The point of Catholic morality is to tell us how best to live.
Some are inclined to make it mostly about social justice. When the bishops issue a statement condemning pornography, they say it should have been about economics instead. They say that would do more to promote a good way of life.
Such views line up with public discussion today, which finds traditional conceptions of individual morality interfering, unforgiving, and judgmental. Situations are said to differ too much to talk about in the abstract, so many favor a sort of lifestyle ecumenism that looks for the good in all ways of life.
As a practical matter, that means a tendency toward lifestyle libertarianism, along with a comprehensive system of social welfare. The goal, people believe, should be an equal and compassionate society in which everyone is supported and accepted, so they aren’t forced into desperate situations. Then the bad conduct people criticize will disappear as hard-pressed people become free to choose better things.
So many think. But how much good does that way of thinking do for anyone? Social justice has to do with the general structure and functioning of society. How much can most people do about that? And how can social justice tell them how to live?
It seems an attractive cause for people who think they have their lives in order, and want to put everything else in order. As such it’s a natural view for academics, bureaucrats, and other professionals and functionaries. Less well-placed people are likely to find the personal drama of sin and salvation more gripping than questions of social policy.
That applies even more to people in difficult circumstances. They don’t control the social order—nobody does, outside of extreme tyrannies. So what should they do if they want a better life right now?
Religious and moral tradition offers answers. We all need God, if only because we need to see the world as a place that somehow makes sense and in which we and those we care about matter. And we need an ordered life in which we can live sensibly and have people we love. That means avoidance of lying, violence, addiction, and so on, charity toward those immediately around us, and readiness to do what we can to make things better for ourselves and them.
All these things have to do with traditional understandings of personal morality. In recent decades institutional Catholicism in Latin America has spoken a great deal about a “preferential option for the poor,” which sounds like it makes social justice the great concern of the Church. The people there have responded by leaving the Church in favor of Protestant sects with less academic jargon and more evident interest in leading them to God and a life worth living.
There’s also the question how beneficial social justice efforts are likely to be. That depends, of course, on what “social justice” is. It can refer to any number of concrete actions to help people with problems. If someone reads about an earthquake somewhere and chips in to relief efforts then he’s helping people with special difficulties and that might be called social justice.
But “justice” seems a property of systems as a whole, so the term usually relates to something much more comprehensive. As the suburban yard signs say, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So “social justice” seems to tell us to get involved with everything in the world.
Given human limitations, is that going to work? As far as I can tell, today’s social justice Catholicism is consistent with secular progressive conceptions of social justice. These reflect a desire to remake the whole social world on a technological model. You decide what you want, design the right process, provide the right inputs, and put it all into effect in a controlled and thoroughgoing way with the help of scientific expertise.
Apply that approach to the whole of social life, and you get a demand for comprehensive bureaucratic management of human affairs. The goal is a system that arranges human relations and the production and distribution of economic goods so that everybody gets a materially comfortable way of life and—in line with today’s lifestyle libertarianism—their various purposes and self-defined identities get equally favored.
The advantage of that approach is that it embodies the current understanding of rationality. Also, the power of modern state bureaucracy makes it seem able to do anything. So the approach looks achievable in a direct and knowable way. Adhere to it, and you can feel you’re helping solve all the world’s problems.
But it has certain requirements. The people must be trained to be compliant citizens and productive assets, and attached to the rewards and punishments—chiefly relating to careers, consumer goods, and social acceptability—that the system has available to motivate cooperation. Beyond that, alternative loyalties and sources of authority that disrupt the system or make it less effective must be eliminated. That requires the weakening of cultural and religious connections, along with radical equality along the traditional dimensions of identity, like sex and inherited community, that define them.
Many Catholics don’t like that result because it leaves out higher goods, human agency, and particular solidarities. More fundamentally, though, the plan won’t work. It’s like socialism but more comprehensive. Administrators are to create utopia by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving dignity to the marginalized, and so on. Socialism failed when it tried to do a fraction of that. The crude simplicity of bureaucratic ways of knowing and acting meant that when applied to something complex and subtle they became stupid and tyrannical. They treated people like cogs and that wrecked normal social functioning.
The Catechism provides a conception of social justice that recognizes such complexities. It tells us that social justice has to do with providing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation” (par 1928). It thus means something like “providing appropriate support to a social order in which individuals and associations can act in accordance with what they are and do what they are called to do.”
As such, it requires a balance among multiple centers of activity that can be fostered but not forced. So it’s helpful as a guiding principle but hard to campaign for and impose in any very general way. I’ve noted, for example, that social justice includes an obligation on the part of public authority “to safeguard public morality” in order to ensure “the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family.” More could no doubt be done in that direction—for example, getting pornography out of public school libraries.
But there’s evidently a limit how far it can be pushed.
The triumphs and failures of social justice—of attempts to enable human activity in accordance with nature and vocation and so bring about a better life—usually have very little to do with “social justice” as a slogan. Freer trade and economic liberalization have done far more than socialism and foreign aid to enable the workers of the world to provide for themselves and their families by productive labor. And the BLM movement seems to have enabled criminality and disabled law enforcement, deeply contradicting social justice and leading to a huge increase in violent death.
What to do? Proponents of some form of Catholic social justice have included saintly people—Pope Saint Paul VI, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil. But viewed in retrospect the first two seem shockingly over-optimistic and the last two didn’t claim to be realistic. Today, as Church influence declines and an anti-human state ideology colonizes ever more of life—often through ostensible support of social justice through education, public health, and protection of the vulnerable—it seems that what we need most is the classic political virtue of prudence.
Prudence advises against trying to transform the world by allying ourselves with people who want a self-sufficient world with no place for Christianity. The Church has historically changed politics by acting as a leaven. That’s involved action that expresses Christian understandings, and so insistence that Christians be able to present and live by their faith.
Direct political action, although sometimes necessary, has been far less important. We should remember this.
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