Monday, July 13, 2009

'Social Justice: Being God's not-so-secret agent'

(These are notes--I actually did this in a more dialogical fashion, but you can't tell that so clearly from these notes...)

First, I want to commend you…it's summer, and Saturday, and you're here!

Second, a lot of people think they don’t know anything about the Church’s teaching on social justice, but I am willing to bet you know more than you realize. Let’s see if I’m right…

1. Let’s start with this question: what is "justice"? St. Thomas Aquinas said, "to each man his due.’
2. What do we mean when we talk about social justice?

It’s not just about what’s due an individual, but also what’s due individuals-in-society.

What is the danger if we forget about the social aspect? What happens if you only look for justice concerning the individual?

How about this example. Later today, you go to a restaurant, or the store—you buy food and eat it. Have you done anything wrong?

Ø add: someone else in your community is starving. Lazarus and the Rich Man: what happened to the Rich Man? (He went to hell.) Why? (Not because he didn’t do enough, but because he didn’t do anything.

I.e., here is a case where from the standpoint of individual justice, what did you do wrong? And yet—there is a broader question of concern for more than your own individual actions.

Application: between 10-15% of folks are out of work; many more have not enough work. You’re working at a good job, good pay and benefits—while someone else has no work at all. Someone offers a plan to reduce wages and hours, so more can work; but the union blocks it. Are you the Rich Man to that man’s Lazarus? If cutting wages or hours might have ensured more people keep their jobs, maybe you are.

Now, that example raises a couple of issues associate with the Church’s social teaching, did you notice?


What do you think the Church says about unions?

Ø People have a right to form or associate with unions—Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII.
Ø Unions should be about advancing the good of working people but not at the expense of others’ legitimate rights and the common good
Ø Catholics should not affiliate with unions if they aren’t compatible with Catholic teaching in general.

What the Church does not say about unions:
Ø That working people must belong to them.
Ø That unions are always right or should always prevail.
Ø That unions should be about employee versus employer: Pope Leo suggested the possibility of unions including employers—what idea was he trying to cultivate there?

Solidarity: i.e., yes, I am my brother’s keeper.
Related to this is the "common good." The idea is that sometimes I have to ask, not just what’s good for me, but what’s good for…us.

Let’s go back to that example: you go buy food in the store. You pay for it. You eat it. But you decided to buy some extra food and drop it off at the food pantry on the way home: you remembered the poor man, Lazarus.

Now, are you finished thinking about "justice" in this case?

Ø What about the workers who produced the food or brought it to you?
Ø What about the way the food was produced—care for the natural environment?

The workers involved in bringing this food to you are entitled to a fair wage and just working conditions—did they have the ability to negotiate and bargain collectively if they wanted to?

Here’s something to think about, but you may not want to…

You hear about food contamination now and then, including produce.

Do you ever wonder if those who pick the food are provided a bathroom? See the connection?

The common good refers to the "sum total" of all that is good for people—some of those things are "indivisible" and we only have them together.

Examples of good things that are indivisible—we can only have them together:

Some things theoretically could be had in a solitary way, but practically, we don’t:
Most of the products we use or consume
Most of the services we rely on
Health care
Some things we simply cannot have in a solitary way:


Also, one of the key points here is that many good things aren’t reducible to a dollar value—yet they are important to a good life:

Common concern

OK, that’s a brief picture of the Church’s teaching on Social Justice—now let’s talk about being God’s "not so secret" agent.
Here’s the thing: when you talk about social justice, when you work for it, can you see how God could be left out?
Ø Environment—worship of nature; humanity is not primary
Ø Rights of workers—power & greed; economics above all
Ø Enough food for people—people are the problem
Ø Health care—rationing; illicit methods of research and treatment; people are the problem.

Question: why do we make the world a better place?
(I.e., what’s God got to do with it?)
If we’re not careful, we lose sight of…heaven.
Question: So why don’t we just focus on heaven? Who cares what this life is like?

Because this world is preparation for heaven or hell. We need a good life—"good" understood the right way (moral good, enhancing human dignity)—here, to help us gain the good life forever.
Suffering helps us, but it isn’t itself a final good: we don’t look forward to suffering in heaven.
Prosperity is good; but not a final good—our Catholic Faith teaches us that we can and should enjoy the good things of life, but not to make them our gods.

One of the hallmarks of Christianity is that it goes out of its way both to share the Gospel, but also to help the poor, and to improve the quality of life. Can you think of examples?

Ø Hospitals. Hospitals predated Christianity and occur outside Christendom: the Romans had hospitals for slaves, gladiators and soldiers, and we have evidence of hospitals in ancient Persia and India. But the Council of Nicea, among other things, called for hospitals to be established in every cathedral city. Later, they were staffed by religious orders, right up until very recently. Only in recent times have Catholic hospitals started to disappear, because of the collapse of the religious orders and rising costs.
Ø Slavery. It was widespread and considered normal in pagan society; it all but died out during Christendom, being revived—how, when? At the time of the "renaissance"—it means rebirth, rebirth of what? The rebirth of pre-Christian ideas and values! Also, the return of slavery was driven by greed and conquest, outside of Christian Europe. Eventually, it was eradicated, to a large degree as a result of folks motivated by their Christian faith. And by the way, the Church repeatedly condemned slavery and the slave trade, but the politicians and well-connected of those days ignored the Church’s "interference"—sound familiar?
Ø Civil Rights
Ø Working conditions
Ø Child labor

So keeping God connected keeps it truly human; and keeping God connected makes sure we have eternity in view.

In other words, you and I have to be the "salt"—and the "light":

Salt: we are the ones who keep this from going down the wrong path:

Medicine => human sacrifice
Improving living standards => anti human—contraceptive mentality
Environment => anti human – we’re a "virus"; world better off without us!
(Fill in the rest)

Economics =>
Workers rights =>
Civil rights =>

Light: we keep Christ in view so we draw people to Christ.
Our Gospel isn’t credible if we don’t care about people; but we haven’t evangelized if we only give food that perishes.

Get involved in social justice—but do it so that we are happy in this life in preparation for eternal happiness.

Finally, if for no other reason than this. Abp Chaput, commenting on sheep and goats passage (Matthew 25): "if we forget the poor, we go to hell."
Social Justice: being God’s not-so-secret agent

Key Principles:

1. Human dignity and true identity: made in God’s image, living in communion.
2. Justice is "to each man his due"; social justice means it’s not just about individuals.
3. Solidarity: we’re all in this together.
4. Common Good: not just what’s good for me, but good for us.
5. Without Jesus Christ, "social justice" becomes idolatry. What may begin as exalting humanity eventually degrades us.
6. Without concern for justice and dignity, our preaching of the Gospel fails.

Key Questions for you:

1. How do I keep a clear distinction between the bedrock truths of social justice, and the various ways to apply them, whether in individual, collective, or governmental action? What’s "negotiable" and what’s "non-negotiable?"
2. How do I keep Jesus Christ front and center in all the social justice activity I take part in? What about when we cooperate with non-Christians?
3. What do I say to those who think all the issues are equally important?
4. Should I get involved in politics, and if so, how do I keep my soul?
5. What change can I bring about, even in a small way, on my own?

Additional Resources:

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004. Available online at:

Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI, 2009. Available online at:
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. 161 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 301
Grand Rapids, MI 49503; (800) 345-2286. Internet: E-mail:
Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Catholic Social Action Office. 100 East 8th Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. (513) 421-3131 ext. 2660. Email:
Dayton Office: 266 Bainbridge Street, Dayton, OH 45402; (937) 224-3026. Email: Internet:

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