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Social Justice: Take Back the Term from the Thieves and Build a New Catholic Action

By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
October 4th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Some have begun to use the phrase "Social Justice" in a disparaging manner. They want to expose the error committed by some who have stolen the term "Social Justice" to hide a "leftist" political agenda. There are others who use it but reject the existence of objective moral truths meant to govern our life together. However, some words and phrases must be rescued when they are stolen. Social Justice is such a term. It lies at the heart of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and, properly understood, is key to building a new culture of life. 

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - I recently participated in the Catholic Leadership Conference. Every year my experience of this meeting becomes more meaningful. The participants are men and women from every walk of life who understand the implications of their faith on social, cultural, political, and economic participation. They are trying to live what Pope Benedict calls a "moral coherence" and have rejected the "separation between faith and life" which the Second Vatican Council counted among the "greatest errors of our age".

The attendees serve at various intersecting points of cultural influence; the academy, the political arena, business, philanthropy, media, medicine, law and justice. They are heroic and inspiring men and women. I was asked to discuss Catholics and Political Participation. I insisted that Catholic Social Doctrine should be the foundation for all of our social participation. 

During the course of the address I insisted that an authentic understanding of social justice should inform a new Catholic action for our time. In the question and answer period after my comments the host of the conference made a suggestion that we get rid of the term "Social Justice" because it is now used by 'the left".

He asked for my thoughts. I strongly disagreed. I insisted that we take back the phrase from those who have stolen it, either on the "the right" or "the left". He then suggested the Church does not use the phrase "Social Justice". An attendee did a "google" search of the Vatican documents on his handheld device and reported it was used thousands of times in the magisterial teaching of the Church.

I continued to press for an authentically Catholic vision of social justice as set forth in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. As the lively discussion continued a man in attendance became so angry about my use of the term social justice that he began to shout and rushed the platform. Fortunately, he calmed down. He was angry because he insisted it was a term used by 'leftists'.

I am well aware of the co-opting of the term by the "left" - so is the leadership of the Catholic Church. She has rightly condemned the errors found in versions of what was called "liberation theology" and other errant politicized efforts to usurp the term.  However, the Catholic Church has not stopped using the term "Social Justice" and neither should we who are her sons and daughters.

I am also aware of commentator Glenn Becks' efforts to expose the misuse of the term in some segments of the leftist/activist protestant community. Glenn Beck is a former Catholic who does not know the authentic Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. The best thing we could do in our relationship with him - even as we collaborate on important issues-  is present that real teaching of the Catholic Church and expose the counterfeit notion of social justice he rightly rejects.

The Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church is not only for Catholics, other Christians or even just "religious people". It is for all people and all Nations. It is offered by the Catholic Church to all who seek to build a truly just society and promote the real common good. This teaching is called "social" because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions.

The truths and principles it offers can be known by all men and women because they are revealed in the Natural law. They are expounded upon in Revelation. This social doctrine is neither "left" nor "right", neither "liberal" nor "conservative" - within the contemporary politicized use of those words. The Church 'walks the way of the person' and is an "expert in humanity". As the Body of Christ she continues the redemptive work of the Lord. It is in the humanity of Jesus Christ that we find revealed the fullness of the human person.

This social doctrine confronts the current "Dictatorship of Relativism" and insists there are unchangeable truths which can be known by all. They provide a framework for structuring our social life. The foundational truth is the dignity of every human person at every age and stage. This human dignity is present in every person because we are all made in the Image of God. It demands respect for every human life whether that life be in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center or a soup kitchen.

Another truth is that marriage is between one man and one woman, intended for life, and ordered toward the bearing and raising of children in the family. Marriage is not some social construct which can be redefined by courts or legislatures. It is also another example of a word we must not give up! It is the foundation for family and family is the first society, first church, first school, first economy, first government and first mediating institution.

Another truth is that all human persons created in the Image of God, are created for one another and called to community. We can never fully experience human flourishing outside of social relationships. These relationships are perfective of our human person. The human person is by nature - and grace - made for relationship. The first community which humanizes and civilizes us is the family.

This social doctrine rejects any notion of "freedom" which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. Authentic human freedom must be exercised within a moral constitution, choosing what is good and what is true. Otherwise it becomes a counterfeit and enslaves. It must also recognize our obligation in solidarity to one another. We are our brother/sister's keeper.

This social doctrine offers principles to help us order our economies. It does not propose any particular economic theory. Rather it insists that every economic order be at the service of the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and the family. We are called to give a love of preference to the poor, recognizing our solidarity with them. This call to solidarity is to be applied through the application of the principle of subsidiarity, rejecting all forms of dehumanizing collectivism.

The market economy has been recognized in recent social teaching as having a real potential for promoting all of these goods - when properly understood and morally structured. However, the Catholic Church does not take a position on which economic theory is the "best" among many. She properly stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system. She properly cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism that there are dangers in any form of "economism" or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.

The truths and principles contained within Catholic social doctrine are not merely "religious" positions, in the sense that only religious people need assent to them. They are revealed by the Natural Law and can be known through the exercise of reason. The truths are true for all people and for all time. The Church calls us to offer them as leaven to be worked into the loaf of human culture. We are called to build a just and human society.

My experience at this conference reflected a trend I have experienced. Many have begun to use the phrase "Social Justice" in a disparaging manner. They want to expose the dangerous error committed by some who stolen the term "Social Justice". However, I caution that language really matters. Some words and phrases must be rescued when they are stolen. Social Justice is such a term. It lies at the heart of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and, properly understood, is key to building a new culture of life and civilization of love.

I contend that it is time to take back this vital term from those who have stolen it. I am sure that some of my readers who disagree would rush the platform if there was one, like that man at the conference did. However, I won't give up using it because it is a term worth fighting for.  It is time for us to take back social justice from thieves and build a new Catholic Action informed by the true Social Doctrine of the Catholic church.

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