The Church and Social Justice

Reports about the new pope have been flooding the news like a tidal wave. I’ve found it interesting that while Jorge Mario Bergoglio appears to be staunchly socially conservative, he seems to be staunchly fiscally liberal. The phrase defender of “social justice” has been common among all the news reports. This seems to be backed up by real evidence.

At a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007, he said that “the unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” At an Argentina City Postgraduate School conference, Bergoglio spoke on “The Social Debts of Our Time.” He said that extreme poverty and the “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities” are violations of human rights. He said that “social debt” is immoral especially when it occurs “in a nation that has the objective conditions for avoiding or correcting such harm.” Unfortunately, he said, it seems that those countries “opt for exacerbating inequalities even more.”

Argentineans have the duty “to work to change the structural causes and personal or corporate attitudes that give rise to this situation (of poverty),” he said, “and through dialogue reach agreements that allow us to transform this painful reality we refer to when we speak about social debt.” He added that the poor shouldn’t be dependents on the state but that the state should promote and protect the rights of the poor and help them build their own futures. He said that the problem of social justice must be a concern of every sector of society, including the church.

During a public servant strike in Argentina, he commented on the differences between “poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice.” During a speech in 2010, he said to the wealthy, “You avoid taking into account the poor. We have no right to duck down, to lower the arms carried by those in despair.”

When I first read these quotes by Bergoglio, I wanted to believe that he was just advocating service to the poor, which is the call of Christians everywhere. However, the tenor of redistribution cannot be denied. Neither can the apparent emphasis, at least by the religious media, on the church’s primary mission these days being the eradication of social injustice throughout the world, which, it appears, will be promoted by this pope.

The term social justice is very significant because it actually runs contrary to Christ’s admonition to care for the poor. Social justice assumes that material wealth can be gained only by exploiting the poor. Therefore, for society to be just or for the church to stand for justice, wealth must be redistributed—primarily through government authority. In reality, the result of “social justice” is actually “social injustice” in which penalties are levied on those who are productive, and those who are not productive are rewarded—a worldview that is contrary to a wide range of biblical teachings including personal responsibility, wise distribution of resources to the poor, and accountability.

The controversy over theessential missionof the church is not a new one, and it has set up an unholy dichotomy between proclamation of the gospel of Christ on one hand and service to the poor on the other. Often these are advanced aseither/orissues, when they are reallyboth/and. While the mission of the institutional church iskerygmatic, proclaiming the message of Christ’s redemption to a fallen world and making disciples, the duty of every Christian is to love their neighbor, care for the weak and persecuted, stand for justice, and feed the hungry.

When it comes to social justice, however, the church has lost track of its true, primary mission—going forth into all the world and proclaiming the good news of Christ. When it comes to justice, human beings do not have “social justice” or “personal justice”; these are liberal categories that actually undermine the teaching of the church about God, man, and redemption. The only essential category of justice is God’s justice, and it is integral to salvation because faith in Christ fulfills the demands of God’s justice.

So when we talk of justice, we can’t properly do it outside the context of sin and the Cross. To go forth and try to right every wrong and even disenfranchise others in order to bring about “equality” and “justice” or to say that unequal distribution of goods is a social sin that must be fixed by the church or the government is to go against the very message of justice (and hope) proclaimed in Scripture.

While Christians are to be agents of justice, and love, in this City of Man, as Augustine described it, themissionof the church is primarily to offer the hope of eternal life in the City of God. While on earth, there will always be suffering. The poor will always be with us. There are many sufferings we can never alleviate. 

While Christians are certainly called to feed the hungry in the City of Man, they must also offer them the Bread of life—Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” This is what it is like to live in the City of God.

The church must do what only the church can do—tell the world of the promise of salvation to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ, the one and only savior who died on the cross, whose blood washes away the stain of sin, and who rose again to sit at the right hand of God where one day all who believe in him will also live in glory.

Those who cry for “social justice” and a moralistic therapeutic form of a “social gospel” undermine the real gospel and real justice and rob people of real hope. Those who stand for social justice don’t want to hear about repentance. They care little for the cross. They don’t want to hear of sin in a world of suffering. They want to be noble, compassionate servants in the City of Man as they neglect the City of God.

While it is certainly the responsibility and duty of all to go and feed the hungry (through service, personal sacrifice, and charity, and not through stealing from the rich in redistribution schemes), the church must never forget the words of Paul who said to the Corinthians, “Woe to me if I preach not the gospel.”

  1. Johnny Dubya

    I detest the term “social justice”.  It is essentially a non sequitur.  There is legal justice, and there is social opportunity, but there is no such thing as “social justice”.  It is used as a synonym for ”redistribution of wealth”, “socialism”, and “communism”, but those terms are perfectly serviceable. 

    The only reason to use “social justice” is that it masks the true intent of the speaker, as when our president uses the term “balanced approach” when he really means “higher taxes”.  It is profoundly cowardly to use such euphemisms.  If one thinks a policy is a good idea, one should have the courage to call it what it is.

  2. Joseph Stanko
    Denise McAllister: Social justice assumes that material wealth can be gained only by exploiting the poor.

    Do you have a source, or evidence for that assertion?

  3. Joseph Stanko
    Denise McAllister: 

    He added that the poor shouldn’t be dependents on the state but that the state should promote and protect the rights of the poor and help them build their own futures.

    Sounds about right to me, that’s pretty much why I’m a conservative.

  4. Joseph Stanko
    Denise McAllister: Therefore, for society to be just or for the church to stand for justice, wealth must be redistributed—primarily through government authority. In reality, the result of “social justice” is actually “social injustice” in which penalties are levied on those who are productive, and those who are not productive are rewarded—a worldview that is contrary to a wide range of biblical teachings including personal responsibility, wise distribution of resources to the poor, and accountability.

    Are you saying then that government redistribution of wealth violates the principles of justice as taught in the Bible?

  5. Joseph Stanko
    Denise McAllister

    Social justice originally meant something quite different in the Catholic Church: “The first known usage of the term is by an Italian priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, who wrote a book about the need for recovering the ancient virtue of what had been called “general justice” in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but in a new contemporary form. He gave it the term “social justice.” The term was given prominence by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati in La Costitutione Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848.” However, social justice has been hijacked by the Progressives.

    So if it was originally a Catholic term with a very different meaning, and it is being used by a Catholic archbishop, an elderly man who was formed in that tradition before it was co-opted by progressives, then why would you assume he’s speaking in the code words of American liberals?

    It seems more reasonable to assume he’s speaking in continuity with 150 years of Catholic social doctrine.

  6. Nanda Panjandrum

    Denise, Catholic social doctrine, despite its ambiguities/complexities – is not designed to favor one economic system over another (which is not to say that the secular media wouldn’t jump at the chance to create a simplistic, false dichotomy)….”Liberation theology” – which now-Pope Francis/Benedict/Bl. JPII *strongly*condemn(s), is expressly Marxist…Mt. 25 is chiefly the Church’s motivation for efforts at alleviating human suffering.  It’s disconcerting, to say the least, that the imperative to reach out in compassion and Christian charity should be hijacked by those with a statist political agenda.

  7. Nanda Panjandrum

    Post-script to #13: See also the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of those who’d come to hear Him…

  8. Joseph Stanko
    Denise McAllister

    Joseph Stanko

    Are you saying then that government redistribution of wealth violates the principles of justice as taught in the Bible? · 1 minute ago

    Yes. Social Justice (as it is practiced today in this Progressive environment, which is more Marxist and Thomistic) is redistributive justice. It is based on a zero sum game. It is punitive not charitable. God commanded Christians to care for the poor. Not the government. · 1 hour ago

    But did God forbid the government from caring for the poor?

    It seems to me these are two very different statements:

    1. The Bible forbids wealth redistribution by the government

    2. The Bible is silent on whether or not the government should redistribute wealth

    Jesus says “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”  If Caesar Obama demands that we render 90% of our income to him, should a Christian object?  Or should we shrug and say “that’s an affair of the City of Man and we are focused solely on the City of God?”

  9. The King Prawn
    Nanda Panjandrum: Post-script to #13: See also the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of those who’d come to hear Him… · 9 minutes ago

    Right, he did take the fish and loaves from the boy…

    The problem is that government thinks it is Jesus, but it cannot acutally turn a few fish and biscuits into a bounty for thousands.

  10. Joseph Stanko
    The King Prawn

    Nanda Panjandrum: Post-script to #13: See also the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of those who’d come to hear Him… · 9 minutes ago

    Right, he did take the fish and loaves from the boy…

    The problem is that government thinks it is Jesus, but it cannot acutally turn a few fish and biscuits into a bounty for thousands. · 0 minutes ago

    The Fed can perform an even greater miracle: it can create new money ex nihilo.  ;-)

  11. D.C. McAllister
    C
    Joseph Stanko

    Denise McAllister

    Social justice originally meant something quite different in the Catholic Church: “The first known usage of the term is by an Italian priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, who wrote a book about the need for recovering the ancient virtue of what had been called “general justice” in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but in a new contemporary form. He gave it the term “social justice.” The term was given prominence by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati in La Costitutione Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848.” However, social justice has been hijacked by the Progressives.

    So if it was originally a Catholic term with a very different meaning, and it is being usedby a Catholic archbishop, an elderly man who was formed in that traditionbeforeit was co-opted by progressives, then why would you assume he’s speaking in the code words of American liberals?

    I’m going by what the man has said. You’re the one making assumptions. He might not believe in liberation theology, but he does appear to support progressive social justice. But most Catholics do think this way, which is evident by how they vote, so this is no surprise. 

  12. Rachel Lu
    C

    If we’re going to be hearing a lot more about social justice, maybe it’s time to renew our efforts to reclaim the term. I think conservatives do often need to be told that they do have an obligation to be concerned about the distribution of goods and resources within society, and that market forces alone can’t be trusted to ensure justice. It doesn’t follow that solutions to injustice need always be found in governmental action, and even when the government is involved, indirect action may often be best. (For example, sponsoring education and career training for the poor instead of just throwing everyone’s earnings into a pot and divvying it up more equally.) But, like Joseph, I fail to see how governmental concern with the distribution of resources is straightforwardly unChristian or contrary to what the Bible says. Keep in mind that the Catholic Church generally, and Bergoglio personally, has already rejected some of the more obviously Marxist notions of social justice in condemning liberation theology. I’m not saying that a revitalization of “social justice” is no cause for concern, but these questions are complex and we should be cautious about dismissing them entirely as liberal claptrap.

  13. D.C. McAllister
    C
    Nanda Panjandrum: Denise, Catholic social doctrine, despite its ambiguities/complexities – is not designed to favor one economic system over another (which is not to say that the secular media wouldn’t jump at the chance to create a simplistic, false dichotomy)….”Liberation theology” – which now-Pope Francis/Benedict/Bl. JPII *strongly*condemn(s), is expressly Marxist…Mt. 25 is chiefly the Church’s motivation for efforts at alleviating human suffering.  It’s disconcerting, to say the least, that the imperative to reach out in compassion and Christian charity should be hijacked by those with a statist political agenda. 

    His social justice doctrine appears to be progressive to me. He sounds a lot like Obama when it comes to the rich and the poor. Who do you think Catholics are going to vote for in the next election? The candidate who sounds like their pope (the Democratic candidate) or the candidate who doesn’t, who calls for personal responsibility and opposes redistribution? They will vote as they have been—for the Democratic party and for redistribution. Redistribution does favor one economic system over another. I’m sorry, but when you talk of redistribution of wealth, it’s a problem.

  14. D.C. McAllister
    C

    Rachel—please don’t imply that because we don’t believe in social justice and redistribution and bleeding heart liberal social agendas that we don’t care about people. There’s a problem in the Catholic Church when it comes to liberal notions of social justice and how to care for the poor. More and more Catholics are voting for the Democratic Party precisely because of these issues. I think they will continue to do so. I talk to too many Catholics who think this way, who vote this way, so I’m not imagining the claptrap. It’s coming from all around in the church and outside of it. This is a reality Catholics need to face, probably more so than the homosexuality issue.

  15. Joseph Stanko
    Rachel Lu: I’m not saying that a revitalization of “social justice” is no cause for concern, but these questions are complex and we should be cautious about dismissing them entirely as liberal claptrap. 

    Especially if we want to win an election now and then.  See for instance the recent discussion: http://ricochet.com/member-feed/Does-the-GOP-Hate-the-Poor

    I do care about the plight of the poor.  I think conservative policies will do more to help them than liberal policies, for instance, school vouchers would allow parents in inner cities to escape the death grip of the teacher’s unions and send their kids to safe, decent schools.

    To win, conservatives need to explain how our policies will help the poor, how our polices will promote justice.  Simply saying “we don’t care about helping the poor, we oppose social justice” is a recipe for certain defeat.

  16. C. U. Douglas

    Supporting “Social Justice” as it is understood by most American progressives is by no means solely a Catholic malady.  I have been in long debates with liberal friends of mine who are convinced Jesus would love Obamacare because the stated intention is to help people receive health coverage.  They are quite comfortable with seeing Government welfare and largesse being synonymous with Christian charity.

    As for the man himself, I’m giving Pope Francisco time to see how he acts on such words.  His origins keep me from dismissing him, and statements posted on other threads also give me hope.

    That won’t stop my progressive Christian and non-Christian friends from pointing at this initial description with a smug sense of self-satisfaction.

  17. Douglas

    I’m with Denise on this. Most of the Social Justice types seem to assume that anyone that has acquired wealth probably stole it, and further, stole it from the poor. Who wouldn’t be so poor if, you know, their wealth wasn’t stolen from them. Or something. 

  18. Joseph Stanko
    Douglas: I’m with Denise on this. Most of the Social Justice types seem to assume that anyone that has acquired wealth probably stole it, and further, stole it from the poor. Who wouldn’t be so poor if, you know, their wealth wasn’t stolen from them. Or something.  · 6 minutes ago

    So do you think that every single rich person in the world acquired their wealth through honest hard work, and every poor person is poor because they are lazy and unproductive?  I’m not talking about the United States, I’m talking about the entire world.  Do you think the current distribution of wealth, globally, is perfectly just?

  19. Douglas
    Joseph Stanko

    1 – So do you think that every single rich person in the world acquired their wealth through honest hard work, and every poor person is poor because they are lazy and unproductive?  

    2 – I’m not talking about the United States, I’m talking about the entire world.  Do you think the current distribution of wealth, globally, is perfectly just? · 

    1 – I never said EITHER of those things. That’s all you. Do YOU think every rich person in the world stole it? Do YOU think every poor person is poor because he’s a victim of robbery by the rich?

    2 – I don’t think wealth should be “distributed” at all. Wealth is either earned, inherited, or stolen. “Distributed”, more often than not, is simply a euphemism for theft on the part of a government.  Do YOU agree with a government going “You know, we think you have too much, so never mind that you earned it, we’re going to take some of it away from you and give it to that guy that didn’t earn it, but in our estimation, needs it more than you”? Do you think there’s any justice in that?

  20. D.C. McAllister
    C

    Joseph—the fact that you have phrased your last question in distribution terms shows that you have been corrupted by progressive thinking. I for one despise progressivism. If it is a creeping acceptable notion here on Ricochet then this is not the place for me. And by the way just because someone says they are against Marxism doesn’t mean they’re against progressivism. Obama condemns Marxism. There are progressive Republicans who condemn Marxism. But they’re still progressives. This is a cancer in our society and it is a cancer in the church. As for the pope, I’m going with his words until his actions prove otherwise–I’d do the same for any world leader religious or otherwise. Words mean things. As for Ricochet, I guess I’ll have to see about that too.

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In