Unfortunately but probably quite justifiably, the term ‘social justice’ has become associated with identity politics, intolerance, censorship and using racist/misogynist/xenophobic/etc. labels as casual insults, to the point where I don’t think it’s even relevant whether anyone who disagreed with those rioting for a corporatist system several weeks ago were being placed in the same ‘basket of deplorables’ as white supremacist idiots.
More to the point, the ‘liberals’ have alienated the very people the political left should be championing – people who are more worried about things like welfare, job security, affordable housing, being able to put food on the table and pay the rent.
Social justice isn’t limited to the political left, however. A non-partisan version of it became a necessary and substantial part of the Catechism as a rational set of ideas consistent with a clear and fundamental principle: Man is created in the image of God, and therefore human dignity and freedom must be safeguarded. The social teaching, outlined in the Catechism and explained in more detail in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, was inspired by Leo XIII largely as a response to the industrial revolution and the proposal of socialism. Also, the social teaching has much in common with Aristotle’s thinking behind the constitutional republic and the principles behind the United States’ system of government.
Absolute equality, in the sense of equality of outcome, seems unattainable in a society that values freedom. People have different talents, there is more demand for certain skills than others, and everyone has a role in society. Even in the most conformist and communist state, some people will inevitably gain and consolidate power, using the system to exploit the people.
What, then, is meant by ‘equality’? First, everyone has universal and fundamental value as human beings – life is sacred, and so is the dignity of that human life, and therefore fundamental human rights must be established and guaranteed – rights such as access to essentials, equal representation before the law, access to healthcare, etc. The dignity and freedom of each individual is the premise of social teaching.
While this is (re)stating the bleeding obvious, we exist in a sinful society that perpetuates inequality. In Catholicism, ‘sin’ is generally understood to be an act of instant gratification or short-term gain with disgregard to the implications, and there are implications, seen and unseen, to everything we do. To give a pointed example, consumerism doesn’t care whether the latest products become landfill 18 months later, or whether products were manufactured under humane working conditions. Depending on our conscience, buying meat without caring whether the livestock were terminated with minimal suffering would be another sin.
‘There are sinful social and economic inequalities which affect millions of human beings. These inequalities are in open contradiction to the Gospel and are contrary to justice, to the dignity of persons, and to peace. There are, however, differences among people caused by various factors which enter into the plan of God.’
To enforce equality of outcome would be to enforce conformity, and therefore that would contradict freedom. What needs to be guaranteed is the universal freedom for every person to reach his/her potential, and that requires equal opportunity across social divisions.
‘To stimulate this kind of growth it is necessary in particular to help the least, effectively ensuring conditions of equal opportunity for men and women and guaranteeing an objective equality between the different social classes before the law.’
Getting there depends on how society treats the worst off, the weakest and most vulnerable. What things are in place to ensure the dignity of every person in society? What do the affluent consider necessary for survival, and are those necessities afforded to everyone? This is my interpretation of ‘objective equality’.
Yet, socialism or communism doesn’t seem the ideal way to go about this. G. K. Chesterton, as a critique of socialism, noted that sharing is fundamentally different to the act of giving, in that the latter can be a creative act of altruism, an act that expresses to the recipient that s/he is valued, and maybe it’s even an expression of solidarity. In that act of giving, a Corporal Work of Mercy can also be a Spiritual Work of Mercy.
There is the well-known quote from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ The context of the verse seems to be nobody is ‘saved’ purely by grace alone (if we could ever consider ourselves ‘saved’), but we’re also judged by our solidarity with the poor. It is also from this part of the Gospel that the Corporal Works of Mercy are derived. The Corporal Works of Mercy, in turn, are about aiding people regardless of how they ended up in whatever predicament, while the Spiritual Works of Mercy could be about addressing the underlying issues.
Subsidiarity and the Common Good
If the Catechism’s perspective of equality lies outside political ideology, how could it be effected as social change? The principle, or vision, of subsidiarity can be summarised in the following statements:
‘Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.’
‘All men and women according to the place and role that they occupy participate in promoting the common good by respecting just laws and taking charge of the areas for which they have personal responsibility such as the care of their own family and the commitment to their own work. Citizens also should take an active part in public life as far as possible.’
Subsidiarity roughly means the decentralisation of government, so things are handled at the local and community level, and ultimately influenced by each individual. This enables people to take on civic responsibility and determine how society is run. The authors of the Catechism seem to have placed more faith in the intrinsic goodness of the individual than a centralised leadership that deems itself more educated to enact equality, I should add. How practical is this, though?
Something like it has already been attempted in the form of the United States, where a federation of states are bound together and supported by federal institutions. Theoretically that should mean that every citizen has an opportunity to be involved in local politics, and in theory the relationship between states and federal government should be symbiotic.
Ultimately it seems to mean that the individual is the one who needs to initiate the changes, and the general attitudes to others must also change for that to happen. I think this is possible. What I do know is that, if one performs Corporal Works of Mercy to others in need, others will follow that example – each of us can play a part in that. A quote attributed to St. Francis went something like: ‘Evangelise, and if necessary use words‘.
Common good is defined as ‘the sum total of those conditions of social life which allow people as groups and as individuals to reach their proper fulfillment.’
Also, the ‘common good’ can only be achieved through moral means that provides people with the free choice. It also has something to say about the nature of this authority: ‘Authority is exercised legitimately when it acts for the common good and employs morally licit means to attain it. Therefore, political regimes must be determined by the free decision of their citizens.‘