Religio Philologi: Social Justice I & II

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In the recent debates over national health care, some anti-Christian socialists and some Catholics invoked the term “social justice” in their arguments for  socialized medicine.  In fact, the expression “social justice” is frequently heard from the lips of Catholic traditionalists (including distributists), Marxists, and Greens.  Are they talking about the same principle or different principles?  Does the expression have any usable meaning?  Then, before going on to sketch out some basic principles of a Christian’s duties  to his fellows, we might begin by examining this much (ab)used phrase.

The Term Social Justice

Let us begin by looking at each word separately and simply, without reference to any body of theology or philosophy.  Justice is derived from Latin iustitia, which the Romans used as the equivalent of the Greek dikaiosune. It is  both a set of principles of how  a human being is to behave rightly towards others and the virtue that informs such conduct.  Social comes from Latin socius, comrade or ally.  Thus a social relationship is one between soldiers, workmates, political or military allies, and between allied or confederated peoples.  But, since social is also related to society, it has also taken on the meaning of “pertaining to society,” whether that society is particular (as in American society) or the general/universal sense of global society.  Then what is social justice?  Is it the justice that men owe each others as members of an army or profession or  which allied nations owe each other or what we owe each other generally as human beings or which is owed by us to society or by society to us or to others?

Antony Flew has argued  quite cogently that social justice is a contradiction in terms, because justice is by definition a virtue or action that I possess or owe to other persons and not some generic obligation owed by some fictive collectivity.  One does not have to be a liberal individualist to find some wisdom in this argument.  We shall take this up later, when we discuss charity, but for the moment let us just raise the question of whether,  when, we feel a collective obligation that is discharged by the state using the money it has taken from us, we are really disposed to accept a personal responsibility for performing the acts of charity commanded by Christ and His apostles.

Perhaps Prof. Flew is wrong about social justice.  Perhaps it means something quite wholesome and real.  Unfortunately, the expression “social justice” is not at all self-explanatory.  Let us look at a little history.  According to the fount of all misinformation, Wikipedia, the term “social justice” is found in both Gibbon and The Federalist. This is obviously an irrelevant fact because neither Gibbon nor Hamnilton could possibly have meant the same thing as either Fr. Coughlin or the Greens.  The phrase comes up in Federalist 7, apparently written by Hamilton.  The subject is on what conditions the separate states might go to war against each other.  Hamilton lays it on fairly thick in order to make his case for a more unified central government.  After listing the delinquencies and digressions of various state legislatures, Hamilton rises to a fever pitch, predicting “a war not of parchment but of the sword would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.”  In other words, social justice means the moral and legal duties owed by confederate allies to each other, just as the expression Social War referred to the war between Rome and her Latin allies.  Gibbon uses it in a slightly extended sense to mean something like the international law of warfare.

Setting aside Wikipedia’s (and other pop historians’) red herrings, we can turn to the 20th century.  Catholics usually point to Fr. John A. Ryan as the originator of the concept of both a living wage and more generally of social justice.  Ryan said he was inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, but in his book A Living Wage, I read more about the principle of natural rights found in the decidedly unCatholic thinkers Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson.  I have not read enough to know in which book Ryan actually used the expression, and this is not an article about Ryan.  It is enough to say that whatever utility there might have been to his ideas, he utterly destroyed in supporting the national-socialist regime of Franklin Roosevelt, to whom he became a close advisor.  But social justice  find the term used several times by Walter Rauschenbusch in his once famous A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).  Rauschenbusch was among the pioneers who equated do-gooding and progressive-style Marxism with the message of the Gospels.

Catholic proponents of “social justice” refer constantly to Rerum novarum, but I do not find the phrase there and it is only a tendentious reading that could insert the ideas of Ryan and Rauschenbusch into Leo XIII’s grave encyclical.  Consider only this paragraph:

“From all these conversations, it is perceived that the fundamental principle of Socialism which would make all possessions public property is to be utterly rejected because it injures the very ones whom it seeks to help, contravenes the natural rights of individual persons, and throws the functions of the State and public peace into confusion. Let it be regarded, therefore, as established that in seeking help for the masses this principle before all is to be considered as basic, namely, that private ownership must be preserved inviolate. With this understood, we shall explain whence the desired remedy is to be sought.”

Thus, when Pope Pius XI uses the term iustitia socialis, as he does in Quadragesimo anno, and repeats Leo XIII’s condemnation of socialism in very explicit terms, his language cannot justly be twisted to justify state socialism.  A few passages (supplied by a friend) should be enough to make this point clear.  First, Pius XI explicitly uses the term social justice to mean no more than pursuit of the common good, which is a position that goes back to the New Testament:

To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the
distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person
knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge
disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered
propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into
conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social
justice.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 58.)

Quadragesimo anno also condemns all forms of socialism, both Marxist revolutionary socialism and the more seemingly benign forms that seduce some Catholics:

“And therefore, to the harassed workers there have come “intellectuals,” as they are called, setting up in opposition to a fictitious law the equally fictitious moral principle that all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers. This error, much more specious than that of certain of the Socialists who hold that whatever serves to produce goods ought to be transferred to the State, or, as they say “socialized,” is consequently all the more dangerous and the more apt to deceive the unwary. It is an alluring poison which many have eagerly drunk whom open Socialism had not been able to deceive.”


“Socialism, against which Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, had especially to inveigh, has since his time changed no less profoundly than the form of economic life. For Socialism, which could then be termed almost a single system and which maintained definite teachings reduced into one body of doctrine, has since then split chiefly into two sections, often opposing each other and even bitterly hostile, without either one however abandoning a position fundamentally contrary to Christian truth that was characteristic of Socialism.”

“The more degenerate form is communism, but even the less virulent strain, while it often reaches toward Christian truth, only accidentally shares ideals common to many philosophies and seduces Catholics into believing it is harmless. Nonetheless, he concludes: “Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

Finally, to exclude all possibility of confusing Christian charity and justice with socialism, he says: “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

This very brief and cursory survey has not got us very far except to the point that we can conclude that the concept of social justice as used by Pope Pius IX is only shorthand for Christian social ethical teachings that can be found in the Scriptures and repeated and refined over the centuries.  This must be sharply distinguished from the theory of social justice developed by Ryan and Rauschenbusch and invoked by Catholics today.  This new-fangled soft socialism is not ancient, does not have the authority of Pius IX or Leo XIII or Pius XI, andit  is all too frequently confused with the theories of Marx and the policies of the New Deal.

To see the dangers posed by repeated use of this phrase, let us turn to a Catholic writer who is neither a Marxist nor a New-Dealer, Fr. John Hardon.  In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. Hardon describes social justice as first, “the virtue that inclines one to cooperate with others in order to help make the institutions of society better serve the common good.  While the obligation of social justice falls upon the individual, the person cannot fulfill the obligation alone, but must work in concert with others, through organized bodies, as a member of a group whose purpose is to identify the needs of society, and, byt the use of appropriate means, to meet these needs locally, regionally, nationally, and even globally.

This definition, which began so well, turns sour rathe quickly and, as we shall see, the sourness turns to a bitterness that has a hint of poison.  Let us begin with the good stuff.  Justice is a virtue,  perhaps the virtue, so if there is social justice it must be a virtue.  Like other virtues, the burden falls upon persons—Hardon should have avoided the liberal language of individualism—but it is exercised in groups acting for the common good.  Church parishes, the Boy Scouts, Food Pantries, Musical Societies are groups that come to mind.  The problem begins, though, with that tricky word society.  Hardon reveals how dangerous such an expression is by extending it to the entire human race.  Surely, this notion of a philanthropic obligation to humanity is contradicted by the teachings of the Church and by common sense.  We shall take this up later, but there is a line of thought from Paul to Augustine to Thomas that goes decidedly in the other direction.

Fr. Hardon justifies this break with tradition by adding: “Implicit in the virtue of social justice is an awareness that the world has entered on a new phase of social existence, with potential for great good or great harm vested in those who control the media and the structures of modern society.  Christians, therefore, are expected to respond to the new obligations created by the extraordinary means of promoting the common good not only of small groups but literally of all humanity.”

It is only my great respect for Fr. Hardon that prevents me from describing this globaloney  (to use a term coined by a great Catholic laywoman) in condign language.  The argument that mass media and commerce have created a global society requiring global solutions has been used by every crackpot, including Adolf Hitler, for over a hundred years.  What, the Roman Empire did not pose similar challenges and opportunities?  We are really living in a new moral universe?  Should we try to control the networks, picket the UN, create an imperium to impose peace and justice.  Let me betray my semi-Anglican background:

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;  And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

Dostoevksy argued that although Marxism and the Catholic Church were at odd, the do-gooding propensities of the Church would one day lead Catholics to embrace socialism.  The language of social justice has been one very important mechanism that has encouraged this fatal embrace.  In seeking to understand our Christian obligations, then, let us dispense with this troublesome expression.

II Charity

In order to gain a clearer perspective on social justice in both the good and the bad senses, we have to look at this expression in the light of Christian charity.  Is either state socialism or global philanthropy  enjoined by the New Testament or by the important fathers of the early Church?  Later I shall examine the meaning of Christian charity both in the Scriptures and in the works of Augustine and Thomas. First, however, I want to talk more generally about the fallacies of philanthropic globalism. Here are some paragraphs from The Morality of Everyday Life in which I took up the notion of an international system of philanthropy, whether through global taxation or other means.

Practically speaking, a system of the most minimal international compassion would have to be a matter of state compulsion; it could not be left up to individuals.  For good or ill, few people are willing to sacrifice the second car, much less ride the bus to work, in the interest of either charity or justice.  But, if alleviating hunger and poverty is a duty that the individuals of advanced nations must discharge, not in the name of charity or compassion, then simple justice requires an automatic transfer of wealth between nations, and neither individual citizens nor individual nations have sufficient wisdom or impartiality to make the right decisions in the common interest of the world.

On the face of it, the argument seems paradoxical: How can a person be just, if he is acting out of compulsion?  If I rescue a drowning man only because his friend has a gun aimed at my head, no one will laud my heroism.  But what if I am a member of a large group whose representatives, elected by a small minority of the membership, votes to hire a lifeguard who saves the drowning man?  My group (or nation) might be praised for its public spirit or the good sense it showed in picking its representatives, but if, while the lifeguard was off duty, the members stood by and watched a child drown, their public spirit or good sense would not excuse their indifference.

Most people believe that moral actions, to be really moral, must be freely undertaken, and we deserve only limited credit for good works done generally in the name of governments or international agencies.  It is the soldier risking his life on the battlefield who wins medals, not the voters and taxpayers who support the government that sent him to fight and die.

We run serious risks in speaking the language of justice and not charity.  It is not for nothing that the ancient pagans put the ultimate courts of justice in the land of the dead.  “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”  Christians have always believed that human nature, at its best, is too frail and corrupt to deserve, under the law of justice, anything but condemnation and death.  Man’s salvation did not come as an act of justice but as a supreme gesture of divine charity.

Charity, caritas, agape, love–the various words have different emphases, but a central point connects them all.  Under the Law, all are condemned, but the spirit of love gives salvation.  Therefore, for any kind of Christian, the requirements of justice–however exacting and grave–must take second place to the obligation to perform works of charity.  The responsibility for love cannot be delegated or reassigned; it must be discharged by individuals who, in doing good, are becoming, while not good in themselves, more nearly good.  In this sense, the charitable man receives more benefits than he confers.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures command us to look after ourselves and our dependents and to practice charity.  As Augustine put it, charity is the “virtue that joins us to God in love,” and it is, as St. Paul tells us, a greater gift of the spirit even than faith.  But charity under the duress of taxation is not charity at all, even if the taxes are voted by a majority.

One of the worst effects of national welfare systems is that they diminish our capacity and our desire to do voluntary works of charity.  Until modern times, the rulers of Europe provided relief to the poor only in times of great necessity or to the widows and orphans of veteran soldiers.  The Roman emperors, it is true, distributed grain and bread within the capital, but this was a sure indication that the population of Rome had lost its independence and looked up to the emperor as its ultimate patron.

In Christian Europe, it might be supposed, rulers would be tempted to exercise charity toward their peoples, and, in cases of emergency, a prince might open his granaries to his subjects–as did the Egyptian pharaoh who, on the advice of Joseph, sold the grain at a profit.  The Christian Gospel commands those who accept it to do good, as we are able, to widows, orphans, and the destitute, and throughout Christian England, before Henry VIII nationalized the Church, parishes provided charity to the needy.

What we might now call welfare–food, clothing, shelter, medicine–was distributed by the Church to members of the local parish.  The monasteries, on the other hand, gave emergency relief to strangers and beggars.  The Church in medieval England can be seen as a vast network of non-political associations providing relief and welfare to those in need.  On the eve of the Reformation, at least three percent of monastic income was devoted to relief of the poor, and the wills of well-to-do Christians specified what moneys should be spent on food and clothing for the poor.  These were often quite significant, although few could match Richard II’s scheming uncle, John of Gaunt, whose will provided 50 silver marks a day for 40 days after his death, 300 more on the eve of his funeral, and 500 on the day of his burial–a staggering fortune.

The religious arguments for charity are significant, because even nonbelievers, in making a case for national and international poverty relief, have appropriated religious language.  On the other hand, it is obvious that theological arguments will carry little weight with non-Christians who accept neither the authority of Scripture nor the duty of charity (as opposed to social justice).  However, many philosophers who are not orthodox Christians have insisted upon the moral autonomy of human individuals.  A follower of Sartre or Kant, as much as St. Paul and St. Augustine, would have to reject any argument that transferred moral decisions from individuals to vast impersonal agencies.  For good or ill, free men and women must make their own decisions, commit their own blunders, discharge their own obligations.  To surrender the power to do good or ill, right and wrong–even if the surrender is only in the mind–is to give up an essential part of our humanity.


The humane person does have other options.  One might, for example, practice charity closer to home, where it is possible to become personally involved and where it is much easier to monitor the honesty and effectiveness of relief programs.  Mother Teresa, when a Milwaukee woman volunteered to come and assist her in India, told the woman to do good in her own hometown, to find Calcutta in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately, the private efforts of charitable individuals in their own neighborhoods and cities will never attract newspaper headlines or have the effect of a television special or the photographic image of an emaciated child.  Newspapers and advertising have a legitimate object, the communication of information to interested persons, but for several decades the primary point of the various “media” has been the arousal of strong feelings in their audiences.  These feelings are not directed toward familiar objects–a reader’s mother, girlfriend, child, or neighbor–but toward complete strangers.

The Pornography of Compassion

The passion most commonly appealed to is sexual desire.  The attempt to arouse desire or stimulate passion for strangers by use of words and images goes by the name of pornography.  In origin, the word pornographia refers to the depiction of prostitutes and acts of prostitution, and pornography is the esthetic or imaginative dimension of prostitution, a business devoted to promoting the illusion that one human being is having an erotic relationship with another. The reality of the “relationship” is simpler: a cash transaction without emotional or moral attachment.  Indeed, the very meaning of porne (prostitute) in Greek suggests a commercial transaction.

Money “can’t buy me love,” but the man who hires a prostitute can buy the illusion of love or passion or innocence, and it is this illusion that men are willing to pay for, not the mere act of fornication.  If a discharge of surplus erotic energy were the only point, a man might find safer and less costly alternatives.  No, at least part of what he is paying for in hiring a prostitute is the illusion of attachment, and, on a lower level, the purchaser of pornography is pursuing the same fantasy.

There are other desires, other interests, other passions: pity, fear, anger, and hatred, to name only a few.  Aristotle believed that the object of tragedy was the purgation or discharge of pity and fear from those who participated as observers in the experience. However, the object of pornography and of the “trash” journalism produced by the television networks and the great newspapers is not purgation but merely stimulation, and while the stories on Oprah, Jerry, and Jennie may be as fictional as the ancient Greek tale of the witch who murders her rival and her own children in order to punish her lover, we read and watch these fables as if they were real events whose participants are known to us.  Someone else’s child, trapped in a well, monopolizes the attention of millions of Americans who neglect their children or entrust them to the care of strangers, and an airline disaster is celebrated as a major news event, even though the 200 people killed represent only a tiny fraction of the people who die, from various causes, every day throughout the world.  This is information only in the sense that an exact count of the pop bottles found on the sand of Myrtle Beach in a given day is information.

Even the terrible slaughter of several thousand innocent people on September 11, 2001, was insignificant, when compared with such grisly figures as traffic fatalities and abortions.  Even in NATO’s little war against Yugoslavia inflicted more civilian deaths as a percentage of population.  Americans cared about the victims of the World Trade Center attacks not because they were generic human beings but precisely because they were Americans.  Nonetheless, there was something unsettling about the apparently unending series of celebrity memorial concerts.  What began as sincere mourning seemed to degenerate into an orgy of compassion in which showmanship too precedence over grief.

Recent films have portrayed the degradation of the news business as something new, but already in the 1960′s Billy Wilder’s film The Big Circus portrayed a cynical reporter, who not only exploits a tragedy–in this case, a man trapped in a mine–for his advancement but even helps to create it.  Anyone might reach a similar, if unintended conclusion, from seeing any of the versions of Front Page or from a cursory scan of the 19th century yellow press, which Thackeray and Trollope (especially in his two Phineas Finn novels) and ridiculed.  In fact, the illegitimate manipulation of sentiment has been the object of the press for as long as there has been a press.

Many, if not most “human interest” stories are reported without any other object than the arousal of passions for strangers, and to that extent they are pornographic.  Although there is a fine line between the nightly news programs and the commercial interludes that pay for them, most advertising is overtly pornographic, even in the ordinary sexual sense.  Advertising depends for its success on powerful images that stir the emotions of greed, envy, sexual desire, and compassion, but the success comes at a price.  Commercial ads, whether they are celebrating detergents or starving Somalis or aborted babies, are always fantasies that distort our perception of reality.  In reality, most people in underdeveloped nations are not starving to death, nor are they the helpless victims of natural disaster or colonial exploitation.  They are men and women and children, struggling to make a life for themselves under sometimes adverse circumstances.  “A steady diet of images of passive and helpless people” is an insult to the dignity of people in other cultures.”

Charity Begins at Home

The mark of genuine charity is (in Greek) storge, or loving-kindness, and while such love may be bestowed upon objects that seem utterly alien to the giver, it is not the strangeness that attracts but the recognition of some common bond, if it is only common humanity or, in the case of lower animals, of some resemblance to human qualities.

Charity does begin at home, and the burden of charity is most easily discharged towards those with whom we are already connected by bonds of blood and experience.  Charity toward strangers requires effort, and the more foreign the stranger, the greater the effort required.  I am speaking, now, of that natural charity, which grows and expands with maturing conscience of the individual, in distinction from what is generally meant in politics by “compassion,” which is the artificial sense of benevolence we are taught to feel in doing good deeds by long distance.  In this case, the reverse is true.  People who will not take a bowl of soup to a sick neighbor will weep over the fate of starving Albanians whose pictures they have seen on television, and even in their own country their concern with poverty or family dissolution is inevitably limited to the black family or to the poor of the Appalachians; their desire to propagate the Gospel confined to Asians and Hispanics; their zeal to improve public education directed primarily at minority advancement.

All these goals are laudable in themselves, and worthy men and women may well choose to devote themselves to pursuing the welfare of foreigners as a sort of special vocation, but what seems to be far more common is the telescopic philanthropy of Dickens’ Mrs. Jellaby (in Bleak House), whose eyes–so far-sighted that “they could see nothing nearer than Africa” overlooked the needs of children, friends and neighbors.

Telescopic philanthropy is not charity.  Call it social justice or anything else you like, but not charity, a virtue that springs from the loving character of the giver.  Where the cause is guilt or national self-hatred or only a formal duty learned by rote in catechism, the impulse springs from sources quite distinct from charitable love, and while we may admire the cold sense of duty that calls people to send checks into telethons, we cannot, in most cases, attribute their zeal to charity.

St. Thomas puts the question of charity in the context of both grace and natural obligation.  As a gift of the Holy Spirit, charity connects us to God.  Rather than lavish our wealth on the evil (e.g., thieves, confidence men, and child molesters), Thomas tells us that we should will the greatest good to those who are closest to God.  But from the natural perspective–and much charity concerns the satisfaction of natural necessities–closeness to ourselves must also affect the degree of our charity: “In what concerns nature we should love our kinsmen most, . . . and we are more closely bound to provide them with necessities of life.”

If there is a natural priority of obligation toward our kinsmen and neighbors, then charitable assistance to foreign countries would be at the bottom of the scale.  Until modern times, this was certainly the common perception.  Wealthy Greeks (and the Hellenized non-Greeks of the ancient Middle East) took it for granted that they should spend some of their surplus on their native polis. The system of “liturgies” was institutionalized in Athens, but it is observable even in the later Roman Empire.  One of the Greek complaints against Jews was that they did not contribute money locally to build theatres or assist the poor but sent it to Jerusalem.  For a good Jew, however, such a decision had nothing to do with a desire to practice international philanthropy and everything to do with their sense of primary obligation to their own people.  Greeks, thinking exclusively in terms of the city, could not or would not understand the nature of Jewish loyalty, which was, in fact, very like their own.

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