Today in Catholic circles one would be forgiven if one equated Catholicism with nothing more than the concept and rhetoric of “social justice.” This `unfortunate reality takes place because the phrase social “justice” is not used as the traditional vocabulary suggests, as a virtue present in individuals, but as a matter of policy. Misunderstood as such, social justice is reduced to whatever progressive policy one finds desirable. This disengages the dialog about social justice from a moral framework of virtue, and makes it prone to exploitation by any special interest group vocal enough to demand assistance from the public treasury.
As I recount in my book, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, there was the rhetoric of “letting a breath of fresh air into the Church,” opening her to a more understanding relationship with modernity. Many Catholics, it turned out, were unable to escape the effects of the confusion and waves of social revolution and antinomianism that hit during the decade of the ’60s. Typical of many people in that generation, borrowing a line from liberal activism, was to set up a false dichotomy between the Church’s sacramental action – always the center of her activity – and her secular/non-sacramental activity, which was not as great as it should have been. Here their primary fault was imagining that the Church can, engage in any activity that is not sacramental and salvific, which is merely mundane, secular, institutional, “social.”
What, for example, is the meaning of “human liberation”? Catholics who equate Catholicism with working for justice seem to mean freedom from forms of political/economic oppression. Yet true liberation comes only in the freedom of Christian life in God, and so this understanding is little more than Marxist utopianism. Our Lord lived under the brutal regime of Rome. Did He make make its slavery or violations of dignity the focal point of his doctrine? Rather, Christ focused on seeking first God’s kingdom of holiness. All else would be added.
So—working for “social justice,” can either be at the service of a socialist utopianism, an antagonistic centralizing government, or the true Kingdom of God, which cannot be reduced to the lack of political oppression or the complete possession of economic independence. Properly understood, the Kingdom of God is the sacramental union of all mankind with the Father in Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit.
Catholicism teaches that the greatest oppression is the law of sin reigning in human hearts. Thus, . Relief from external oppression, if not supported by inner transformation of mind, leads only to a new kind of slavery. Secular social justice thinking leaves no room for the transformative element, for the spiritual rebirth that the works of mercy can bring about in both the worker and the object of the work. Genuine Catholic social work leads both the benefiter and the benefited on the way of transformation in Christ, calling both of them to the higher social order of the Church, which is spiritually redeemed humanity, the Body of Christ.
The promotion of justice is a vital function in Christian society – not only as a praiseworthy work of mercy, but even as a requirement for full participation in the liturgical-sacramental life. How can one pretend to love God if we don’t empathize with our suffering brethren? Christ calls us to establish the reign of justice and peace on Earth, which almost always means struggles with the unjust powers ruling the earth. Indeed, traditional Catholic social teaching is quite a bit more feisty in its demands on earthly rulers and on the necessity of reforming political-economic structures. Just read Leo XIII or Pius XI.
Catholics ought to take part in works of mercy and social justice initiatives. It is often our duty to do so. But if we are to take on the full mind of the Church, we must not let ourselves be carried away by the sort of ideologies with which these things are often associated. The “source and summit” of the Christian life is not human society or any particular work we do, but the sacred liturgy of the Church, the work of Christ in and for us, which saves us and saves the world.
Justice is a natural virtue, and the establishment of more just economic and political systems is the Catholic citizen’s duty. As the hedonism of society further corrodes the image of human dignity in the popular mind, the Church may very soon be the only one who can show people a true vision of just society. But she becomes superfluous if she is just another NGO, a sort of U.N. service. Her priests, as many did after the Council, must not downplay their sacramental role as sanctifiers to spend all their time as “liberators” in “social work.” When they leave off praying the Office, when their negligence reduces liturgy to its bare minimum of sacramental validity, we see a vital loss of perspective.
Should we sell our churches and the treasures of the Vatican to fund liberation campaigns in South America? That’s not Catholic logic. Such thinking is the post-Conciliar abandonment of the primary sacramental purpose which stifles the Church’s efforts to transform society far more deeply than anything else.
The Church’s firm doctrine, proclaimed through all of tradition, is that only the reign of Christ the King over hearts and governments can lead to the establishment of true justice. Because sin causes injustice, . The Church’s liturgical-sacramental function is absolutely crucial; it is the only chance for the world’s salvation, because it is the prime locus of Christ’s action on Earth. If there is no Mass, there is no hope for the world. If we don’t take the Mass seriously, or think it is just something we get out of the way before rolling up our sleeves to do the “real work,” we forget Christ’s loving caution that “without Me you can do nothing.” If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.
Catholic social justice has to be . Within the Catholic Church, “social justice” cannot be understood except Eucharistically and liturgically, as the resolute effort to order the human community ideally in relation to liturgical worship, providing all the material goods (and only those) that are sufficient to support their easy acquisition of spiritual goods. Justice demands that people have enough to eat so that they may eat of the bread which comes down from heaven.
In the end, it is a question of faith. Is the Church just a social service organization with some quaintly pleasing exterior forms, or is she what she says she is – the very soul of the world, the hammer of demons, the school of true perfection, the teacher of nations, the one place where man can fulfill his destiny to abide with the divine?