When Is Social Justice Catholic – and When Is It Not?


The Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary; Edmund Blair Blair Leighton

I’ve been trying for a long time to fathom what makes me uneasy about the concept and rhetoric of “social justice.” Michael Novak pointed out recently that part of the problem is taking social “justice” not, as the use of traditional vocabulary would suggest, as a true virtue present in individuals, but rather as a mere matter of policy, a sort of top-down imposition of social forms deemed abstractly to be superior to other forms. Promoted thus, social justice often becomes merely “whatever progressive policy I find desirable,” without connection to an individual’s stable disposition toward the common good. To disengage the discourse about social justice from a moral framework of virtue ethics makes the project dubious, and prone to exploitation by any special interest group strident enough to demand representation or benefits from the public coffers.

Even so, for a Catholic trying to think today in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, the root of the problem runs deeper.

What do I mean? A friend recently sent me the following quotation, in which a prominent Jesuit of last century laments what he perceives to be the Church’s unfortunate hesitation, even years after Vatican II, to engage directly with the world. The views he expresses go to the heart of the reductionism of much Catholic thinking about the social justice movement:

Summarizing the theological developments that emerged during the 20 years following the council, Jacques Dupuis concluded that the Church still needed to overcome explicitly “a long-standing habit of reducing evangelization to explicit proclamation and sacramentalization in the Church community, a task to which the promotion of justice and work for human liberation remains somehow peripheral and interreligious dialogue apparently foreign.”[1]

My friend then wrote: “I’m confused by his logic. Isn’t ‘explicit proclamation [of the Gospel] and sacramentalization in the Church community’ the very purpose of the Church’s existence? To bring others into it? If it did not, wouldn’t it be failing in its primary task?”

Now, one can infer readily enough the principles Dupuis is assuming, which are frequently met with in the Church today. Around the time of the Council, there was, as we know, a popular rhetoric of “letting a breath of fresh air into the Church,” of opening to the world, of beginning a more sympathetic relationship to modernity, all of which may be interpreted in a robustly Catholic way.

Unfortunately, Catholics could not escape the effects of the immense upheavals and waves of social revolution and antinomianism that hit during the ’60s. Partly because of this revolutionary atmosphere, it was typical of people in that generation, taking a line from liberal activism, 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 arguably not as great as it could have been. But their primary fault, in fact, seems to be in imagining that the Church can, without prejudice to her supernatural nature, engage in any activity that is not sacramental and salvific, which is merely mundane, secular, institutional, “social.”

This prejudice is evident in the vocabulary they choose to use, a vocabulary that is “peripheral and foreign” (to borrow from Dupuis’s quotation) to traditional Catholic language. What, for example, is the meaning of “human liberation”? They seem to mean freedom from forms of political/economic oppression. That’s all well and good, but if not followed up immediately by the qualification that true liberation comes only in the freedom of Christian life in God, this formulation is deficient – little more than Marxist utopianism. After all, Christ lived under the brutal regime of Rome, and yet He did not make its slavery or violations of dignity the focal point of his doctrine. Rather, Christ focused on righteousness, seeking first God’s kingdom of holiness.

Or what is the importance of “social justice,” social work, the alleviation of poverty? Those are all wonderful things. But again, they can be at the service of a socialist utopianism, an aggressive centralizing government, or of the true Kingdom of God, which cannot be reduced to the mere lack of political oppression or the complete possession of economic autonomy, since properly understood, the Kingdom of God is something of an entirely different order: the sacramental union of all mankind with the Father in Christ effected by the Holy Spirit.

The greatest oppression is the law of sin reigning in our hearts, and the social reformer ought first to search his own breast and the souls of the oppressed if he would find the true source of oppression. If we truly assent to these basic theological data, then we must admit that social justice can be truly transformational only if it is sacramental. Alleviation from external oppression, if not supported by inner transformation of mind, leads only to a new kind of slavery. Merely to lift a man out of poverty, so that he can engage in the “good life” of selfish material acquisition, is to make him more of a slave than he was before. A secularized theory of social justice thus leaves no room for the transformative element, for the spiritual regeneration that the works of mercy can effect in both the worker and the object of the work. Catholic social work leads both the benefiter and the benefited on the path of transformation in Christ, calling both of them to the higher social order of the Church, which is spiritually redeemed humanity.

Needless to say, people who think along reductionist lines often have little patience for the Church’s primary mission, which is to worship God in the liturgical-sacramental life, because somehow they think it is an obstacle to achieving the Kingdom of God on Earth. They are impatient with beautiful liturgy; private devotions; monastic life; and, as we see in Pope Francis, with the careful disciplines of canon law and the wisdom of traditional practices. To their way of thinking, all these things hamper swift action and divert energy away from the sorts of activity that are urgently needed: social activism and “liberation,” whatever that means.

We must hasten to say that the promotion of justice is an essential function in Christian society – not only as a meritorious work of mercy, but even as a prerequisite for full participation in the liturgical-sacramental life. The spiritual presupposes the bodily, and so humans need not to be starving, dying, or worked to the bone by unjust economic-political regimes if they are to take part in spiritual services. (Here it bears repeating that poverty itself need not be evil: more often than not, it is a better aid to sanctity than wealth.) Further, how can we pretend to love God if we don’t commiserate 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.

Nothing of what I’ve said here should be construed to mean that Catholics ought not to take part in non-Catholic (or non-explicitly sacramental) works of mercy and social justice initiatives. Far from it. It is often our duty to do so. But if we are to take on the full mind of the Church, we must not lose sight of the unum necessarium, or let ourselves be carried away by the sort of ideologies with which these things are often associated. Most of all, we must resist attempts to de-sacralize the Church’s works in the name of the dubious imperatives of efficiency or professionalization. The “source and summit” of our 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. Perhaps even the sincere work of non-believers will be redeemed for the Kingdom. As the hedonism and crass materialism of modern society further erode the image of human dignity in the public imagination, the Church may very soon be the only one who can show people a true vision of just society.

So, then, go forth! But remember that the Church has something far more to offer as well, a mystery of faith that makes our work in the world meaningful and great. The ends may not be inverted without disastrous consequences. The Church becomes superfluous if it is just another NGO, a sort of U.N. service and diplomatic organization. If her priests, as many did after the Council, renounce their sacramental role as sanctifiers to spend all their time as “liberators” in “social work,” then we might as well give up the whole affair. When they leave off praying the Office, when their negligence reduces liturgy to its bare minimum of sacramental validity, we see a grave loss of perspective.

The Church in the modern age (and always) has worked tremendously for justice: its greatest saints engaged in social work, critiqued capitalism, fought communism, built hospitals, etc., so it is hard to see what Dupuis concretely has in mind. Do we need more money spent on African aid programs? Or should we sell our churches to fund liberation campaigns in South America? That’s not Catholic logic. On the contrary, it is the post-Conciliar liturgical quagmire, her wholesale abandonment of the primary sacramental purpose, that 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, only by conforming the world sacramentally to Christ may evil be overcome. 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.” Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.”

The mixed-up mentality I’ve been criticizing demonstrates a protestantizing mentality as well. It valorizes, or rather absolutizes, the secular realm as the most legitimate arena of human action, and regards sacred ceremonies as superfluous sideshows. It imagines religious life as a set of dogmas and moral precepts divorced from their sacramental performance, like dry bones from the living flesh they serve. True Catholic social work weds the two. Whenever circumstances required her sisters to work longer hours, Mother Teresa also demanded that her sisters pray longer hours. St. Francis forbade his followers all worldly possessions, but he always made sure they celebrated Mass with the most sumptuous sacred vessels.

To summarize: a truer social justice has to be Eucharistic at its core. Within the Catholic Church, “social justice” cannot be understood in its plenitude except Eucharistically and liturgically, as the concerted effort to dispose 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. That is to say, justice demands that people have enough to eat of natural food so that they may eat of the bread of angels.

To that end, all Catholic social work must always have a sacramental dimension – or better yet, be entirely encompassed by a sacramental atmosphere. There is much liberty allowed here. In the past, the staffing of hospitals and schools by religious, whose very existence is a sacramental sign, was enough to guarantee a sacramental social justice, to say nothing of the actual sacraments they daily dispensed to those they served.


The Isenheim Altarpiece; Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald

Indeed, we must see that there is a fundamental difference between a hospital run according to Nietzschean principles, designed entirely for profit and efficiency, and one informed by a Catholic sacramental sense. We can offer as a symbol of a true Catholic hospital the famous hospital in the Middle Ages that featured Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece as its focal point. This hospital was built around and for the sake of a sacramental aesthetic and politic of redemptive suffering. A non-Catholic one is built around some other, invisible idol, offering the sacrifices of industrial sterility and efficiency to Mammon and caring not whether souls rise to heaven or burn in hell. Even if the Catholic Church is a field hospital, we should find at least a makeshift chapel at its heart.

The images of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, to pass over dozens of others, shine gloriously from the pages of recent history in proof that the combination of sacramentality with the most unfastidious engagement with all the sordid realities of poverty and oppression not only is achievable, but is the only proper way. Mother Teresa saved countless lives in India; without direct preaching, she also saved the souls of thousands more, who were converted to Christ by her self-emptying service. The source of her indomitable energy? The Eucharistic Lord.

In the end, it is a question of faith. Is the Church just a social service organization with some quaintly pleasing exterior forms (or worse, a barely tolerated mythological baggage and an obfuscatory symbolic manner of speaking), 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 dwell with the divine?

Our yearning for the liturgical consummation of society is well expressed by the Psalmist: “”How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of host! My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones: Thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.”



[1] Jacques Dupuis, S.J., “Interreligious Dialogue in the Church’s Evangelizing Mission: Twenty Years of Evolution of a Theological Concept,” in Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives 3:256.

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