April 22, 2011
A Triduum Reflection on Social Justice
Back in March I posted a few thoughts on legal education and Catholic legal theory by raising some questions about the elusive meaning of “social justice.” During and since that time, I have been working on a paper—actually a series of papers—on this frequently appearing phrase that liberally punctuates many documents addressing Catholic social thought.
The term first appears in the papal literature in 1931 in Pius XI’s encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno which commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. In the 1931 encyclical, Pius XI employs the term at least nine times, but he does not define it. It might be assumed that, given the context and content of QA, its meaning is restricted to something dealing with reform of the socio-economic conditions of the laboring class. However, that interpretation or reading, in my estimation, would be incorrect.
For social justice to mean something, especially in the contexts of Catholic social thought and legal theory that bears the same modifier, it must be understood in terms that extend beyond ideas concerning warfare or tensions between or among economic classifications of persons. In fact, Pius XI provides vital insight into the meaning of the term six years later in his 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism). In essence, the key to understanding social justice in a Catholic sense is to understand that it is not really about economic, social, or political institutions; rather, it is about the human person himself or herself. It is, when all is said and done, a concept dealing with the reform and proper formation of the human person as it deals with the appropriation and cultivation of virtue in the life of the individual human person. In short, there cannot be a Christian sense of social justice without there first being a transformation of the human person. As Pius XI states,
just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member—that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality—is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions. If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquility and order. This activity will be proof of the health of the social body, just as the health of the human body is recognized in the undisturbed regularity and perfect efficiency of the whole organism. [DR, N. 51]
Thus, what is necessary for this “organism” to function properly—for society to achieve the common good—is if each member cultivates in one’s personal life the virtues of: wisdom, courage, prudence, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and love. Without these virtues, each individual’s public acts can become governed by an autonomous will that is often the source of the tension and warfare between and among peoples.
My work on this topic continues, but it is my hope here that this small thought might be a source of encouragement for others to think and pray over this term that is often encountered but not often understood well.
In the meantime, a blessed Triduum and happy Easter to my colleagues and friends here at the Mirror of Justice and to our readers around the world.
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