Defining Social Justice by William Droel

The term social justice is regularly used but rarely defined. It often means a government program is on the way: “Social justice requires an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” It can mean a general concern: “The status of women is a matter of social justice.” It can describe an event—“We went to a social justice conference”—or describe a personality type: “She’s a social justice warrior.” In many circles it is simply substituted for the word charity: “Our parish food pantry is a social justice effort.”

Social justice actually has a Catholic pedigree and refers to a specific type under the general term justice. There is criminal justice, distributive justice (the duty of government), individual justice or commutative justice (fair exchange either implied or in a contract), and social justice. There are other examples as well.

Fr. Luigi Taparelli, SJ (1793–1862) of Italy coined the term social justice in 1845. He was rightly worried about individualistic tendencies that characterize modernity, which are all the more extreme in our day. Taparelli favored an organic society in which many interdependent parts added up to more than their sum. Such a society needs healthy intermediate institutions that give individuals wider agency and also buffer them from larger forces: families, parishes, workplace units, professional associations, ethnic clubs, and more. This dynamic is called subsidiarity in Catholicism.

By about 1900 Catholic philosophers were equating social justice with what St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) called legal justice. Now, for Aquinas legal justice does not refer to what is approximated on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Judge Judy. He means that by divine law all the parts of an organic society must be directed toward the common good, not entirely to one individual’s good. Certain 20th-century Catholic philosophers thought the term social justice was better than legal justice because many people think the word legal only means what is expressly prohibited or commanded. Such people stay within minimum acceptable behavior but consider social obligations to be strictly optional. In fact, they often expect some recognition when they help out in the community.

This academic conversation continued, treating both process and outcome. Process: How does social justice come about? Outcome: What does a social justice society look like?

Fr. William Ferree, SM (1905–1985) of Ohio greatly clarified the topic. First in a dissertation and then in an influential 1948 booklet, Introduction to Social Justice, Ferree said the unique act of social justice is organization and its outcome is improved policies or institutions. This means that social justice is a virtue. It is something that is done, not a fond wish. It is more than calling out a problem. Like all virtues, it must be done habitually.

Social justice is a collective virtue. An individual can be generous, but cannot alone practice social justice. Like-minded people must get together. Thus, mixed motives are always involved. Each participant gets something out of the effort. The group also benefits in some way, but the greater good is a primary object of the practice. This means that the aims of social justice must stay in the practical realm, though the initial ambition can reach beyond what will be achieved.

Compromise is a necessary part of social justice. It is not a virtue for purists or utopians. To paraphrase a great polka song: In heaven there is no social justice; that’s why we do it here. In heaven there is perfect love, but in our messy here-and-now domain things are incremental. There’s need for social justice today, and more need tomorrow. 

This means that social justice is for insiders. Protest is often necessary to get inside, but marches and rallies are not in themselves social justice. Social justice is not charity, though charity might precede or accompany social justice. Charity in itself does not change policies, though people involved in charity often turn to lobbying (social justice) in order to make charity more efficient or even less necessary.

Social justice is a specific activity done by a group within an institution to improve a policy or, if necessary, to start an alternative institution. With a better appreciation for the definition of social justice, more good works might be accomplished. As Elvis sang in 1968, “A little less conversation, a little more action.” ♦

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here). His booklet, What Is Social Justice ($5), and Fr. Ferree’s booklet, Introduction to Social Justice ($6), can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Image: Socialist and labor union demonstration, Union Square, New York City, 1914.
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