Catholic Social Justice Is Not What the SJWs Are Pitching


contemplate justiceSocial Justice is a big deal these days. In recent years, it’s become such a big deal amongst Secular Progressives that it’s even given rise to the term Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) – folks who are determined to bring about social justice throughout the world.  But it’s not Catholic Social Justice.

To hear the SJWs talk one would think that they invented the concept of social justice and that only the specific brand of social justice they are selling – a big, all-powerful secular government that takes from the rich and gives to the poor and controls just about everything – will solve all the problems in society and make the world one big Utopia.

But Socialists like Bernie Sanders, his supporters, and all the other SJWs on the Left may be surprised to learn that both the term and the concept of Social Justice were developed by a Catholic Priest and it is most certainly not what the SJWs are selling these days.

The Father of Catholic Social Justice

Back around 1840, a Catholic priest and scholar, Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, was working on a massive five-volume work Saggio teoretico di dritto naturaleappoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact), and it was in this treatise that the term Social Justice first appeared.  Taparelli’s treatise was a response to the changes taking place in the world as a result of political changes and the Industrial Revolution, and the resulting socio-economic changes that were taking place. Like many scholars and philosophers before and after him, Taparelli was trying to come up with a way to create a more just society.

According to Thomas Patrick Burke, founder of The Wynnewood Institute, Wynnewood, PA, Taparelli just may be the Father of Catholic Social Justice.  Burke notes that one of Taparelli’s students was the Jesuit Matteo Liberatore, who wrote the first draft of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.  And One of Liberatore’s students was Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., who wrote Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno.  On top of this Leo had been a student of Taparelli’s, and Pius XI apparently “used to recommend the study of Taparelli’s works in conversations with his friends and colleagues.”

Over time,Taparelli’s new term was picked up by more renowned philosophers, economists, and legal scholars who applied it to their own ideas on how best to achieve a just society.  As a result, in addition to Taparelli’s version of social justice, a classical liberal version and a socialist version eventually developed.  Unfortunately for the world, it was the socialist version that caught on.   It is this version that is being pushed today by the SJWs.

Taparelli’s version of social justice, which likely was the foundation of Catholic Social Teaching, says that in order to achieve a just society we must first accept the idea that while all of us are all made in the image and likeness of God and every person has dignity and is owed respect, we must also realize that we are not all equal in terms of the skills, intelligence, physical traits, motivation, character, etc., that we possess. So in any society, both equality, as in equal rights, and inequality, as in abilities, will always exist side by side.

Social Justice, says Taparelli, requires us to accept this inequality: “. . . all individual human beings are naturally unequal among themselves in everything that pertains to their individuality, just as they are naturally equal in all that pertains to the species.  And so the activity of man will be just when it is appropriate to the different rights of those with whom one is dealing.  Everything in individuals is inequality, even though the likeness of their natures be total.”

Protestant vs. Catholic Thought

Taparelli’s ideas on political systems, society and economics were quite different from the new ideas about government and economics that the Reformed Theology (i.e., Protestant) thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith were pitching.

According to Burke, “Taparelli opposed in principle the entire liberal project, both political and economic, which he sometimes summarized under the two names- John Locke and Adam Smith. A collection of his essays bears the appropriate title Tyrannous Liberty. The reason for this opposition was that he saw liberalism as a product of the Protestant Reformation, which exalted private judgment over the divine authority of the Roman Catholic Church and thereby replaced the Catholic sense of community with an emphasis on the self-interest of the isolated individual.”

Taparelli contended  that governments were not created as the result of a “social contract,” but rather through the natural superiority of some people over others. Social structures began with the smallest social unit – the family – and mushroomed out from there.  Governments were formed as those with leadership ability essentially took charge of things.

Taparelli also did not like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – the idea that individuals pursuing their own self-interests benefits society by guiding market participants to trade in the most mutually beneficial manner.  Taparelli contended that virtuous behavior, sound moral principles, and ethics, and a desire to benefit all mankind should guide a free market economy.

While Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy, he was first and foremost a Protestant professor of moral philosophy, and more importantly a Calvinist who believed in pre-destination.  According to Smith’s beliefs, God had pre-ordained that some people would be granted salvation while others would not, no matter what they did.  Evidence of an individual’s salvation was the individual’s status in society. Calvinists believed that those  destined for salvation were blessed with wealth and/or status.  Since such individuals were blessed it stood to reason that whatever they did in their own self-interest would be good and necessary.

Taparelli disagreed with the Protestant notions of individualism and self-interest.  He argued a more Catholic viewpoint, that virtue and the common good should be the drivers of political and economic systems, not self-interest. He was concerned too, that unbridled competition in business would end up hurting rather than helping society.  (Some 170 years later the same unbridled competition that concerned Taparelli was one of the focal points of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation EVANGELII GAUDIUM – Joy of the Gospel.)

As Thomas C. Behr, Faculty Director of Liberal Studies, University of Houston wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Taparelli did not seek to overthrow classical economic thought but rather to supplement its naturalism with a more coherent anthropology. He sought to “baptize” economic science as he found it and return it to its place as a sub-discipline of ethics and politics, without diminishing its value as a positive science of the production, consumption, and distribution of wealth.”

Subsidiarity Emerges

Out of his proposals for more moral political and economic systems, the concept of subsidiarity eventually emerged.  But it would take the Church another 90 or so years to fully embrace the concept and make it part of Catholic Teaching. It was mentioned for the first time in Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical QUADRAGESIMO ANNO.

Leila Miller’s CS article, “To Understand Social Justice, Understand Subsidiarity,” did a good job of explaining this principle. In effect, subsidiarity says that social programs should be undertaken at the lowest possible level of society.  This means social welfare and charity should take place at a community level – where family, neighbors, the parish, businesses, associations, and other local organizations will know best how to help people in their own community – people helping people, not the state (i.e., the federal government) helping people.

The Catholic Church leaves it up to local cultures and societies to formulate the systems that will best serve their own needs.  But the Church does suggest that all economic and political systems should first and foremost serve the common good. The state (the federal government) should only become involved when there is no other recourse.

People Earn Graces, Governments Do Not

SJWs always insist that higher taxes and more government control are needed to fight poverty and cure our social ills, but when people relinquish their responsibilities for practicing charity to faceless government bureaucrats, they lose the opportunity to earn the graces that come with good works and virtuous behavior.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church  states:

1928: Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority. (Emphasis added.)

So society (meaning government in this instance) should “allow” people to practice the virtue of charity by providing the “conditions” for them to do so. When government becomes the provider of charity Christians lose the opportunity to be Christians.

As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, also says:

  1. The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people. According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”. [346] (Emphasis added.)

Here again, the Church states that social conditions should allow people to reach their fulfillment. And this works two ways: it allows people to earn graces as providers of charity, which helps them grow as individuals, and it also helps people to grow as individuals by acknowledging their shortcomings and accepting the help of others in learning to overcome them.  This approach is preferable to handing off the responsibility to care for the less fortunate to an unwieldy federal bureaucracy, usually far removed from the local community.

Two Different Approaches

Some time ago I wrote a piece for American Thinker comparing essays by Catholic Congressmen Paul Ryan (R), and Joe Kennedy III (D) that appeared in America magazine.  In their essays, they outlined their thoughts on how best to practice Catholic Teaching on Social Justice in our country.  Both congressmen exhibited a sound understanding of Catholic Social Teaching grounded in the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity, but the different approaches outlined by each man to combatting poverty and helping the poor were astonishing.

Ryan’s proposals relegated the federal government to a support role and focused on giving the states and the communities in them the flexibility to set up local programs.  No-strings-attached Federal aid money should be used in ways that would best meet local needs, he said.

Kennedy, on the other hand, ranted at length about the growing injustices caused by existing laws and economic systems and then proposed that more laws, more and bigger government, and more government involvement in economics was the cure for these problems!

But what was most surprising about Kennedy’s essay was that he began it by recounting an incident from his years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. His description of the situation clearly showed how solidarity and subsidiarity practiced at a local level helped a community partner with business to lift itself and its residents out of poverty.  The Dominican Republic Federal Government’s only role in the effort was to give control of the area to the community and then get out the way!  Yet his essay went on to state that more government, more laws and more involvement in local programs, not less, is what is needed here in the U.S.!

These two approaches – Ryan’s approach and Kennedy’s approach – illustrate the different philosophies of their respective parties when it comes to addressing the problem of poverty. Clearly the Republican approach is closer to Catholic Social Teaching, employing the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity, than the Democratic approach, which borders on socialism.

Change the Leaders, Change the Country

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Catholic theologian, and one of America’s leading public intellectuals recently commented on the state of politics here in the U.S. in an essay at First Things saying:

“The reconstruction of a morally serious political culture is essential if American democracy is not to descend into incoherence and what an eminent churchman once called the “dictatorship of relativism.” That reconstruction could start with U.S. Catholics leavening our politics—and the culture as a whole—with Catholic social doctrine.”

Catholics throughout the U.S. need to do their homework before they go to the polls in November and now is the time to start. Voting for candidates on a national, state, and local level who espouse values and policies that are closely aligned with Catholic Social Teaching is key to changing our culture back to one that values virtue and morality instead of individualism, secularism and moral relativism.

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3 thoughts on “Catholic Social Justice Is Not What the SJWs Are Pitching”

  1. Adam, your fervor for our Lord and the Bible is laudable, but Catholics, unlike Protestants, believe that because individuals can errantly misinterpret the teachings found in the Old and New Testaments, teaching authority resides with the Magisterium. Neither Jesus, nor the Apostles, nor any of the authors of the books of the Old or New Testament use the words “Social Justice.” Social Justice is one component of Catholic Social Teaching, As Mark Shea has written at the National Catholic Register, Catholic Social Teaching stands on four legs: The Dignity of the Human Person, The Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity. You might want to read his series of articles on Catholic Social Teaching. Here is a link:

  2. The concept of social justice was NOT developed by some priest, nor developed by economists (Catholic or not) nor found in the “never has worked” principle of subsidiarity….the concept of social justice practice was clearly and decisively developed by Jesus Christ: Basically,
    +Matt 19:27 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    +Matt 25:35-40 The Parable of the Sheep and Goats
    +Matt 19:24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
    +1 John 3:17 “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
    +Luke 18:22-26 “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
    +Luke 16:19-26 ““There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. …
    +Mark 10:17-24 “And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” …
    +Luke 6:25 ““Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
    +Matt 6:25 “24 No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 25 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns—and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?…

    So we should discard the theory and simply listen to word of the Great Economist and the Great Dispenser of Wisdom…at the lowest level, the highest level, with or without government, Democrat or Republican….simply use the words, the direct words of the Great Teacher to learn the meaning of social justice….the question upon judgement is what did you do and did you do what I directed…you want social justice? Just Do It!!!

    1. Adam, we must absolutely do all that we can to follow what Jesus has said, most especially as individuals. We should also do all that we can, at the most effective point, to do what we can as a society. We should also recognize that, as you go to higher levels of government, the rule of intended consequences comes more and more into play. It is not enough to create programs at the national level, full of all kinds of unintended consequences and establishing long-term dependencies, that it is reasonable to point out may exacerbate the problem.

      Have I really lovingly addressed a man’s needs if I give to him today, but leave him dependent tomorrow? That is a reasonable question, especially with regards to the collective actions that we take. But it is not enough to point out the weaknesses and problems of certain approaches to social justice, especially at the national level, oppose them and then walk away. We are called to find effective solutions, to love one another.

      You are right Adam, we are all obligated, as Christians, to seek out solutions to matters of social justice, solutions that work in both the short-term and the long-term, and that are truly charitable and truly loving. But these solutions begin with how we personally relate to each other, for we are called to love one another as ourselves.

      The poor will always be with us, as Jesus told us. We can never and will never eliminate poverty through some government programs. But we are called to respond to those in need when they are among us . . . this we must do as Christians.

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