Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Main Social Justice Issues Today


In an address to Philippine Bishops on 10 February 1997 Pope John Paul II referred to the family and the promotion of social justice as "two crucial and intimately related areas of pastoral life". What strikes me about the discussion of social justice issues, therefore, is the fact that one cannot separate them from "domestic justice" issues in any program for social reform. "Indeed", as the Pope said in his address: "the defense and promotion of the family, the heart of every society, is a pre-eminent task facing all those committed to the pursuit of social well-being and justice". The two sets of issues, the protection of the institution of the family and the promotion of social justice go hand in hand. To separate them is necessarily to diminish our ability to defend either.

A preliminary point to be understood, therefore, even in the specific context of the discussion of the main social justice issues, is that the family is the fundamental unit of any society. Therefore, if one is not prepared to defend clearly and fearlessly the Church's teaching on the family and related issues, such as abortion, sterilisation, contraception, homosexual life styles or "same sex marriages", and production of children outside marriage, whether in ventro or in vitro, let alone sexual promiscuity, divorce etc, one is in effect entering the fray with one's arm tied behind one's back.

The defence of the family is thus the first task of anyone who wants to promote social justice. Social justice is best promoted together with the promotion of the natural (and, for the Christian, also supernatural) institution of the family. In a fundamental sense, then, one of the main issues of social justice, if not the main issue, is the family as the very basis of a healthy and just society. As the Pope said in his Letter to Families "through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love, which finds therein its 'social foundations"' (n. 15). In his address he calls on the Bishops "to form the consciences of the faithful in accordance with the Church's teachings, so that the laity in particular may work effectively for the introduction of public policies which strengthen family life". He refers with evident approval to the bishops' own reiteration of the theme that "a family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies."

The intimate relation between the family and social justice issues can be seen in the very discussion of what appear to be purely economic matters, such as the contract of employment and the question of wages. The Pope adverts to the necessity for the economy to be managed in such a way that we create (or, such is the current neglect of the family in this regard, re-create) "a family-centred economy". One of the greatest failings of our present-day social and economic "science", and consequent public policy, is that the family, on whose foundation the whole society, including the economy, rests, is generally ignored. Even from the socio-economic viewpoint, therefore, there is more to the issue of wages than the blind acceptance of the laws of supply and demand, or market forces. "One of the main criticisms which the Church's Pastors have to make regarding the prevailing socioeconomic system, understood as the subordination of almost all other values to market forces, is that the family dimension of the work contract is generally ignored." The economy is for the sake of (the (institution of) the family, not the other way around.

Another of the main issues of social justice, not unconnected with the socially disintegrating effect of a lack of a family policy, is the restoration of philosophical priorities in our understanding of society and the individual person. These have been overlooked or deliberately obscured in the rush after a false liberty. We in the "first world" are already affected by a fragmenting individualism. Such a process is spreading worldwide. "In this transition", the Pope goes on to note in his address, "the moral and religious truths which should give support and direction to individuals and society are often forgotten or rejected, to the point that certain kinds of behaviour which used to be considered as altogether wrong are becoming accepted both socially and legally, and even promoted as 'rights'".

Thus there is an urgent need to restore a sound philosophy of society and of the economy, one that is impregnated, as it were, with a family-based ethics. Our very notion of society and the economy, as well as the relation of individual persons to these social orders, is a main issue of social justice. For, as our understanding of particular problems depends on our having resolved more general ones, so the general issue of our subjection to the "market" or to the "State", or in the final analysis not totally to either, needs to be addressed first. The basic document for the resolution of this issue, involving the refutation of extreme positions or ideologies in social, political and economic matters, is Rerum Novarum. One cannot, of course, rely simply upon it because it has to be applied to the changing, and nowadays rapidly changing, social and economic conditions. But the principles of resolution of this main issue of social justice are to be found in it.

Socialism, in the extreme form of Communism, has been discredited by the history of the last 100 years, and has at last collapsed as a politico-economic system. Unfortunately, however, we have forgotten the horrors of the period of unbridled Capitalism prior to the twentieth century, so that once again we are susceptible to being drawn to this other extreme. A resurgence of the liberal ideology "in the name of economic efficiency", foreseen by Pope Paul VI in 1971 (Octogesima Adveniens, 35), is now upon us. It is critical that we pay close attention again to the criticism of Liberalism and Capitalism (in their "pure " extreme forms) made in Rerum Novarum and reiterated by successive social encyclicals. Unless we have clear ideas at this level of political and economic philosophy we will be hard-pressed to defend the position of reason and faith in the more particular issues of social justice. Even having cleared the ground in this way we are not to think that our task, intellectual or practical, will be easy. As the Pope says, in his same address: "We are all aware of the difficulties involved in the proclamation of social justice, most especially when the questions involved are deeply imbedded in long-standing social structures and cultural mores".

On top of that are complications from social developments in more recent times, such as the change in the position of women in society and in the work "force". Though this has many positive aspects in terms of the recognition of the equal dignity of women and men, the way things have developed makes it harder to see the distinctive nature of the family as a social institution. This is a matter, however, that would require a separate discussion of its own.

Another important change is the "globalisation" of the means of production and exchange. Thus, the division of society, which tends to result from an extended regime of unbridled Capitalism, into a "small number of very rich men" and the "teeming masses of the laboring poor", is happening now on an international plane. Though there is a widening of the gap within nations, as some social researchers point out in regard to Australian society, the major division is on a world scale. Production now takes place anywhere in the world where the cheapest labour can be found.

To some extent, then, the relatively poor in nations that are more economically developed also benefit from the cheapness of the labour of the poorest of the poor. The division is being expressed most dramatically between nations rather than within nations. If we are looking today for the ones now surrendered "all isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers [multi-national corporations] and the greed of unchecked competition", it will be rather in the poorest nations that we will find them. Is it they, and their governments, that are also being subjected to the ravages of what Pope Leo called "rapacious usury"? That is a question I would like to see investigated more closely. They are certainly being loaded down with debts that have reached horrendous proportions.

The main issues of social justice in relation to particular areas of society and the economy therefore take on a wholly different dimension from that applying in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is difficult to discuss the Australian position in isolation, without reference to the world situation.

In a way we are repeating the same mistakes that put us in the parlous position Leo sought a remedy for. But they are being made on a larger stage, which not only changes the scale of the problems, but also complicates their diagnosis. In the time of Leo XIII the principal issue had become "the condition of Labour". Workers in general had, in the pope's own words, "been surrendered all isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers, and the greed of unchecked competition". On top of this, they had been subjected to the ravages of "rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is, nevertheless, under a different guise, but with the like injustice, still practised by covetous and grasping men."

In part due to the influence of the encyclical this condition was greatly ameliorated in the subsequent period, up to recent times. But, with the return of liberalism into our economic and political thinking, we can see the return of some of the social symptoms of this "condition". It will not be manifested in the same way as is clear just from the changes in society referred to above. In any case, nothing ever repeats itself in exactly the same way. The new social problems may interrelate differently and each problem may take on different proportions.

The new "condition" that most urgently requires redress may very well go by a different name, "the condition of Debt" perhaps? To me it seems that this may turn out to be the defining particular issue of social justice for our times. That is why I look to the Church saying something on this issue. It must in some way involve the question of Usury and one wonders what "disguise" Pope Leo was referring to in his day.

That is not to diminish the importance of the other issues. Once again, the determination of wages, and working conditions, in the relationship of employment, is an important particular issue as "market forces" again drive the relations between employers and employed. The various issues covered in Rerum Novarum will, however, need to be revisited in the light of modern conditions. Unions have been weakened, if not rendered ineffective, in the new climate of unchecked competition. They will need to be restored to their rightful role of protecting the weaker party in the "enterprise bargain". Conditions of work, hard fought for and now eroded, will need to be "re-negotiated".

Though neither Socialism nor Capitalism could ever be implemented in their pure extreme forms, we can describe the era succeeding the dominance of capitalism in the nineteenth century as dominated by socialism in one form or another. Thus we saw the rise of the Social Welfare State, and the "mixed economy". In a way our present developing situation might be thought of in terms of a reaction from the excesses of regulation and paternalism that that produced. But as previously noted, the tendency is to go from one extreme towards the other. The consideration of how to control this irrational reaction raises two matters of principle in the discussion of social justice, namely, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

For these determine, in principle, the balance that has to be struck between the extremes. It is not some sort of mix or compromise of the two errors but the truth about the relations between the individual person and society that is not rightly described as a "third way" between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. Socialism will see itself as a champion of solidarity, to the extent of justifying total regulation of individuals. In the end, though, what it discovers is that it has destroyed the community. Liberalism, on the other hand, may find the principle of subsidiarity useful for arguing for virtually total "de-regulation". But what it will find eventually is that its extreme individualism rests on a concept of individuals that have no need of the assistance of the State, or lesser associations such as Unions, which negates the very notion of subsidiarity.

The two principles are not opposed, as they tend to be regarded from the viewpoint of the extremes. Solidarity looks to the common good, whilst subsidiarity looks to the equally precious good of the human person as a free and responsible agent. The common good is misunderstood if it is not seen as essentially a personal good. The value of personal independence and responsibility for one's own affairs is not properly understood if divorced from one's responsibility for one's neighbour. In fact, it is hard to see how one could fully appreciate the inter-connection between these two principles without a deeply religious love of our fellow human beings.

This brings us to another main issue of social justice, to be found already highlighted in Rerum Novarum, namely, the dependence of all upon respect for religion, particularly the Christian and Catholic religion. This is not a matter where we can expect non-Christians and non-Catholics to agree with us. But we can at least demand equal treatment, with other peaceful religions, by the State. In Leo's time States were quite virulently anti-Catholic, and even generally anti-religious, under the influence of the extreme liberalism of the times. Pope Leo XIII described the political situation then. "[At] the very time that the law proclaims that association is free for all, We see that Catholic societies, however peaceful and useful, are hampered in every way, whilst the utmost liberty is conceded to individuals whose purposes are at once hurtful to religion and dangerous to the State."

Thankfully this outright antagonism has moderated somewhat. But elements of this liberalist-inspired prejudice against religion, and particularly against the Catholic religion, remain. The issue of restoring the sacredness of Sunday as a day of worship, and traditional day of rest for the worker, is not a minor one. Little do the non-Catholic workers realise that in forgoing this holy day, they are also signaling the return of the concept of the "economic man", who, like a machine, may be worked without rest, until he breaks down. Here again it seems to be a lesson of history that if one denies the claims of religion and destroys the institution of holy days one opens the way to a return to the exploitation, or enslavement, of the weak by the strong, whether directly or indirectly.

There are, of course, many other issues of social justice. The main ones can be extracted from the social encyclicals, but I believe that I have covered most of those that we ought first to focus on.


dgboland 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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