Talking Social Justice
By Stephen Phelan
It’s a good thing that the conversation about “Social Justice” is heating up again. The exchange between Deacon Keith Fournier and Deal Hudson is the latest between faithful Catholics who are serious about helping the Church communicate its teaching on the proper ordering of society with regard to politics and economics, and how those who have some degree of wealth can best enter into solidarity those who don’t.
“Progressive” Catholics often seem to think that Jesus was some kind of “Che of Nazareth” who came to establish social justice on earth, and that the Gospel and the entirety of Church Teaching can be reduced to something called the Church’s Social Teaching, which is further reducible to something like the Democratic party platform.
So, what to do with ‘social justice’ now that it has been largely co-opted by those who are not even close to being in communion with the Church? Deacon Fournier thinks we need to recover its true meaning, reconnecting it with the fullness of the Church’s teaching; Dr. Hudson thinks the term is beyond saving and what is needed is a new term that faithful Catholics can rally behind.
Who is right?
For progressives, words only have the meaning that they find useful. They will take any useful word, use it until it is hollowed out of meaning, then discard it for another word that gives them cover, and that allows them to hide their true desired ends for society while sounding mainstream.
Call it a natural consequence of postmodernism, but think of the evolution of “Communist”, “Socialist”, “Progressive”, “Liberal”, and now back to “Progressive”, while the ideas have barely changed. For example, there are no serious philosophical differences between the American Communist Party platform and that of the modern American Democratic Party. (This is not to say that Democrats are Communists, which would be unfair. It is to say that much of the thinking underlying both is the same, even if Democrats are unaware of that fact.)
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to want to keep words and defend their meaning, despite their opposition’s attempts to imbue the terms with negative connotation. Take, for example, the word “conservative”. The more the Left tries to make conservatism sound evil, the more conservatives shrug and get back to unapologetically declaring their conservatism and arguing about the true meaning and application of conservative ideals.
Liberals hate being branded liberal, and refuse to honestly and openly discuss their historical and philosophical lineage; whereas conservatives don’t mind being called conservative and can’t wait to invoke their heroes.
So, there is something very conservative about the desire of those who, like Deacon Fournier, want to conserve or restore an authentic understanding of social justice, utilizing the resources of the Church that gave birth to the concept.
I am more sympathetic to Fournier’s view than I am to a declaration of a new term. I can’t imagine a scenario, however, where another rational exposition of the true meaning of social justice from within Catholic doctrine and philosophy would have any impact on those who have no use for the teachings of the Church.
Although the Left has done everything possible to make the term utterly meaningless, the only reason “social justice” has any currency whatsoever is because the Church continues to use the term it created as an occasion of dialogue with those who oppose her.
The Left hollows “social justice” of its meaning by equating it with Marxism and all sorts of anti-Catholic social ills, and the Church fills the term up with meaning again by rightly calling for a just ordering of society on a Catholic view. It’s a goldmine for the Left, who can both oppose everything the Church is about, while claiming one of its most essential practical symbols as its own, and suffering no consequences for doing so.
But the Church can’t simply dump the term, most importantly because it isn’t just a term: it is a formulation of how society should be ordered on a Catholic view. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI has given the faithful a wealth of clear Catholic thinking on social, economic, and political areas in Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate.
These encyclicals, considered within the full Magisterial context of the Church’s social doctrine (wonderfully summarized in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church) give any person of good will more than enough theological and intellectual basis from which to draw in entering into the work of the Church in society. Saying that the pope is indicating that a properly understood “Charity” can now begin to eclipse “social justice” for the faithful would probably be projection, but it does seem to indicate where the Vicar of Christ thinks the faithful need to be looking for an answer to the semantic quandary in which we find ourselves.
What is most needed is a forum for the voices of the many faithful Catholics actively living Caritas today – often in radically countercultural ways – to be heard.
These are people who know that the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, comes before and gives form to Catholic action, understanding that to treat the sacramental life of the Church as a sad casualty of the ecumenical nature of social work is to commit a grave error.
They also know that the human person is not what Marxists and confused Catholics believe – a semi-rational animal who either achieves his or her just ends on earth or not at all – but rather is made in the image of the Creator, and as such has a profound and innate dignity, and an end in communion with his loving Creator by the gift of grace. The key is to learn to use the gift of freedom as it was intended, which requires a Catholic paradigm of love and gift, rather than a Marxist paradigm of revolution and “empowerment”.
If there is a new term or vocabulary that will eclipse “social justice”, it will arise from the stories and ideas of those who are doing the Church’s work in the trenches right now – religious, clergy, and lay people alike.
Stephen Phelan is Communications Director at Human Life International