Three of the terms used most frequently in Catholic social thought”and now, more generally, in much secular discourse”are social justice, the common good, and personal (or individual) liberty . Often, these terms are used loosely and evasively. Not a few authors avoid defining them altogether, as if assuming that they need no definition. But all three need, in every generation, to recover their often lost precision. Otherwise, the silent artillery of time steadily levels their carefully wrought strong points and leaves an entire people intellectually and morally defenseless.

I have tried, in three short essays, to find some precision in these three realities and to define them in terms as dear to the left as to the right”that is, in ideologically neutral ways. If I have failed in that task, perhaps someone can do it better. The more of us who try, the better.

I will start, today, with social justice.

What Is Social Justice?

What, exactly, is social justice? I have searched many volumes on the subject (Jean-Yves Calvez and Jacques Perrin’s The Church and Social Justice , for instance) and have not found a precise definition. A recent obituary in the Delaware Catholic reported that a nun named Sister Maureen gave her entire life as a religious for social justice. She served as a missionary in Africa for forty-six years, cared for the sick, taught the young, and brought assistance to the suffering and the poor. Are we to gather from this that the term social justice is simply a synonym for living out the beauty of the Beatitudes?

I once heard a professor at the Catholic University of Ružomberok, Slovakia, say that he thought of social justice as “an ideal arrangement of society, in which justice and charity are fully served. Until then, one cannot say that social justice has been realized.” Does this mean that social justice is a social ideal by which some people measure reality and toward which they strive, progressively, to move society?

American socialist Irving Howe once wrote that “Socialism is the name of our dream.” He meant a dream of justice and equality and (for him) democracy. Is social justice also the name of a dream, but not exactly the socialist dream?

To which genus does social justice belong? Is it a virtue? Is it a vision of a perfectly just society? Is it an ideal set of government policies? Is it a theory? Is it a practice?

Is social justice a secular, nonreligious concept? Many secular sociologists and political philosophers use the term that way, trying to tie it down as closely as they can to the term equality in the French sense, in which the word égalité also means the mathematical equal sign.

Or is social justice a religious term, evangelical in inspiration? Has social justice become an ideological marker that favors (in the American context) progressives over conservatives, Democrats over Republicans, and social workers over corporate executives?

And which writer was the first to use the term? In what context was he writing, and in connection with what social crisis?

The scholar Friedrich Hayek finds that the first writer to use the term was an Italian priest, Taparelli D’Azeglio, in his book Natural Rights from a Historical Standpoint (1883). It is in this book that Leo XIII (1878“1903) first encountered the term. The context was one of the most enormous social transformations in human history: the end of the agrarian age that had begun before the time of Christ, and the fairly abrupt entry into an age of invention, investment, urban growth, manufacturing, and services. No longer did families have an inherited roof over their heads and daily food from their own land. Now they were uprooted and dwelling in cities, dependent for shelter and food on the availability of jobs and their own initiative. Traditional social networks were cut to shreds, and the associations of a lifetime were torn asunder.

Two radically opposed social ideals were propagandized during this period. One was the socialism of Karl Marx and those of similar mind; the other was the radical individualism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. On the whole, the European continent leaned toward the first ideal and away from the second. Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), made it his aim to lean against both.
Leo understood that these new times demanded a new response. The old social order was fading fast, and a new one of some sort was swiftly arising. What shape it would take was not yet clear, however. The pope noted that because the family has always been the most central and intimate institution for handing down the faith, the new fractures and stresses in the family demanded that the Church enter into the battle for the shape of the future. Leo XIII saw that new institutions and new virtues among individuals would be required for the new times. For specific reasons that he carefully spelled out, he feared the socialist state. He also feared the radical individualism that, he predicted, eventually would drive the undefended individual into the custodianship of the state.

It is highly instructive, on the twentieth anniversary of 1989, to reread Rerum Novarum in the light of the events of that year. Certainly those events were fresh in the mind of John Paul II in 1991, when, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus , he repeated the century-old warnings of a growing socialist state:

According to Rerum novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the “subjectivity” of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by “Real Socialism.” ( Centesimus Annus , 13)

I know from the experience of my own family over four generations how stressful the great transformation of society has been. Most of the gospel texts are cast in agricultural metaphors”seeds, harvests, grains, sheep, land, fruit trees”and so resonate with the economic order of most of human history until the nineteenth or twentieth century. My family served as serfs on the large estate of the Hungarian Count Czaky, whose own ancestor was a hero in the turning back of the Turks near Budapest in 1456. My relatives were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, as near as I can determine, were not able to own their own land until the 1920s. Men, women, and children on the estate were counted annually, along with cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, for purposes of taxation.

My ancestors were taught to accept their lot. Their moral duties were fairly simple: Pray, pay, and obey. What they did and gained was pretty much determined from above. Beginning in about 1880, however, because farms no longer could sustain the growth in population, almost two million people from eastern Slovakia”one by one, along chains of connection with families and fellow villagers”began to migrate to America and elsewhere. Usually the sons left first and sent back later for wives. This was one of the greatest”and most unusual”mass migrations in history, with people migrating, not as whole tribes, but as individuals.

In America my grandparents were no longer subjects, but citizens. If their social arrangements were not right, they now had a duty (and a human necessity) to organize to change them. They were free, but they also were saddled with personal responsibility for their own future. They needed to learn new virtues, to form new institutions, and to take their own responsibility for the institutions they inherited from America’s founding geniuses.

In this context the term social justice can be defined with rather considerable precision. Social justice names a new virtue in the panoply of historical virtues: a set of new habits and abilities that need to be learned, perfected, and passed on”new virtues with very powerful social consequences.

This new virtue is called “social” for two reasons. First, its aim or purpose is to improve the common good of society at large”outside the family especially, perhaps even on a national or international scale, but certainly in a range of social institutions nearer home. A village or neighborhood may need a new well, or a new school, or even a church. Workers may need to form a union and to unite with other unions. Because the causes of the wealth of nations are invention and intellect, new colleges and universities may need to be founded.

In America, new immigrants formed athletic clubs for the young; social clubs at which adult males could play checkers, cards, or horseshoes; and associations through which women could tend the needs of their neighbors. Because many of the men worked as many as twelve hours a day in the mines or the mills, the women conducted much of the social business of the neighborhoods in political and civic circles. The immigrants formed insurance societies and other associations of mutual help to care for one another in case of injury or of premature death. Alexis de Tocqueville was correct, in his Democracy in America , when he called the voluntary forming of associations by citizens to meet their own social needs “the first law of democracy.”

But this new virtue is called social for a second reason. Not only are its aims or purposes social, but also its constitutive practices. The practice of the virtue of social justice consists in learning new skills of cooperation and association with others to accomplish ends that no single individual could achieve on his own. At one pole this new virtue is a social protection against atomic individualism; at the other pole it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state.

This definition is ideologically neutral. Social justice is practiced both by those on the left and those on the right. There is, after all, more than one way to imagine the future good of society; and humans of all persuasions do well to master the new social virtue that assists them in defining and working with others toward their own visions of that good.

The breakdown of the old order called for new habits in building new social organisms”associations”to meet new needs. This explains why this new virtue of social justice arose only in the nineteenth century. It also sheds light on one of the most distinguished sobriquets of Leo XIII: “the pope of associations.” These were associations formed according to the new virtue of social justice to serve the common good”the subject, tomorrow, of my second essay.

Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things , holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God . The three pieces in this series of essays, prepared with the assistance of Elizabeth Shaw and Mitchell Boersma, are derived from Novak’s speech on November 13, 2009 at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Conference, “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good.”

Articles by Michael Novak


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