Codex Per·Fidem - The Church and Social Justice

The Church and Social Justice

The concept of social justice declares that all citizens have certain rights that cannot be removed either by government or society. This is a concept upon which American government and culture are founded upon. In practice, however, that ideal is often not met. Ideals usually are not met. Rather, they serve as goals that push us to improve ourselves and our society.

The Philosophy of Social Justice

The idea of social justice is rooted in the philosophy of natural law. The concept of an universal, undeniable law that governs all mankind is not a modern one. The Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Cicero spoke of it in his book, De Republica. Cicero states “True law is in keeping with the dictates both of reason and of nature. It applies universally to everyone. It is unchanging and eternal. Its commands are summons to duty, and its prohibitions declare that nothing wrongful must be done.”1 We are all bound by this law according to Cicero, and no one, neither the government nor the people, can free us from our obligations to it. This law is an “everlasting, immutable law, which applies to all nations and all times.”2

The English political philosopher John Locke expanded upon this idea in his Second Treatise of Government. He argues that “Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”3 In this quote we see the modern definition of natural law. Government is formed to protect the natural rights of the citizen and to uphold the natural law. The natural rights of man are life, liberty and property. The right to property means, essentially, that a person has the right to earn a livelihood. According to Locke, God has given the whole earth for the benefit of mankind.4 Every person, therefore, has the right to work the earth in order to make or buy what he or she requires to live comfortably. Locke argues that private property is beneficial to all mankind because it is used more efficiently than common land.5

In a letter to the Rev. James Madison (the cousin of the famous statesman ), Thomas Jefferson reenforces the link between the right to property and the right to labor. Jefferson argues that the citizen has the right to work and earn property to satisfy his or her needs and wants. While in France as the American ambassador, Jefferson was disturbed by the poor conditions of the lower classes in France. While the wealthy of French society lived in luxury, the largest class, the poor, cannot find work. He writes “I asked myself what could be the reason so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands?”6

Jefferson admits that it is impossible to distribute wealth and property equally, “but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind”7 must receive the legislators’ attention. Jefferson proposes that one solution to this problem is “to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”8 In Jefferson’s view, when society reaches the point in which there is so much poverty amid so much wealth “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.”9 In true revolutionary style, Jefferson argues that when a collusion of the government and the wealthy has so perverted the right to property as to deny the right to labor to the lower classes of society, then “the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed.”10 Justice, therefore, requires that every person be free to achieve according to his or her abilities without governmental or societal restraints. An excessively unequal distribution of wealth and property becomes a limitation on the poor’s right to labor and subsist.

There is no way to evenly distribute wealth and property without government itself becoming an obstacle to the rights it was instituted to protect. Since wealth inequality is a fact of life in an imperfect world, a system of justice must now be established to determine when that inequity exceeds the dictates of justice. John Rawls establishes two principles of justice:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.11

Rawls explains that “[w]hile the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage. . . .”12 Rawls summarizes that “[i]njustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.”13

Social justice, then, is the state in which all people not only have theoretical rights, but also the practical opportunity to exercise those rights. For example, one may have the right to vote, but if there is only one legal political party then that right is only theoretical and abstract.

Social Justice in Church History

Of course, these modern theories of social justice are born from Christian ethics. The church’s desire for social justice is rooted in Scripture. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave his disciples two commandments: to love God, and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Financial charity was a requirement for discipleship (Matthew 19:21). The Apostle Paul teaches that charity is rewarded with bounty (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).

Charity was an important part of Christianity early in the history of the religion, but charitable efforts were not organized until after the Christian church was legalized in the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313 ended persecutions of Christians and other minority religious sects. The end of persecution meant that zealous Christian believers could no longer prove their faith by dying at the hands of the Empire like Christ.14 Joseph Lynch states that many believers also felt that the church had become too cozy with the Empire.15 These believers instead began to live a life of self-denial and isolation in the deserts and wilderness of the Eastern Roman Empire. Their sacrifice earned the respect of their fellow believers, who considered them to be holy men, but also constituted a threat to the mainstream (which Lynch calls the normative) church.16 In the Western Empire, the solitary lifestyle did not catch on, and monks began to live in small communities called monasteries headed by an abbot.17 The monastic system served as “a safety valve for the zealous minority who might otherwise have split from the main body of believers.”18

The normative church soon began attempting to reform the monks. After becoming disgusted of the immorality he saw in Rome while studying there, Benedict of Nursia rejected the materialist lifestyle of the Empire and began to live alone in a cave. He was invited to head a monastery in the region and wrote a set of guidelines for the monasteries. This document became known as the Rule of St. Benedict and by the ninth century its popularity spread throughout the western church.19 The idea of the Rule was to help believers become better Christians through work, prayer, and obedience. The Rule eliminated the extreme ascetism of the old hermits and replaced it with total obedience to the church. Benedict’s monastery was intended to improve the individual monk, not society as a whole, “at most he encouraged the monks to provide food and lodging to travellers, who were to be received as if they were Christ himself.”20 Lynch says that the monks were not even expected to do missionary work.

That changed when Pope Gregory I, who was himself a monk, sent monks to the Angles in Britain. Lynch remarks that this was a radical departure from the traditional role of monks. Lynch states that Gregory “may have realized the potential of organized, disciplined and self-sufficient communities of monks to provide a sturdy infrastructure for missionary work in such a primitive place as Britain.”21 For the first time in the history of the church, monks were getting involved in the outside world. The missionary journeys of Roman and Irish monks brought about the conversion of the Germanic tribes in Britain and Western Europe and the beginnings of Europe as we know it today.

Lynch notes that the main purpose of the monasteries was “the continuous worship of God through liturgical prayer.”22 In the religion-dominated medieval culture, prayer played an important role. It was commonly believed, as Lynch points out, that “Christians could pray for one another, whether living or dead, and God would listen.”23 The individualism of our culture was unheard of in the medieval period. Even lay people saw themselves as members of a larger group “which was conceived as the people of God or the church.”24 Intercessory prayer was as important in the medieval period as charity in the modern world. In fact, the monks’ willingness to pray for other Christians, even lay Christians, could be seen as a form of charity.

By the twelfth century, real charitable work was begun by the monasteries. According to Lynch, in the rural culture of the early middle ages, charity was done at home. The elderly and disabled were cared for by their families. But by the twelfth century “the growth of urban life created more unfortunates, or at least concentrated them in cities, where the older, personal, forms of charity continued but were inadequate to meet the need.”25 Hospitals were formed to meet the need. Lynch says that “the hospital personnel was organized as a small independent religious community . . . .”26

It is important to note that the monasteries were also engines of reform in the medieval church since “most movements of renewal within the church grew out of monasticism.”27 The hermits left mainstream society and the church because they felt it had been corrupted. Benedict sought to reform the hermits and the normative church. St. Francis of Assisi began his ministry as a reaction against wealth in society.28

St. Francis and his followers called themselves the “little brothers.” They were later called friars, from the Latin word for brother. The friars were unlike any of the monastic groups that preceded them. Other monastic groups required personal poverty, but there was no restriction against the community as a whole from owning property. Many, in fact, became quite wealthy. Francis, on the other hand, required personal and group poverty.29 They also built their friaries in the towns, not in rural seclusion like other groups. According to Lynch, the friars were significant because “[f]or the first time in monastic history, a religious order had burst forth from the cloister walls to work in the world for the spiritual and material welfare of their fellow Christians.”30

Catholic Social Teaching

In the modern era, the church’s commitment to social justice continues. Modern Catholic social teaching was first articulated by Pope Leo XIII in the nineteenth century. Most recently, Catholic social teaching was defended and updated by Pope John Paul II in 1991. The fall of communism prompted the Pope to reiterate that while the Church believes in the supremacy of capitalism over communism, it still insists that a just society is not purely capitalist, but “demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.”31 The Pope poses the question, “can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?”32 The Pope answers this question by saying yes, so long as what is meant by capitalism is a system that recognizes the beneficial role of private property and the free market, “as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.”33

Catholic social teaching echos Locke in its understanding of property. Pope John Paul II affirms that, “god gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.”34 The Catholic Church teaches that private property is a right, but it serves a common as well as a personal purpose. The Pope affirms Locke’s belief that private property is “acquired through work,” but he also argues that a person “has the responsibility not to hinder others from having their own part of God’s gift; indeed, he must cooperate with others so that together all can dominate the earth.”35

In our modern world, however, wealth is not just measured in the ownership of land or other forms of property, but also in knowledge and skill.36 The Pope argues that many people, especially in the Third World, cannot participate effectively in the modern economy because, “they have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential.”37 For this reason, “they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak.”38

This disadvantage appears in developed countries, as well. The fast pace of our modern technological economy, “requires a continual effort of re-training and updating. Those who fail to keep up with the times can easily be marginalized.”39

The Church seeks to ensure that the worker and his labor are not “reduced to the level of a mere commodity.”40 The Church therefore supports a living wage, social insurance for the elderly and unemployed, and improved working conditions. The Pope states that trade unions are crucial to the realization of these goals because they, “defend workers’ rights and protect their interests as persons, while fulfilling a vital cultural role, so as to enable workers to participate more fully and honourably in the life of their nation and to assist them along the path of development.”41

The Pope also argues that profit should not be the sole indicator of a company’s success. He writes, “it is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people – who make up the firm’s most valuable asset – to be humiliated and their dignity offended.”42

The Catholic Church also teaches that even the decision of where to invest one’s wealth “is always a moral and cultural choice.”43 For example, in the case of the environment, business and consumers must keep in mind that the natural world was created by God with “a prior God-given purpose.”44 Respect must also be given to the “human ecology.”45 Those who engage in the free market must keep in mind that “[n]ot only has God given the earth to man . . . but man too is God’s gift to man.”46

The Pope declares that “there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold.”47 Therefore, the Catholic Church’s social teaching “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.”48

Our Call

God clearly calls us to fight for justice and human dignity. This war on injustice is taking place on many fronts. Most of these are easy to see, and it is not hard to get Christians involved in these issues. Nearly every Christian recognizes that our commitment to civil rights means nothing if we do not fight to protect those rights for the unborn. The importance of charity and community is also not lost on most Christians.

However, our commitment to human dignity means nothing if we turn a blind eye to pornography. Let’s not fool ourselves. The people (women and men) who find themselves working in the porn industry are not there by choice. The porn industry shows us how consumerism and the free market are often incompatible with Christian ethics. The quote from John Paul II above bears repeating, “there are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold.” This is one issue on which, sadly, the church has been lax.

Further, we should endeavor to be better stewards of Creation. Not only should we care for creation for its own sake, but also for the sake of the poor among us. Pollution and other environmental threats have a greater and more harmful effect on the poor than the rest of us. Often, the full environmental harm caused by our actions is not apparent for several generations. As good Christians, we must be mindful of how our actions affect our neighbors, including those who have not yet been born. Again we see the need to reject the “anything goes” consumerist culture of the world.

The list goes on. Economic evils such as Child labor, extreme poverty, and inequalities of wealth, as well as social evils such as persecution, oppression, the perversion of gender roles, even simple discourtesy and immodesty all stand in defiance of the Gospel and therefore cannot be tolerated. Unfortunately, the church often does tolerate these evils. The church is expected to be counter-cultural. Our Christian ancestors understood this and sought to engage the world while keeping separate from it. We, however, have embraced the world’s culture and all its evils. It is time to re-examine our lives and become better exemplars of the redemptive power of the Gospel. The world’s culture of consumption and exploitation is an expression of its deep, aching desire for something more. We must reach out to a dying world desperate for salvation. We have what it desires: grace. Our commitment to social justice is meaningless if we do not share this grace with our neighbors.


1. Cicero, Marcus, ed. Michael Grant. On Government. (London: Penguin Classics, 1994), 183.

2. Ibid.

3. Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 271.

4. Ibid., 286.

5. Ibid., 294.

6. Jefferson, Thomas The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 361.

7. Ibid., 361.

8. Ibid., 362.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 367.

11. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Cambridge: Belknap, 1971), 61.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 62.

14. Gonzalez, Justo. Church History: an Essential Guide. (Nashville Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1996), 34.

15. Lynch, Joseph. The Medieval Church. (New York: Longman, 1992), 18.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 21.

18. Ibid., 18.

19. Ibid., 32.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 50.

22. Ibid., 131.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., 211.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 31.

28. Ibid., 228.

29. Ibid., 230.

30. Ibid., 234.

31. John Paul II, “Centesimus annus,” 1 May 1991, (27 April 2007), sec. 35.

32. Ibid., sec. 42.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., sec. 31.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid., sec. 32.

37. Ibid., sec. 33.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., sec. 34.

41. Ibid., sec. 35.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid., sec. 36.

44. Ibid., sec. 37.

45. Ibid., sec. 38.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., sec. 39.

48. Ibid., sec. 43.


© Copyright 2008, Jason E. Heath
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