What”s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Social Justice?

Have you seen those Old Spice commercials in which the guy taking the shower is “two things”–part man and part animal? Well, I think the same can be said about social justice. It’s two things, and one of the things is, well, beastly.

On the one hand, social justice is an integral part of Church teaching. It is based on the rights that flow from and safeguard human dignity, and it inclines us to work with others to help make social institutions better serve the common good.

In the section on Christian morality entitled “The Human Community,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes an entire section (nos. 1928-48) specifically to the topic of “social justice.” Similarly, the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which gives a magnificent overview of the wider topic of the Church’s social doctrine, nonetheless draws heavily on the concept of social justice. It provides, for example:

“The Church”s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political, and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions” (no. 210; original emphasis, footnotes omitted).

The Church”s social doctrine is rooted in Scripture and especially draws upon the Church”s social encyclicals of the past hundred or so years, beginning with Pope Leo XIII”s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

But social justice is two things. It’s also a code word used by the political left to push a liberal social agenda coupled with a collectivist economic agenda that walks and talks like socialism. In other words, to appeal to Catholics, especially those who might tilt to the left religiously and politically anyway, some political operatives use Catholic jargon like “social justice” or “common good” or “preferential option for the poor” to manipulate public opinion. But what they mean and what the Church means are, well, two different things.

This is unlike the homosexual activists’ commandeering of the word “gay” a couple decades ago. For the most part, gay is hardly ever used as an adjective meaning “happy” or “lively” or “merry” any more, and even when it is, it’s not confused with the new usage of “gay.” So “gay” has become more like “bark,” which can be either the sound a dog makes or part of a tree. From the context, one can readily figure out what the speaker means.

When it comes to “social justice,” though, ambiguity is the name of the game. The political left understands that compassionate-sounding Catholic language can be used to generate support among Catholics. Yet the political activists are not using the terms in the same way, and most Catholics are too ignorant of the Church’s social doctrine to say boo about it.

So, while ”social justice” is two things (Church teaching and liberal code word), the two things are blended just enough to cause considerable—and largely calculated—confusion. And this ambiguity is also found among some Church leaders in the field of social concerns, who can seem at least as committed to partisan Democratic politics as they are to the Church’s actual social doctrine. Some would go so far as to consider support for President Obama”s radical social agenda as a “proportionate reason” for not supporting a pro-life, pro-family candidate. That’s why many orthodox Catholic leaders, not to mention conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, would like to do away with “social justice” altogether.

How did we get to this point?   

We are living during a crisis of faith. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which reflects the thought and input of the man who would eventually become Pope John Paul II, notes the unprecedented acceptance of systematic atheism and secularism in today’s world. Many people are looking for solutions “right here, right now,” without reference to the divine or to our supernatural end.

Such secularist and materialistic models have in some places corrupted the Church’s social outreach. When this happens, social justice degenerates into myopic political activism. The authentic quest for human development then becomes co-opted by agendas that are completely opposed to Church teaching and the good of the human person, most notably the pro-abortion forces and the “gay rights” movement.

Accordingly, we frequently encounter “peace and justice” Catholics who outright dissent from Church teaching on abortion and other “conservative issues,” or who relativize such teachings to an intolerable degree. Our rejection of such distortions of Church teaching can, unfortunately, lead us to swing the pendulum in the other direction–to our not paying sufficient attention to the social doctrine of the Church.

I can’t say I have all the answers to this problem. I do think that any attempt to sweep “social justice” under the rug would be akin to Martin Luther’s trying to remove the Letter of James. It wouldn”t work. Even more, social justice is a thoroughly Catholic principle that we shouldn’2012-04-24 18:34:20′t be ashamed of and certainly can”t abolish from the Catholic lexicon. For faithful Catholics, social justice is a “home game,” and we should proactively promote what the Church really teaches on the subject. 

So, I think a good place to begin would be for Catholics to start learning, teaching, and eventually applying the authentic social teaching of the Church. A great place to start would be by picking up a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, or by reading it online. The Compendium has many sections, including ones on human dignity, family, work, peace, economics, and politics, all examined in light of official Church teaching, through the lens of God”s love for mankind and the Church”s mission to the world.

Of course, the application of principles in this area can be difficult and even contentious:

–How do just war principles apply to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

–How does the principle of subsidiarity relate to President Obama’s healthcare legislation?

–How does the Church’s teaching on the fundamental dignity of the human person inform the debate on immigration reform?

The list is endless. We might not ever end up agreeing on all these issues, but if we approach them using the same rock-solid Catholics principles, then—and only then—the Church as such can have a meaningful, united voice in the public square. 

Lastly, the “big picture,” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have seen and brilliantly proclaimed on behalf of the Church, transcends the artificial separation of the “pro-life” and “peace and justice” camps that we often find in the Church in America. The contemporary loss of the sense of God has led to a culture of death that is fundamentally violent and unjust. The remedy is found when we turn our gaze upon Christ, the Lord of Life and Prince of Peace.

8 Responses to “What”s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Social Justice?”

  1. Zach says:

    Good review, Leon. One problem that I have with the term "social justice" is that it is often used in connection with situations in which there is no fundamental injustice present. For example, back in the late 90”s, I was very poor–supporting a wife and child on $13K per year. Was there anything "unjust" about my condition? Certainly not. I gladly accepted assistance from individuals willing to help, but I understood their assistance to be [i]charity[/i]–not an exercise in restoring the scales of "social justice."

    Likewise, I often hear good Catholic folks speak of going to work at a soup kitchen in response to the Church”s teaching on "social justice." I reject the underlying assumption, which is that the very existence of poverty is prima facie evidence of an insidious injustice. Should we care for poor people and work in the soup kitchen? Yes. But this is rightly called "charity." If we find out that some injustice is to blame for their condition (for example, they have been defrauded in some way), then we can legitimately speak of working for justice.

    Confusing and conflating terms may not seem overly problematic, but once people begin to believe that all poverty or economic inequality is due to a breakdown in "social justice," they will naturally be inclined to seek the assistance of the state (the official guarantors of justice) in rectifying that deficiency.

    Add to that the very confused and wrongheaded economic proposals advocated by the USCCB and encyclicals like [i]Populorum Progressio[/i], and it can seem to the average Catholic that "social justice" requires us to favor government-enforced redistribution of wealth. Besides making the poor worse off, such policies have devastating effects on private charity–as Arthur Brooks demonstrates in [i]Who Really Cares[/i]–which of course, makes the poor even worse off materially and makes us worse off spiritually.

  2. Susan says:

    He”s not part animal, part man in the commercial. He”s ALL man. And he”s ON a horse at the end. Not PART of a horse….

  3. leon says:

    I think I saw that commercial, too. Super Bowl? Anyway, before that, Old Spice did a whole series of commercials around this "two things" motif, including the one I linked to. I don”t really recommend the Old Spice commercials themselves, which I think are a little too risque, but they do provide a segue to the discussion on social justice.

  4. M. Forrest says:

    Points well taken, Leon. And Zach”s points above are also well-taken.

  5. Stephen M. O''Brien says:


    I”m posting your essay on my [i]Facebook[/i] page.

    Catholics should transcend the false dichotomy between the “left” and the “right,” and they should be wary of [i]all[/i] forms of “cafeteria Catholicism.”

    Best regards. Keep and spread the Faith.


  6. Kacey says:

    I disagree with the sentiment that the application of such principles is difficult. Instead they”ve been hijacked by the current Preisdent and funded by Soros”s fake Catholic groups, as well as clouded by liberal Bishops….

    “If we accept th…at a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people to not kill each other? Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.” – Mother Teresa

    “The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion because if a mother can kill her own child what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.” – Mother Teresa

    If you want peace work for justice…..

    Catholicism denounced socialism as inherently and gravely evil in the 1870s

    Agreed Zachs points are well taken!

  7. gb says:

    This discussion needs wider circulation. A group of Catholics in our diocese has been meeting monthly to discuss Benedict”s "Caritas in Veritate". Its made us more aware of how few Catholics are Catholics first & Americans second. Many have reversed the order, usually unwittingly.

  8. leon says:

    I agree, GB. We have an informal men”s group that gets together once a week for coffee and discussion after Mass, and we did Caritas in Veritate as well this past year. I think a study guide for the Compendium, which would be thematic rather than focused on an individual encyclical, may be the best tool for for forming "Catholics first." Of course, it would be hard to find such a tool that would be completely immune from the ambiguity mentioned in my post. But of course, people can just read the Compendium itself and discuss what they”ve read . . .

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