as unmoored from their Catholic origins, and have thus lent themselves to misunderstanding in contemporary discourse, as has the term “social justice.” What does the term mean when it appears in papal documents—particularly when it appeared in the formative years of Catholic social teaching?

It is an important question, because all of the Christian faithful, according to the Code of Canon Law, are “obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources” (Code of Canon Law 222 §2; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 25 §2). Pastors of parishes are obliged “to foster works through which the spirit of the Gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice” (Code of Canon Law 528 §1). It is also “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” (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 908).

In his Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), J. Brian Benestad of the University of Scranton notes that “a Jesuit philosopher by the name of Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio was the first to use the concept of social justice in his major work, Saggio teoretico di diritto.” Father Taparelli (1793-1862) served as rector of the Roman College and helped found La CiviltÀ Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit periodical.

“For Taparelli, social justice is not a metaphor, nor the extension of virtue language to anthropomorphized collectives,” Thomas C. Behr of the University of Houston said in a paper delivered in 2003 at the annual conference of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Behr, Taparelli held that social justice is distinct from both commutative justice (defined by the late Father John Hardon as “the virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights between one individual and another individual”) and distributive justice (defined as “the virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights that an individual may claim from society”).

Behr wrote that the definition of social justice

can be stated succinctly thus: a legal order and normative ideal within a society by which individuals and their various associations are given the maximum range of liberty in pursuit of their proper ends, with a minimum of interference from superior authorities, i.e., only to the extent necessary to orient general activity towards the common good, and governed by the principles of conflicting rights, prudence, and, ultimately, of charity. This is not the only way that Taparelli uses the term, but it is arguably the most important of his uses.

Perhaps the earliest appearance of “social justice” in a curial document was in 1894, when the Sacred Congregation of the Council, ruling on a canonical question, stated that “a new practice of social justice was born from that principle ‘the despoiled before all things ought to be restored’” (Acta Sanctae Sedis, 1894-95, p. 131). The term appeared again in the 1904 encyclical Iucunda Sane, when Pope Pius X wrote that Pope St. Gregory the Great acted as a “public defender of social justice” [publicus iustitiae socialis adsertor] during his years as a legate in Byzantium.

Pius XI: The pope of social justice

The term “social justice” came to the fore during the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-39). In Studiorum Ducem, his 1923 encyclical on St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Pius wrote that “Thomas refutes the theories propounded by Modernists in every sphere…in sociology and law, by laying down sound principles of legal and social, commutative and distributive, justice and explaining the relations between justice and charity.”

Asked what Pope Pius meant when he spoke of St. Thomas’ “sound principles of social justice,” Dr. Anthony Andres, a faculty member at Thomas Aquinas College, said, “I think that the principles which Pius XI is referring to are specifically those which are denied by the most prominent modern political philosophers, from Hobbes and Locke to Hegel and Marx.”

“The first is that the common good of the political community is more desirable for each individual than his own private good,” Andres told CWR. “This splits the difference between two false views, one in which the common good is understood to be merely a means for the individual attaining his private good, or another in which the common good is seen as opposed to the good of the individual. St. Thomas thinks that the common good is not opposed to the good of the individual, but instead is the most fulfilling good that he can participate in.”

“The second is that the temporal common good of the political community should be ordered to a higher common good, the eternal salvation offered by God to men through Christ and his Church,” Andres added. “Modern political philosophers either subordinate religion and the Church to the political authority, or take atheism as a first principle in politics.”

Pope Pius referred repeatedly to social justice in Quadragesimo Anno, his 1931 encyclical on the reconstruction of the social order. Linking the “law of social justice” to the common good, he stated that

not every distribution among human beings of property and wealth is of a character to attain either completely or to a satisfactory degree of perfection the end which God intends. Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate.

By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits. Hence the class of the wealthy violates this law no less, when, as if free from care on account of its wealth, it thinks it the right order of things for it to get everything and the worker nothing, than does the non-owning working class when, angered deeply at outraged justice and too ready to assert wrongly the one right it is conscious of, it demands for itself everything as if produced by its own hands, and attacks and seeks to abolish, therefore, all property and returns or incomes, of whatever kind they are or whatever the function they perform in human society, that have not been obtained by labor, and for no other reason save that they are of such a nature. (no. 57).

“To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice,” Pope Pius continued (no. 58).

Later in the encyclical, Pope Pius applied this norm of social justice to the question of wages:

Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman. (no. 71)

It is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood. (no. 74)

Considering the larger question of the ordering of society, Pope Pius believed that while “free competition” (liberum certamen) and political power over the economy (oeconomicus potentatus) justly hold a limited place, neither is able on its own to direct society towards the common good. Both need social justice as a “directive principle”:

It is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle. This function is one that the economic dictatorship [potentantus, perhaps better rendered “power”] which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. Loftier and nobler principles—social justice and social charity—must, therefore, be sought whereby this dictatorship [potentatus] may be governed firmly and fully. Hence, the institutions themselves of peoples and, particularly those of all social life, ought to be penetrated with this justice, and it is most necessary that it be truly effective, that is, establish a juridical and social order which will, as it were, give form and shape to all economic life. Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order. (no. 88)

A capitalist economic system, Pius explained, “is not of its own nature vicious. But it does violate right order when capital hires workers, that is, the non-owning working class, with a view to and under such terms that it directs business and even the whole economic system according to its own will and advantage, scorning the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic activity and social justice itself, and the common good” (no. 101).

“So as to avoid the reefs of individualism and collectivism, the twofold character, that is individual and social, both of capital or ownership and of work or labor must be given due and rightful weight,” Pope Pius said as he continued his reflections on social justice. “The public institutions themselves, of peoples, moreover, ought to make all human society conform to the needs of the common good, that is, to the norm of social justice. If this is done, that most important division of social life, namely, economic activity, cannot fail likewise to return to right and sound order” (no. 110).

In his final mention of “social justice” in the encyclical, Pope Pius speaks of the “ranks of those who, zealously following the admonitions which Leo [XIII] promulgated [in his 1893 encyclical Rerum Novarum] and We have solemnly repeated, are striving to restore society according to the mind of the Church on the firmly established basis of social justice and social charity” (no. 126).

Pope Pius XI returned to the theme of social justice in two later encyclicals: Divini Redemptoris, his 1937 encyclical on atheistic Communism, and Firmissimam Constantiam, issued nine days later, on the religious situation in Mexico.

In Divini Redemptoris, Pope Pius recalled the teaching of Quadragesimo Anno: “We have shown that the means of saving the world of today from the lamentable ruin into which a moral liberalism has plunged us, are neither the class-struggle nor terror, nor yet the autocratic abuse of state power, but rather the infusion of social justice and the sentiment of Christian love into the social-economic order” (no. 32), to quote the loose but generally accurate English translation of the paragraph on the Vatican website. (Readers of Latin can find the official version of the encyclical in volume 29 of Acta Apostolicae Sedis.)

In a subsequent paragraph (no. 51), however, the English translation errs in conveying Pope Pius’ description of the essence of social justice, as Thomas Storck pointed out in a recent article in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. The Latin text literally says, “But in fact, besides the justice that they call commutative, social justice, which indeed demands its own duties, ought to be cultivated, from which duties neither artificers nor owners are able to remove themselves. And indeed it is [the essence] of social justice to demand from individuals everything that is necessary for the common good.”

“If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquility and order,” the Vatican website’s English translation continues. “But social justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their families; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old age, for periods of illness and unemployment” (no. 52).

In Firmissimam Constantiam, Pope Pius discussed the relation of social justice and the right to private property. “While saving the essence of the primary and fundamental rights, such as the right of ownership, remember that at times the common good imposes restrictions on such rights as a recourse more frequent than in the past to the applications of social justice,” he wrote to the bishops of Mexico. “You must assist [the laborer] materially and religiously. Materially, bringing about in his favor the practice not only of commutative justice but also of social justice, that is, all those provisions which aim at relieving the condition of the proletarian; and then, religiously, giving him again the religious comforts without which he will struggle in a materialism that brutalizes him and degrades him” (no. 16).

Pope Pius XI’s multifaceted reflections on social justice have led different writers and scholars of undoubted fidelity to the Church’s teaching to define the term “social justice” with slightly different nuances. Thomas Storck writes that social justice, although “concerned with the duties of the individual to the common good, concerns not individual actions, such as paying taxes, but the fostering and establishment of organizations and institutions of society which contribute toward the common good.” In Church, State, and Society, J. Brian Benestad writes that “social justice is a virtue inclining persons and 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.”  In a paper presented at the 2008 assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa said that “for Pius XI, social justice is that kind of order than ensues when each person is capacitated to ‘contribute to the common good according to his proper office and role (function) … Social justice is the virtue whereby all persons (not just the state) refer the ensemble of their relations to the common good.”

Popes Pius XII and John XXIII

Venerable Pius XII (1939-58) employed the term “social justice” with less frequency than did his predecessor. In his November 1939 encyclical, Sertum Laetitiae, he used the term in quoting his predecessor’s teaching on the family wage. Addressing Croatian pilgrims four days after the encyclical’s publication, Pius XII referred to the Roman Church as the “infallible interpreter of eternal truth, the powerful patron of social justice, the indefatigable support of concord among nations.”

In a 1944 allocution to Roman parish priests, Pius XII quoted again from his predecessor’s teaching on social justice and said that the Church seeks to “achieve an economic order that through its very structure creates for the working class a secure and stable condition, all according to the maxims of social justice expressed and exhibited by our predecessor.” Five years later, in his letter to the German hierarchy Testes obsequii, Pius XII wrote that social justice, “in ordering well the division and use of resources, ought to watch over and bring about a most beautiful alliance of wisdom and benevolence and uprightness.”

In a 1952 letter, Pius XII exhorted members of Marian sodalities to excel “in universal apostolic zeal directed especially to society, which ought to be renewed according to principles of charity and social justice.”

“We strive to hasten the arrival of a time when…liberty might be joined with social justice in a beautiful alliance,” Pope Pius added in Hadriatici Maris urbs, his 1956 letter on the fifth centenary of the death of St. Lawrence Giustiniani.

The term “social justice” appeared again in the writings of Blessed John XXIII (1958-63), though inexact English translations of his encyclicals have the potential to obscure his teaching. In popular English translations of two of his encyclicals, the term “social justice” appears in English where it does not appear in the Latin, and in one place the term does not appear in the English where it does appear in the Latin (Mater et Magistra, no. 73).

In his 1959 encyclical Mater et Magistra, Blessed John wrote (in a literal, if stilted, translation from the Latin) that Pope Pius XI

enjoins that, whether in public institutions or in freely established institutions, in individual states as among nations, under the auspice of social justice, that order of law ought to be established in which those who work in economic matters might be able to join fittingly their own advantages to themselves with common benefits to all. (no. 40)

Blessed John added that it is “a most grave precept of social justice” that “increases of economic condition always should be not only joined to, but at the same time applied to, increases of social condition; so indeed, from an increased abundance of riches in a republic, all orders of citizens certainly should obtain fair gains” (no. 73).

Later, in a 1960 radio address at the conclusion of a Eucharistic Congress in Bavaria, Blessed John prayed that Christians might “offer to fellow citizens examples of all virtues, in the first place social justice and charity.”

In contemporary political discourse, discussions about social justice often revolve around particular government programs. For the popes who guided the Church during the formative years of the development of Catholic social doctrine, social justice is something far richer, far more demanding: it is a virtue that, while not defined with crystalline precision, challenges all participants in society to seek the common good.

(This article was originally posted on the CWR on November 18, 2013.)

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

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