From Isaiah to Economic Justice for All: A brief history of social justice

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Article Politics Social Justice
From the saints to popes and bishops to theologians, Catholic thinkers have long made the case for social justice, tracing its origins to scriptural accounts from the Old Testament exhortations on justice to Christ’s example of love and outreach to the marginalized.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, taught that individuals operate under two forces: self-interest and altruism. The unending urge to accumulate beyond what is needed to support oneself and family, he argued, is often the cause of human evils. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes him: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and to deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.”

Eight hundred years later, in Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that justice implies equality. He defined commutative justice as being “concerned about the mutual dealings between two persons,” and distributive justice as that “which distributes common goods proportionally.”

Another 500 years found Jesuit priest and scholar Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862) refuting the theories of René Descartes and the error of moral relativism, still at the heart of some arguments against social justice today (“‘Fairness’ is strictly in the eye of the beholder,” insisted free market economist Milton Friedman). Taparelli, who first coined the term “social justice,” is credited with helping shape the church’s response to the liberal philosophies that unleashed the industrial era’s laissez-faire markets, gross social inequities, and the would-be cure: socialism.

Taparelli’s principles of subsidiarity and solidarity–which he called “sociality”–were firmly entrenched in the first great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, promulgated in 1891 by Taparelli’s student, Pope Leo XIII.

In the 20th century, the church continued to broaden and expand its teaching on social justice. Msgr. John Ryan (1869-1945), a moral theologian from Minnesota, became a strong voice for social justice in the United States, supporting labor unions and a living wage as essential elements of a just society. Bishops in the United States, both individually and collectively, issued several pastoral letters relating to social justice, most notably Economic Justice for All in 1986, which applied the church’s social teaching to the U.S. economy.

We now know our world is capable of sustaining every person’s life with dignity—if we chose to distribute its bounty in a fair, socially just way. The Church’s social teachings provide an unparalleled roadmap.

This article is a web-only sidebar that accompanies "Social Justice: What's tarnishing its good name?" which appeared in the July 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 7, pages 12-17).

Image: Tim Foley