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.”