US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Social justice: Still misunderstood after all these years

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I expected that our July cover story on the controversy surrounding the term “social justice” would be, well, controversial. The article touches on some thorny issues that have been divisive among Catholics and it attempts to offer some clarity on what’s behind the debate. But the sampling of comments and letters I’ve seen in response to the article show that many of the misunderstandings the story attempts to clear up still persist.

The two biggest misconceptions seem to be the distinction between justice and charity and the role of the government in social justice.

On the first point, the article offers the explanation of how the terms “charity” and “social justice” are often mixed up or even used interchangeably when talking about outreach to the poor. Some readers seem to have taken this as a slight on charity, which is not at all the case. Charity and social justice are both critical components of the church’s teaching on care for the poor, but they’re not the same thing.

One way to look at this distinction is to think of it in terms of medical care. A doctor might give you medicine to treat the symptoms of an illness, but if the illness is chronic, they might also look at your diet, exercise, and lifestyle. That doesn’t mean the medicine is any less necessary, and for some patients, that’s all they need to overcome a temporary condition. But for others, rather than continuing to resort to that medicine over and over, the doctor might look for underlying causes that affect the patient’s long-term health.

Both responses are part of good health care, but they approach the issue from different angles. In much the same way, charity and social justice go hand in hand in addressing the ills of poverty and oppression. Sometimes, one organization may even be involved in activities that fall under both the umbrellas of charity and justice, just like one medical practice might offer different forms of treatment for patients.

The other misconception--likely stemming from the “social justice means socialism” fallacy--is that social justice requires the involvement of government or the redistribution of wealth. “The ‘poison pill’ that makes Social Justice unpalatable to so many,” as one reader puts it, “is the apparent need for government coercion.” According to another, “It is taking money I earn and giving it to someone who doesn't want to work.” Says yet another, “You seem to suggest that the Catholic church should support the state in establishing Social Justice.”

I’m not sure where this argument comes from, but it isn’t the teaching of the church. Might working for social justice sometimes mean lobbying for changes to laws? Sure, but that’s far from being a requirement. Many good social justice programs are started at the parish level by lay Catholics with no government involvement whatsoever.

For example, a program that helps unemployed fellow parishioners with job training, resume writing, or interview skills and thus serves as a path to obtaining higher paying jobs would be an example of social justice--one that anyone could start without the need for government involvement or tax increases. All that’s really needed to start a social justice program are volunteers and some good ideas.

In parishes and communities around the country, there are already many of these kinds of successful social justice programs (our September issue will include a feature on one created by college students to help people with start-up businesses). Often they work closely with local charities to identify needs in the community and to better serve the common good.

One thing is for sure: They’re certainly not the dangerous or radical organizations that some Catholics envision when they hear the words “social justice.”