Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Reasons For The Church To Be Involved In Social Justice

dgboland © 2001

The reasons why the Church should be involved in social justice issues are as manifold as the multitude of particular matters dealt with in the social encyclicals since Rerum Novarum. However, they all come down to the fact that "Man is the way of the Church", an expression of the Church's mission that the present Pope John Paul II has used from his very first encyclical "Redemptor Hominis.

I have therefore listed a number of these reasons as I see them, gathered particularly from Centesimus Annus. Naturally enough they concentrate on the Church as "Magistra" and do not attempt to list reasons for the multitude of charitable works of her members that are a practical witness to the Church's commitment to social justice. In all respects, however, the Church's "obligation" to be involved comes back simply to love of one's neighbour.

  1. Such involvement is not only a right but also a duty. "In Pope Leo XIII's time such a concept of the Church's right and duty was far from being commonly admitted." (C.A. 5) (underlining mine) " Faced with the poverty of the working class, Pope Leo XIII wrote: "We approach this subject with confidence, and in the exercise of the rights which manifestly pertain to us ... By keeping silence we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us".…the Church cannot abandon man". (C.A. 53)
  2. "Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice." (CA 58)

  3. "It belongs to the Church's doctrinal patrimony and, as such, involves the exercise of her teaching authority." " … constituting what would come to be called the Church's "social doctrine", "social teaching" or even "social magisterium". (C.A. 2)
    "Thus the Church's social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else: the human rights of the individual, and in particular of the "working class", the family and education, the duties of the State, the ordering of national and international society, economic life, culture, war and peace, and respect for life from the moment of conception until death". (C.A. 54) "The "new evangelization", which the modern world urgently needs and which I have emphasized many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church's social doctrine." (C.A. 5)
  4. So far as we the members of the Church are concerned, it is the express wish of the Magisterium. "In particular, I wish this teaching to be made known and applied in the countries which, following the collapse of "Real Socialism", are experiencing a serious lack of direction in the work of rebuilding. The Western countries, in turn, run the risk of seeing this collapse as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system. Meanwhile, the countries of the Third World are experiencing more than ever the tragedy of underdevelopment, which is becoming more serious with each passing day." (C.A. 56)
  5. It is an intrinsic part of Tradition. "A re-reading of this kind will not only confirm the permanent value of such teaching, but will also manifest the true meaning of the Church's Tradition which, being ever living and vital, builds upon the foundation laid by our fathers in the faith, and particularly upon what "the Apostles passed down to the Church" 5 in the name of Jesus Christ, who is her irreplaceable foundation (cf. 1 Cor 3:11). (C.A. 3)
  6. It is part of the Church's instruction in the faith. "However, man's true identity is only fully revealed to him through faith, and it is precisely from faith that the Church's social teaching begins. While drawing upon all the contributions made by the sciences and philosophy, her social teaching is aimed at helping man on the path of salvation." (C.A. 54)
  7. For the world's sake. Without the Church's involvement in social justice issues there would have been and will be worse tragedies (such as world wars). "Still, we must acknowledge that its prophetic message was not fully accepted by people at the time. Precisely for this reason there ensued some very serious tragedies." (C.A. 16)
    Without the Church's doctrine there would be hardly any balance in the assessment of the extremes of Socialism/Communism and Liberalism/Capitalism and they would appear to be the only alternatives. "Rerum novarum criticizes two social and economic systems: socialism and liberalism. The opening section, in which the right to private property is reaffirmed, is devoted to socialism. Liberalism is not the subject of a special section, but it is worth noting that criticisms of it are raised in the treatment of the duties of the State." (C.A. 10)
    It is the entrenchment of extreme positions or ideologies that causes conflict at the national and international level. "However, it is only when hatred and injustice are sanctioned and organized by the ideologies based on them, rather than on the truth about man, that they take possession of entire nations and drive them to act." (C.A. 17)
    Without the Church taking a clear position Catholic intellectuals might be deceived into thinking that Capitalism even in its radical form presents no threat to social well being. "Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems [exploitation and marginalisation], in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces." (C.A. 23) "Would that these words, written at a time when what has been called "unbridled capitalism" was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity. Unfortunately, even today one finds instances of contracts between employers and employees which lack reference to the most elementary justice regarding the employment of children or women, working hours, the hygienic condition of the work-place and fair pay; and this is the case despite the International Declarations and Conventions on the subject and the internal laws of States. The Pope [Leo XIII] attributed to the "public authority" the "strict duty" of providing properly for the welfare of the workers, because a failure to do so violates justice; indeed, he did not hesitate to speak of 'distributive justice'". (C.A. 8) (underlining mine)
    Nor would Catholics have any guidance on how to distinguish what is good in Capitalism, and what is bad. "But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative". (C.A. 42) The balanced view lies in "…. a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good." (C.A. 43)
    The involvement of the Church in social justice issues provides the only authentic theory and praxis of liberation. "The crisis of Marxism does not rid the world of the situations of injustice and oppression which Marxism itself exploited and on which it fed. To those who are searching today for a new and authentic theory and praxis of liberation, the Church offers not only her social doctrine and, in general, her teaching about the human person redeemed in Christ, but also her concrete commitment and material assistance in the struggle against marginalization and suffering". (C.A 26)
    Without the Church's involvement in social issues few (including Catholics) would be found with the courage to stand up to the rich and powerful and say things like: "The absence of stability, together with the corruption of public officials and the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, constitutes one of the chief obstacles to development and to the economic order." (underlying mine)
    "The State has the further right to intervene when particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development." (C.A. 48)
  8. It belongs to Theology (Moral). "Christian anthropology therefore is really a chapter of theology, and for this reason, the Church's social doctrine, by its concern for man and by its interest in him and in the way he conducts himself in the world, "belongs to the field ... of theology and particularly of moral theology". The theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and solving present-day problems in human society. It is worth noting that this is true in contrast both to the "atheistic" solution, which deprives man of one of his basic dimensions, namely the spiritual one, and to permissive and consumerist solutions, which under various pretexts seek to convince man that he is free from every law and from God himself, thus imprisoning him within a selfishness which ultimately harms both him and others." (C.A. 55)

dgboland © 2001

dgboland © 2001 is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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