Social justice is one of those vague terms that means different things to different people, but is sounds innocuous. Generally, we are social beings and we all want justice, don’t we? It is difficult to discuss something when we don’t agree on a single definition. I tried to find out what is considered social justice.
In the 1850’s, an Italian Jesuit, Fr. Taparelli, coined the phrase “social justice”. His thoughts were shaped by the Italian unification movement, the drive towards government centralization at home and throughout Europe. European societies used to be agrarian, and small groups of people fed, housed, and clothed themselves; they were relatively self-sufficient. The wisest and strongest person in a group was the ruler and made the important decisions for the group. When European societies shifted to crowded commercial towns and people worked for wages, they were no longer independent and self-sufficient but rather depended on wages paid by their employers. A middleman would buy products from different sources (such as fish from fishermen and grain from farmers) and resell them in towns. They “bought cheap and sold dear.” Progressives see the middlemen getting rich and the wage-slaves working sunup to sundown and remaining poor, forgetting than when they lived on farms they also worked sunup to sundown and barely subsisted. Anyone else would see the middlemen working to buy stuff from sources farther away and bringing them to market where wage earners could buy them conveniently to be a good thing (my dad tells a story of a woman in Russia who bought meat from a farm, brought it home to the city where she re-packaged it into smaller, family-sized units, sold it, and got arrested for making money when other people didn’t—her family lost her income, and other people lost their source of good, relatively cheap meat).
In Taparelli’s ideas on social justice, the social habit of association and cooperation for attending to public needs leads people to form small bands of brothers outside the family who, for certain purposes, volunteer time and effort to accomplish something. They organized themselves for the good of the neighborhood, the town, state and country. This encouraged personal relationships and local responsibility, resulting in freedom and respect for human beings and small institutions through which they pursued basic needs. Social justice entailed a social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church, and local organizations, but rather respected, protected, and allowed them to flourish. Taparelli said that the centralization of government resulted in threats to local administrative structures. He defended local guilds and charitable associations against inappropriate government interference. Centralized government tends to push local organizations from roles of public relevance. When we ignore, crowd out, or weaken local nongovernmental institutions in the name of social justice, we hurt those institutions and the larger society as well. In our own time, Illinois made gay civil unions legal and forbad Catholic Charities from turning away same sex couples when placing wards of the state for adoption; foster parents working with Catholic Charities dropped out of the program, and Catholic Charities dropped adoption and foster care in some dioceses rather than be forced to place children with unmarried, gay couples.
Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical in 1891 called “Rerum Novarum” to address new times where people were living in towns rather than on farms. He addressed the “evils of equality”. Civil societies were centers of safety, commerce, craftsmanship, and prosperity, leading to the highest freedom. He said people are different with different skills, talents, health, and capacities. Unequal fortune follows. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business, and the playing of many parts. Each man chooses what part suits his own peculiar domestic condition. Leo praised the diversity of human gifts and human vocations and callings. He also predicted that under socialism, or total control by the state, that equality forces uniformity, killing off creativity and originality, resulting in breakdown of the entire system. Socialists want to reduce society to one dead level.
Contemporary social justice is the redistribution of resources from those who unjustly gained them to those who justly deserve them. It is creating and ensuring the processes of truly democratic participation in decision-making. Only a decisive redistribution of resources and decision-making power can ensure social justice and authentic democracy. If you can translate this into something that makes sense, tell me. It seems to assume that everyone who has more than someone else took it from the other person and must give it back, and if enough people vote to force others to give them their stuff, then it should happen, thus creating equality of result, or social justice.
Karl Marx said that man once existed in a simple, primitive state with happiness and tranquility (I don’t know what world he is talking about, but I don’t think it is Earth). He deplored the rise of economic classes where one oppressed the other, which ruined the imaginary utopia. The exploited will rise up and throw off their capitalist oppressors and replace capitalist societies with a harmonious society with equality for all. Very few countries still stick with marxism, such as China (although somewhat modified with some capitalist ideas) and North Korea. A famous satellite picture taken at night shows lights covering South Korea and darkness covering North Korea, which shows us the results of capitalism versus marxism. What he intended to replace the evil capitalist system with we don’t really know, except that it was to be “perfect”. Hmmm.
Liberation theology of Latin America from the late 1960’s said that all theology is biased and reflects the economic and social class of those that developed it. The predominate theology of Europe and North America supports democratic capitalism, which is responsible for exploiting and impoverishing the third world. Sin is not individual and private, but rather social and economic; it would be sin for poor people to not resist and overthrow their oppressors with violence, if necessary. Salvation is not about life after death, but rather a new social order with equality for all. However, after eastern Europe threw off Marxism, Latin American theologians became less hopeful of social structures and more concerned with issues of spirituality; they still don’t like capitalism, think socialism seems to be bankrupt, and realize that bloodshed isn’t so good when it is real. Evangelicals came in and preached salvation through individual change, and churches acted more like job and housing referrals, helping people develop skills so they could become more upwardly mobile.
Black liberation theology, like Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright espoused, said that society was developed by white people and arranged so that the whites stay in charge and the blacks stay kept down. Blacks can’t get ahead because whites won’t let them. Blacks must have community organizers to get them all riled up so they can throw off their white oppressors. Those white people sure are powerful; too bad we’ll never have a black president or black secretary of state or black attorney general—oh wait. We already do!
Social justice went from local people helping one another to government getting rid of groups that help and replacing them with distant bureaucrats who don’t know what is wrong or how to help without wasting all the money confiscated from “the rich” and making things worse for the people being helped and the society at large.
Maybe social injustice is a better term.