What is Social Justice

By George J. Marlin on The Catholic Thing on February 20, 2016

Social-Justice-book-coverThe term “social justice,” a potentially useful term, has – as we well know – been taken hostage by progressives in both the secular world and the Church. They have made it a catchall term to aid them in imposing ideological formulas and newly conceived rights on our common institutions, or to promote their favored causes de jure.

These “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs in digital parlance), who support state-enforced redistribution, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street agendas, also portray their opponents as evil people opposed to all that is good, and often employ tactics designed to silence or repress those who dare to disagree.

Writing about these “dangerous pseudo-progressive authoritarians” in a New York Observer article titled “The Totalitarian Doctrine of ‘Social Justice Warriors’” journalist Cathy Young concluded, “Because SocJus is so focused on changing bad attitudes and ferreting out subtle biases and insensitivities, its hostility to free speech and thought is not an unfortunate by-product of the movement but its very essence.”

In an effort to rescue “social justice” from this fate and to clarify its true meaning, Templeton Prize winner Michael Novak, and Paul Adams, Professor Emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, have co-authored an impressive book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is.

The authors contend that “social justice,” rightly understood, is not a state of public affairs but personal virtue. To explain that premise and “to seek out a fresh statement of the definition of social justice – one that is true to the original understanding, ideologically neutral among political and economic partisans, and applicable to the circumstances of today,” the book is divided into two parts.

The first, “The Theory” of social justice is written by Novak and the second part, by Adams, is devoted to “The Practice.”

Social Justice was introduced as a new virtue by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. He called this form of justice “social” because its aim was to improve the common good of a “free and responsible people” by employing social activities closely related to the basic unit of society: the family. Activities could include the creation of local religious and educational facilities and the administering of essential services.

This virtue is also expected to reach ends that cannot be actualized by the individual alone. People are expected to learn three skills: “the art of forming associations, willingness to take leadership of small groups, and the habit and instinct of cooperation with others.”

Social justice wasn’t meant to be dependent on large, impersonal, domineering, and cumbersome federal and state bureaucracies that tend to smother individual and local initiatives. Rather it is a habit of the heart that brings people together to form associations that provide “social protection against atomistic individualism, while at the other pole it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state.”

Novak concludes his portion of the work by stressing:

Both Catholic social teaching and the social-work empowerment tradition reject the individualist hypertrophy of the autonomous unencumbered self no less than the hypertrophy of the state. The space – of civil society or mediating structures – between individual and state is the one in which conscience is shaped and the virtues on which it depends are developed through practice and habituation. The virtue of social justice also requires and develops that space in which citizens join together in pursuit of the common good.

As for Catholic social justice in action, Professor Adams describes it as the pre-eminent virtue of free societies. Social workers are virtue-driven and are called to act with people “to improve the common good of families, a local neighborhood, a city, a whole nation, the whole world.”

Social work, Adams argues, is neither individualist nor collectivist, but is devoted to strengthening the caring and self-regulatory capacity of the family and to reduce dependency on the “bureaucratic-professional state.”

Adams greatest fear is that social workers who adhere to Judeo-Christian teaching on life, death, family, and marriage will be driven from their professions. Conscience exemptions are being eliminated in most medical and counseling fields. Conscience has been redefined as merely “personal values that must be left at the office door when duty calls.”

Today clients or patients are sovereign. Any legal practice they demand, the social profession must provide or participate in providing. The professional’s right and duty, Adams observes, “to use her judgment about what is required or indicated or morally permissible is nullified.” The balance of rights between professional and client no longer exists, however, and client empowerment “radically disempowers, even dehumanizes, the professional.”

All too often social service professionals and healthcare workers must either execute policies or perform procedures they find morally degrading – or find a different line of work.

The war on conscience aims at destroying subsidiary associational life, particularly in Church and family. And if Social Justice Warriors succeed, religious freedom will be reduced to freedom of worship and the Church will have to abandon a prime corporate responsibility of caring for the poor, sick, homeless, and orphans.

Because battles over conscience in the public square are so daunting, Novak and Adams conclude that the most important words of Catholic social justice must become: “Do not be afraid.” They call on us to aspire upward and to “draw strength from the example of so many heroines and heroes who have gone before us, winning small victory after small victory, even in the darkest of times.”

True social justice demands nothing less.

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By George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter, and  Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative. His most recent book is Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy.

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