Charity vs. Justice

Jason Hall - Charity, Justice


In my public policy work on behalf of Kentucky’s Catholic bishops, I often have the opportunity to speak and write about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Discussion of the Church’s social doctrine, at least when it occurs before a large audience, almost inevitably gives rise to fierce opposition. This opposition can come from people on the “left” as well as on the “right.” In fact, in my experience, opposition is just as likely to come from one side of the political spectrum as the other.

For quite some time, I assumed that this opposition was exclusively the result of political loyalties outweighing openness to the perspective of Catholic tradition and social thought. I still believe that is often a cause of hostility, and presents a challenge for all of us. However, I now believe there is another significant cause. As with so many problems within the Church, a lack of catechesis about what the Church actually teaches leaves many of the faithful (and, unfortunately, many priests and deacons) with too little understanding of Catholic Social Teaching to even begin to think through the issues involved.

To take one (very significant) example of this, let us look at the concepts of charity and justice. The primary meaning of charity is, of course, “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Secondarily, it also means concrete acts of generous assistance toward those in need. The term “justice” however, is the source of much confusion. It is not unusual to hear political activists or commentators argue that there is no such thing as justice in the social realm, except for legal justice in the courts. We are told that terms such as “social justice” or “economic justice” are merely pleasant-sounding euphemisms for socialism. Glenn Beck famously went so far as to say that if your church uses the term “social justice,” leave it!

This creates something of a problem for those of us who belong to the Church that coined the term “social justice.” It is true, of course, that the term is often used in different contexts with meanings vastly different from its meaning in Catholic tradition. The reaction of many to this phenomenon is to simply abandon the term. When has the Church ever done such a thing? Many people misunderstand the term “Immaculate Conception” to mean the virginal conception of our Lord in the womb of our Lady, but surely catechesis is the answer to that misunderstanding, not an abandonment of the term, or a renaming of the Solemnity!

So, what is justice? First, “justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC 1807) This is probably familiar to most of us. But, other than “legal” justice, strictly speaking, what are the types of justice that have a social aspect? The Catechism identifies several. Paragraph 2411 tells us that commutative (also called “corrective”) justice is that which relates to an economic exchange between persons. There is also legal justice, which deals with obligations to the broader community, and “distributive justice which regulates what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their contributions and needs.”

It is this final concept, distributive justice, which gives rise to the most controversy. I have heard it said many times that there is no societal obligation to ensure this kind of justice, only a moral obligation to be generous that attaches to us as individuals. In fact, I received a comment to a recent article alleging that any obligatory support of others in the area of basic needs would violate the commenter’s right to engage in private charity.

This understanding of justice vs. charity may be familiar to those immersed in modern libertarian thought, but it is completely foreign to the Catholic tradition. In paragraph 2446, the Church presents us with two quotations that may shock many. First, from St. John Chrysostom, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” Then, from the Second Vatican Council, “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.” There is also an entire section (paragraphs 2426-2435) on “social justice,” and a number of other paragraphs teaching similar truths.

If we take a step back from these selected quotations and place them in context, we notice that they are in the larger section covering the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.” Those things which a person rightfully has access to are already theirs. The question of whether or not they actually have access to them is a question of justice. Of course, the virtue of charity compels us as Christians to work toward a greater realization of justice. As Pope Benedict XVI observed in Caritas in Veritate,

Love – caritas – is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace…This dynamic of charity received and given is what gives rise to the Church’s social teaching, which is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society. (1, 5)

So what are we to make of the modern economic view that markets are always to be trusted to yield a just outcome, if only they are allowed to operate freely? Such a proposition is true only if the society in which the market operates is guided by a strong sense of justice. As Pope Benedict further summarizes, “[A market] is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction…But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences…Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.” (CV, 36)

These teachings must be balanced by the Church’s equally strong condemnation of socialism, understood as the communal ownership of the means of production through the instrumentality of the state. But, one of the reasons socialism is condemned is that it violates distributive justice, preventing labor from receiving its just fruits. Likewise, a capitalist system that violates distributive justice also fails the same test. This is clearly the case in our current economic situation. The challenge is to address the problem with a clear head and sound reason, and not retreat into our comfortable political ideologies.

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22 thoughts on “Charity vs. Justice”

  1. I woke up less than one hour ago, I had a dream: I was picking up my bycicle trailer (I don’t have one), in order to get away from a place where I was in danger. I interpret this dream at the moment: the CHURCH is not defined as those that are baptized. Jesus baptizes nobody – John 4:2. If two disciples start baptizing without being baptized themselves: they are, together – the CHURCH – Matthew 18:20.

  2. Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

    I am convinced that we are about to forget: we do try to find an answer to the question, why the USA became an “ENGLISH NATION” and not a “GERMAN NATION”. But we do not think as much about S W E D E N . SWEDEN is important for the USA as well: I worked in SWEDEN twice, during two summers, in Sundsvall – also “all night long”.

  3. Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch

    [I copied my comment, below, less than one hour ago because Bernhard Lichtenberg wished to be a missionary and bring the truth that he had learned from Jesus to a JEW:]

    Dr. Siegfried Paul Posch on March 23, 2013 at 1:33 am said:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I was sent information on POLYCARP (POLÝKARPOS) and it was copied and discussed shortly here in Austria. The discussion would seem to make necessary a decision on the “APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION” – s. this article of the “Wikipedia”, in which I read the note “last modified on 22 March 2013 at 05:45″ less than one hour ago, I contributed to “Wikipedia”. Could you give me a list of persons that claim to be bishops in the States of the USA and in political units of the USA that are independent of the States and tell me how to contact them: of those bishops of the USA who are legitimized, in your opinion, by an “APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION”? That should be an easy task. You could first put three names of your list on “GÄSTEBUCH MARKTGEMEINDE PÖLLAU” (“GOOGLE.AT”), that seemed to be possible, still, less than one hour ago.

  4. “So what are we to make of the modern economic view that markets are always to be trusted to yield a just outcome, if only they are allowed to operate freely?”

    I wish this WERE the “modern economic view”, or at least the most widely-held one, because it is absolutely true. Of course I agree that free markets require more than mere freedom – a culture of respect for individual property rights as well as a legal framework that solidifies and institutionalizes those rights is also necessary. But neither of these things are infringements upon free economic activity. They compliment it and sustain it.

    I invite you to read my recent post on this topic:

  5. Pingback: What is Social Justice? : IgnitumToday

  6. I have a few disparate comments:

    1. First, with regard to this comment:
    “So what are we to make of the modern economic view that markets are always to be trusted to yield a just outcome, if only they are allowed to operate freely? Such a proposition is true only if the society in which the market operates is guided by a strong sense of justice.”
    I propose that a system that guarantees that labor is subjected to a market function, something by which the employment market is, then such a system is intrinsically immoral. Job markets, are just that, a market, creating employment as a scarce resource. Such a circumstance, by an assessment that such markets are moral normalizes the condition of unemployment as a morally acceptable arrangement. Such, as I see it, violates respect for labor, just distribution of goods, harms the family, and denies the laborer an opportunity to participate in Creation, in which work is both a duty and a joy.

    2. I think the Social Tradition of the Church, as noted by the warped approaches by Bishop Morley and Paul Ryan, highly placed Catholics in prominent Catholic positions, and the work of Fr. Sirico and Michael Novak, is dead. I think it is a philosophical free for all at this point. EWTN, a strong mouthpiece for Catholicism, has given a forum for dissent on matters of the Social Theory in a way that this would never be permitted for sexual morality. As such, the Social Theory is gone. One can, as Sirico has done, in a counter-Gospel way, praise wealth.

    3. Labor and its devaluation has been the most devastating force against the family. It is a routine function of successful companies to seek to reduce its labor force, as a matter of business, to improve rapidly, one’s EBDITA. This is a routine, year-to-year event in which a business will trim and lay-off employees, even in good times, to improve bookkeeping for the stock analysts. Labor has been devalued with the applause of the nation, as it saw the stock market rise and rise.

    4. The bishops of America did, in a way that was an education in itself, double-down on a political venture against the HHS-mandate, claiming that the US was on a course to violate religious freedom. Such discussion and political activity never was accompanied with its anti-nuclear weapon stances, anti-death penalty stances, or anything close to on matters of economics. In short, with the Hoover Institute guest, Archibishop Chaput, to Paul Ryan-defender Bishop Morley, to the other end of the spectrum, Dolan and DiMarzio who indicated that a Catholic had to recognize the need for government programs to support the poor, we see a disunified hierarchy that will never have a united voice again on matters of social justice.

    Just some disparate thoughts.

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  8. Mmm, I always find articles attempting to expound upon “Social Justice” utterly lacking and meaningless – unfortunately, this one is no different.

    Jason, can you please explain to me exactly what is Social IN-justice?? Frankly, it’s not ovbious to me. Perhaps, taking the inverse of the definition of (moral) Justice from your article, can we safely assume it is simply a failure to give someone his/her due? Exactly HOW should we define what one is properly “due”? What is due someone who does not work? Is it “just” to take from those that do work?? Perhaps, St. Paul can add some enlightenment (anent: 2 Thessolonians 3:10)

    Are you familiar with the statues in our own “Justice System” regarding the Duty to Rescue? Simply stated, we do not recognize an obligation to provide rescue even when rescue would require no inordinate effort, or jeopardize the life or possessions of the rescuer. Again, we do not recognize a duty resulting in SAVING the life of another human being–(perhaps, because we fail to see that he/she might be) in obvious peril.

    My point is simply this; what is our “social justice” meant to overcome? Is it meant to overcome Poverty?, Drug addiction? Abortion? Racism? Inequality in Marriage? Are any of these the result of “social IN-justice” at all? Until that question is answered, we’re no better off spilling our ink, or our time on it.

    1. Social justice has been well-defined by the Church. I recommend getting the Catechism of the Catholic Church if you don’t have one. SJ is not the rewarding of sloth. If someone has access to employment which would provide them with a living wage and further access to education, health care, etc., then there is no injustice. However, if a person, willing to work, is unable to support themselves because of structural aspects of the society in which they live, then justice is being denied. People have a right to access (and the responsibility to work for, if they are able) food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and whatever else is necessary for a person to reach their God-given potential. Where there are “structures of sin” which deny people the opportunity to access these things, then that is a question of social justice.

      As for your example of the duty to rescue (or lack thereof), I understand that as a legal principle (I am a lawyer). However, our Lord requires a bit more from us than civil law does in that instance.

  9. Vince (Louisville Ky)

    Jason, you criticize people for “retreating into their political ideologies”, but if you yourself are not retreating into your political ideology, then why won’t you join me on a local Catholic radio station to discuss and debate this topic? Maybe you could change the lack of catechesis instead of just using it as a n example. Other than some vague opposition to “free” markets, I didn’t get your point in this article.

    It seems that you have set yourself up as judge of everyone else by declaring that “our current economic situation” “violates distributive justice”. I’m not sure we are all guilty. Even so, can you explain how an army of jack-booted IRS agents and well-compensated bureaucrats are more deserving of the proceeds of my labors than the widow down the street with six kids whom I would rather help, but cannot because I just had to pay my rather complicated taxes and CPA. Is that the “justice” you are espousing? I don’t see what else you are espousing.

    Can you tell me why I have to pay the government thousands of dollars each year, much of it wasted on collective bargaining fights and expensive failures, to educate and provide free health care to the children of people who earn far more than I do, while I pay a second time to educate and care for my own children. Is that that the “free” market I cannot trust? Who do you espouse as redistributor of all God’s bounty? The President? Is this the real meaning of “justice”?

    Have you, now or even, had to fret over whether you would be able to make payroll this month? Have you ever created jobs for anyone? Are you sure you are sufficiently informed to judge the “free” market?

    Finally, can you really claim a title and paycheck from God’s Church and pontificate about “love of God” while you exclude from your life those who challenges you? Is that not at least as evil as retreating into a political ideology? How about a public discussion of this stuff?

    I’m not saying I disagree with you, Jason; I’m just saying I don’t get it.

    1. No one should waste his or the public’s time debating a person who violates Godwin’s Law. “Jack-booted” indeed.

    2. Vince, I often do not understand where your comments come from. I have spent a great deal of time corresponding with you, yet you claim I have excluded you from my life. Also, I am not attacking the free market, I am arguing that markets absent distributive justice are not truly free. If you are truly interested in learning more about what I consider to be a sound view of economics, read people like Medaille, mentioned in a comment above. I particularly recommend “Toward a Truly Free Market.” Also, Belloc’s “The Servile State” or Chesterton’s “What’s Wrong With the World” for a thorough critique of capitalism (though Medaille is better for a practical guide to our current problems and possible solutions in an American context). In particular, Medaille shows how the intrusive government you fear is a necessary part of our “free-market” system, due to the lack of distributive justice.

      Finally, my intent in articles like this is to take my own study and make an (admittedly often feeble) attempt at catechesis. If writing and speaking about the Faith isn’t catechesis, but is instead only bemoaning the lack of catechesis, then I don’t know what catechesis on the Church’s social teaching would look like.

      Nevertheless, thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. Pingback: Charity vs. Justice | CATHOLIC FEAST

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  12. I’m inclined to take it a step further and say that our democratic process and capitalist, free enterprise system cannot survive outside of Christian principles. Many problems our society is facing today, including those of social justice, are due to the blurring of lines between charity and justice, between individual responsibility and collective rights. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the least common denominator has become the standard. And I think the idea that markets are always to be trusted to yield a just outcome if they are allowed to operate freely is an outgrowth of modern man’s denial of God and adoption of evolutionary theory which holds that the justice of every living thing rises no higher than what it takes for survival.

  13. Excellent analysis! How right you are to point out the missing piece of modern economics.

    John Medaille writes about this concern in his book “The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace” [ ].

    His recent book “Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More (Culture of Enterprise)” is a must read for Catholics looking for another approach to our economic future that is based soundly in the social justice you write about.[ ]

    Thanks for this post.

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